Tristan Copley Smith on Jul 02, 2018
Early in July I hopped on a train from London Paddington, venturing deep into the UK South West to seek a prolific beekeeper named Philip Chandler. Chandler, known as the Barefoot Beekeeper, has offered inspiration and guidance to our project for some years. This trip had been arranged to meet the man behind the knowledge, and to gift him a BuzzBox sensor for testing.
Phil is known for his development of the “natural beekeeping” method (he now prefers the term “balanced”) a style where the use of synthetic substances such as plastics and chemical treatments are discouraged. Natural processes and materials on the other hand are recommended. For example, Phil has advocated "eco floors" in hives, placing old leaves and wood chips in the base of top bar hives to mimic a forest floor, inviting small critters such as wood lice, ants and earwigs to feed on varroa mites dropping from the bees above, thus containing infestations using existing natural processes. Nevertheless, Phil experiments and teaches with all kinds of hives at his apiaries, natural or not. See this video for more.
Phil and I met for dinner in his hometown of Totnes just after he had collected a bee swarm from a local resident’s roof. With a youthful glee that betrayed his years, he pulled a small infrared camera strapped to a LCD monitor from a small case he had brought along. Pointing it around our restaurant, the screen revealed strange blue and red shapes of humans and objects emanating heat. Phil’s eyes gleamed as he explained how this device helped him detect heat from bee colonies living inside walls of buildings. To elaborate, he showed me a video of the device recording a swarm of very British bees gathering on a phone box down Totnes high street.
Video: Check out this video of Phil shooting a swarm collected from a classic British telephone box on Totnes high street!
There seem to be a certain variety of beekeepers whose interest stems specifically from a fascination with complex systems. This variety often include electrical engineers, computer programmers and entomologists; bee colonies become a sort of natural extension of this sort of curious tinkering mind. After explaining that his father was an electrical engineer, and that he had been toying with radio transmitters and electronics from a young age, it became clear Phil fell into this category. I was more certain than ever we had chosen the perfect candidate for testing BuzzBox!
The following morning Phil collected me in his pickup truck and we shot out into the narrow roads of the Devon countryside. The sunshine sparkled through thick, leafy hedgerows as Phil explained the rich beekeeping history of this area. Brother Adam (left) a priest and well know cultivator of the much praised “Buckfast Bee” had based his operations in this same area; in fact, Phil had acquired some of Brother Adam’s old hives, and was using them now in his own apiaries.
Phil’s teaching apiary exhibited an impressive variety of hives: Dadant, National, Horizontal Top Bar, Warré, Flow and Langstroth styles. We had decided to mount the BuzzBox to a polystyrene National hive, so Phil heated a 20mm copper tube with his blowtorch and melted it through the poly exterior, creating the prefect sized hole with minimal disturbance to the bees. A few screws later, BuzzBox was mounted nicely. Phil will be using this BuzzBox to conduct his own experiments, and demonstrate internal hive conditions to his students.
We then downloaded the OSBeehives App onto Phil's phone to run a health analysis for the hive (test your bees by downloading it here). After 15 seconds of recording audio from the entrance, Phil was relieved to see his bee sounded healthy!
Moving on from the teaching apiary, we visited a spectacular estate surrounded by old growth forest and wild meadows. Here, atop a wildflower-covered hill, Phil is working to breed the perfect variety of Apis mellifera mellifera, a dark variety of honey bee indigenous to the British Isles. His mission is to breed a good balance of productivity, calmness, and hardiness by selectively breeding the best qualities, and once the genetics are perfected, distribute queens to other beekeepers in the area.
As we entered this apiary, Phil casually warned me to watch out for “the rebels”. Laughing off this comment, but quietly concerned, my head soon became surrounded by a group of bees who seemed utterly determined to sting my netted face. Phil calmly explained that bee breeding, especially with this indigenous variety can result in some loose cannon colonies. Eventually the rebels got to my exposed arms, and I retreated into the car…to Phil’s amusement.
Our final stop was Dartmoor, a expansive area that in the Saxon era had been a Royal Forest, but was now a stark but beautiful moorland and national park. Phil’s apiary here was tucked into a small valley, offering a unique variety of flowering plants in an otherwise limited forage environment. In such a location there were few feral bees around to breed with Phil’s queens, allowing him confident control over the premium genetics of this apiary. No rebels to be found here, thank god.
I observed, fascinated, as Phil calmly picked through several hives, flipping through frame by frame to examine the progress of each variety, sharing insights and “bee bread” (aka. bee pollen) along the way. When he came across a queenless hive, Phil would excavate a few queen cells from his preferred stock in another hive, at one point cutting them out of the frame with his Leatherman, and press them into comb with the queenless bees. If all went well, they would raise her as their own and Phil’s preferred line of genetics would be expanded.
As I watched him closing up his hives, it occurred to me the similarities between Phil Chandler and Brother Adam, both endeavouring to breed the perfect attributes into their bees in this stunning area of England. True to both his mission as the Barefoot Beekeeper and the local-centric culture of Totnes, Phil’s goals went beyond rearing the “most productive bee”, towards reestablishing the balance of the black bee with its native land.
By Tristan Copley Smith