‘There’s Something Wrong With the Bees’: On Sun Hives and Crisis Houses

NBKT Sun Hive 1

The form of an organism – and its relationship to the space around it – will reveal to us the characteristics of its being1

The Bee

I have a memory of having to do an exercise at school. A sheet of paper was divided into two columns, with pictures of animals on one side and pictures of animal products on the other. You had to draw straight lines to match them up. Cow and milk. Sheep and woollen socks. Bees and honey. I wonder why I remember this. It must have unsettled me in some way. It wasn’t an intuitive way of viewing animals, at least not to a child’s mind. Maybe characteristics such as the sounds they make – moobaabzz – (or in Germany where I spent a few of my younger years – muhmäh – summ) would have seemed more appropriate. From the earliest age, we are encouraged to look at life in terms of what can be extracted from it. What we can take, rather than what we can give. We do not think of ourselves as stewards, guardians of the earth. We are managers. Consumers.

When we think about bees, we often refer to them as a colony. A family may consist of up to 50,000 bees, all related by blood, scent and purpose. Another way of perceiving the bees, and one that appears quite naturally in mind if you spend any length of time with them, is as a single organism consisting of all the individual bees and their honeycomb together. In this way each bee is akin to a cell, the cells together forming organs, the organs together a system, an organism with many parts, each aspect indivisible from the others. Thinking about a single bee is like thinking about a single cell in an eyeball without considering its context in the body – its dependence on arteries, tissues, orbit, muscles and brain – all the things that together permit sight. You may choose then to refer to the Bee, a name encompassing all the bees in a particular nest as well as their comb.

The hive is in many ways similar to a mammal. Its heat is carefully regulated – on hot days bees will stand in the entrance and fan their wings to introduce an air current. On cold days they’ll cluster within the hive, ensuring that the temperature is maintained at the warmth necessary for the survival of queen and young. This temperature is precise – only slightly lower than the temperature of a human body. Young bees are raised internally, in an area called the brood nest.

The bees waterproof their home with propolis, an antibacterial paste made from the resin of trees. The scent of propolis is heavenly. A transcendent perfume. One sniff and you are transported into the realm of the Bee – one of nectar, air and light.

Once you begin to think of the bees in this way, the idea of removing a comb as it pleases you, of extracting honey and using wax for candles and beauty products becomes problematic. You are not just reaching into a box of insects, but entering the body of a living animal.

The Sun Hive

German sculptor and beekeeper Günther Mancke united his extensive observations and artistic vision to guide the creation of a new kind of hive for the bees. He called it the Weissenseifener Hängekorb. In English we call it the Sun Hive. Round in shape, it is designed with the needs and natural preferences of the bees in mind. This marks a profound difference between the Sun Hive and ‘conventional’ hives, which have developed according to human convenience, prioritising ease of access, ease of honey harvest.

NBKT interior view of Bien house
Günther noted that bees often choose to make their homes in the hollows of trees, at a preferred height of between 2.5 and 6 metres. The Sun Hive is therefore suspended from a tree or from a purpose-built frame. It must be sheltered from the rain. When unconstrained by the boxes we put them in, bees build rounded combs. The curve of the comb is determined by the arc of a chain of bees stretching from one side of the nest to the other and can be calculated according to the formula for a catenary curve. The form of the Sun Hive mirrors this curve, allowing the bees to build their comb without impediment.

The shape of the Sun Hive echoes the oblong form of a bee’s body. It consists of a combination of two skeps (coated with cow dung for warmth) and wooden support structures. Skeps are baskets woven from natural materials, usually rye straw (biodynamically grown where possible). They have been used as beehives for hundreds of years, although the use of box hives with movable combs quickly became more popular by the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Sun Hive is a conservation hive whose form is guided by the needs of the bees rather than the aim of honey production.  A bee-centric approach recommends minimal intervention in the life of the hive. The Sun Hive is therefore seen by many conventional beekeepers as a threat not only to their practice of honey harvesting but also to the health of bee populations as a whole. Advocates of the Sun Hive often refer to themselves as bee guardians or natural beekeepers – they aim to provide habitat for the bees but to otherwise leave them in peace. Some see this hands-off style of beekeeping as irresponsible. The chemical treatments used to control bee pests such as varroa are claimed to be indispensable, despite the fact that untreated, unmanaged bees do just fine on their own as they have done for millennia. The Sun Hive is designed with a movable comb system, unlike a traditional skep basket. This permits the bee guardian to inspect the hive when necessary, although such inspections are kept to a minimum and the bees are not treated with chemicals.

Weak colonies die. Strong colonies swarm. They split in two. This is their means of reproduction. A virgin queen goes forth on her mating flight and only the strongest, healthiest, fastest males are able to mate with her. Swarm suppression, queen breeding and importation, artificial insemination, the use of chemical treatments and pesticides – is it any wonder that ‘colony collapse disorder’ is occurring with increasing frequency in places where practices such as this are mainstream? Humans interfere with natural processes and then wonder why things go awry. Must be something wrong with nature, we say. There’s something wrong with the bees.

The boxes we’ve built for the bees reflect our own homes with their angular walls and corners. Our cubic, linear thinking. We find it hard to think in curves. The move away from keeping bees in skeps has been ‘a move away from the principle of rounded forms to that of cuboid and square ones, and thus from the holistic and organic to the atomistic and additive. That is to say, the materialistic modes of thought that have been developing since the fifteenth century have also come to permeate the relationship between mankind and the bee.’2

Each bee has a role within the hive. This is a fiercely and undeniably interdependent community in which the work of each serves the needs of all. Far from the ‘rigidity of parallel lines and the monotony of equal distances’3 characterised by conventional box hives, the Sun Hive epitomises love – both the love of humankind for the bees, and the principle of love at work within the hive itself. As author and social activist bell hooks writes: ‘remember, care is a dimension of love, but simply giving care does not mean we are loving’.4 Just showing care for the bees is not enough – ‘there can be no love without justice’.5

With our shrinking forests and dwindling forage, the bees face a diminishing habitat. The Sun Hive and other bee-friendly hives, such as log hives and the Freedom Hive (a cylinder made of wood and straw, lighter than a log hive and easily hoisted into trees or placed on a tripod stand) created by beekeeper Matt Somerville, seek to restore lost habitat. A resurgence in traditional practices such as tree beekeeping (in which hollows are formed in living trees) and the work of communities of natural beekeepers and allies such as the Natural Beekeeping Trust, based in southern England, represent a vital turning of the mind and will towards giving to rather than taking from the bees.

Crisis house

I recently took a trip to Scotland, thought I’d spend a couple weeks in these northern lands to which I’m drawn by a mysterious magnetism. I wanted to simply be there, and also to meet with potential doctoral supervisors at universities in Edinburgh and Glasgow. I’d looked forward to this journey for some time, but I’d been struggling with the sense of crushing fatigue that is often a feature of my life with chronic illness. Instead of abandoning my plans, I opted to take the train rather than drive.

With hindsight, I see that I expected to find an illuminated path waiting for me in Edinburgh. Everything would click into place and I’d know what I was supposed to do. Instead, I found myself on a bridge over Waverley Station. I was on the edge, looking. I went back to my rented room and sobbed. I lay silently on the bed staring at the ceiling. It got dark outside.

I called a local Thai place, ordered a curry for collection. Stepped out feeling shaky, pierced by streetlights and voices, unsteady on my feet. I sat on a bench opposite the curry house just south of the Meadows and it was there I realised that I was ill again, that I wasn’t just having an emotional moment, I needed help.

I ended up in a crisis house. I was fortunate to find myself there instead of the hospital. I was free to be myself without the imposition of other people’s prescribed modes of health and being. I was able to express myself, to rest and to recover in a way that felt right for me. When I’ve been hospitalised in the past, I’ve been treated as a case to be managed, a problem to be solved, a body to be confined and kept alive. In a residential crisis house you are regarded as an autonomous human, albeit one in pain. It provides a safe space to be with that pain, to move through it instead of around it, to encounter it instead of numbing or ignoring it. I emerged on the other side of my distress without the need for medical intervention.

There are very few such crisis houses in the UK and in my view there should be more. I have experienced this setting on both sides – as a guest and also as a volunteer at a house in north London, where I served as a befriender for several years. People in crisis are initially befriended over the phone. Conversations may lead to an invitation to stay at the house for five days, free of charge, where the guest will encounter and be befriended by numerous volunteers. The essence of befriending is non-judgemental active listening. Not trying to fix, to deny, to solve, to dismiss, to console. Simply being with the person and accepting them as they are. No matter what they’ve done or what’s been done to them. Honouring their intrinsic value, validating their experiences, holding hope for them when they are hopeless. It was a compassionate and demanding place to work. By no means does it transform the lives of everyone that comes to stay. Five days is hardly enough to undo a lifetime of trauma or heal a broken heart. But providing people with an opportunity to reflect, to be heard, is invaluable. Ultimately the crisis house maintains that humans have the right to choose to end their lives. The hope is that they will find another option, and that they can be supported to think carefully before making this decision.

As someone living with ongoing physical and mental health problems, I feel especially grateful for places that allow me to simply be – that don’t make me feel worthless, dispensable or a burden. The amount of energy that goes into hiding sickness could be better spent on other things. ‘For where I am closed, I am false’, says Rilke. I need contemplative time built into the fabric of my days. If I don’t get it I start to become unwell.

Love is generous and fearless. It creates space for something to be itself, to evolve, to be ever in flux and in harmony with its own nature. Sometimes I feel I’m being forced into a form that doesn’t suit me. I must seek a habitat for myself in which I can flourish.

honeycomb pic

The wisdom of beings

The pathologisation of distress is in many ways akin to the pulling out of weeds we deem unsightly but that may be contributing to the health and balance of the soil. When we think in terms of roundness rather than linearity, we recognise the vast ecological network in which all things are connected. This isn’t to say that there are never times when pulling weeds or medicating distress is beneficial or even necessary to promote wellness. But my instincts tell me we are too quick to judge things on the basis of immediate utility rather than longer-term sustainability and growth.

In considering the Sun Hive alongside my personal experiences of distress, I do not mean to use the bees as a metaphor, to plunder nature for her poetry. Instead I wish to suggest that our reductive attitudes towards both bees and human health may be symptomatic of a prevailing mindset of exploitation and control. When we operate from a place of fear rather than of love, there can be no health, no harmony. There is much to learn from the Bee. By offering our attention and letting go of our received knowledge we may come to understand her true nature, with humility, awe and kindness.

What would happen if we trusted in the innate wisdom of beings? What if we permitted things to live according to their own principles, allowed them to organise their own lives? Consider the wisdom of the swarm. The triumphant joyous flight of a virgin queen. We have much to gain from acknowledging that not everything can be known. That what we think of as ‘understanding’ is often inadequate. Purely cerebral thinking is in many cases disengaged, confined to existing constructs and narrow vocabularies that seek to make sense of and thereby limit life. Our words imply a world of things with secure identities to which things happen, rather than a fluid world populated by beings in a process of becoming. If our language and our modes of being and relating could somehow make room for surprise, discovery and change, how different we might feel. Ultimately our feelings are not the priority, but rather liberation from a human-centric and materialistic way of thinking that limits the potential of humans, bees and the broader ecosystem of which we are both part.


1. Günther Mancke, The Sun Hive. Natural Beekeeping Trust translation of newly revised and expanded version of the German 2005 edition of Günther Mancke: der Weissenseifener Hängekorb – Eine Alternative.
2Mancke, p.74.
3. Mancke, p.70.
4. bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions, Harper Perennial, 2001, p.8.
5.  hooks, p.19.

Sun Hive photographs courtesy of the Natural Beekeeping Trust. Honeycomb picture by Carrie Foulkes.

Carrie Foulkes is a maker, poet, researcher and Bee person. She is currently based in London, where she is an artist in residence at St Katharine’s Precinct, Limehouse. Carrie has been selected to participate in the Bee Time artist residency in Vejer de la Frontera, Spain, in autumn 2017. Her website is carriefoulkes.com. You can find out more about the Natural Beekeeping Trust at naturalbeekeepingtrust.org

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7 thoughts on “‘There’s Something Wrong With the Bees’: On Sun Hives and Crisis Houses

  1. I’m a small scale hobby beekeeper and while I can see the simplistic attraction of ‘leaving them alone’ I’m afraid it doesn’t really stack up. Over the last few decades we have, partly via globalisation, exposed honey bees to no end of pests & viruses. They can’t evolve fast enough to cope. So I see it as a duty to inspect them periodically to spot problems and take action. I hate disturbing my bees as much as they hate being disturbed, but it has to be done.

    Regarding honey, a colony needs about 20Kg to over-winter. Anything above that is a surplus and if I don’t take it it, it simply goes to waste.

    I can also monitor them without disturbing them via the internet. As can you!
    http://www.mecol.co.uk/P12.php

  2. I am also a hobby beekeeper. Sun hives look cool. They are among the more artistically-designed hives on the market. But bees need beekeepers like fish need bicycles. If the point is to leave bees alone, all it takes is a couch and a beer — just sit down, open a cold one and watch them go. A wall, hollow tree or even a mailbox will suit them just fine and they’ll move right in if you let them. Bees are highly adaptable. They’ve been on this earth much longer than we have and I am convinced that they’ll be here long after we’re gone.

    But if the point is to keep bees for our own purposes, then some level of management is needed. There are good reasons why skeps went out of fashion. They leave a lot to be desired — not the least of which is that harvesting honey was often a death sentence to the colony that produced it. The Sun Hive is beautiful. But it is as much a unique toy as the Flow Hive. While the Sun Hive is on the artistic end of the continuum, the Flow Hive is a purely mechanistic/engineering expression and on the opposite end of the same continuum. All management systems have their own benefits and drawbacks. But I certainly have no intention of owning either extreme. Movable frames that can be interchanged with other colonies helps the apiary as a whole thrive far beyond what colonies can do on their own. As in any dynamic system, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. Beekeepers can play a role here as part of that system.

    Finally, it is my understanding that a bee organism is far more than just the bees and their comb. There is an entire ecosystem going on inside the hive that we really don’t understand. The bees and the comb are the easiest to observe. But the bacteria, fungi, yeasts, mites, wax moths and beetles are all involved in a dynamic interplay that are beyond our ability to comprehend (as are most dynamic systems). Treatments, chemical or otherwise, aren’t always bad. They just disrupt the system and have unforeseen consequences.

    I am fairly convinced that the bees will adapt and survive just fine as a species. They have difficulty now but the long term problems are for us, not them. Honeybees can teach us a lot about the earth’s systems and our relationships with them. Playing around with different bee homes can be fun and highly educational. But no hive design can save the bees because they don’t need saving. It is our species that is in peril, not theirs. We just haven’t figured that out yet.

    Matt from CA

  3. This is quite wonderful writing, less about the mechanics of how we manage bees (or don’t), and far more about how we deal with each other. I am no beekeeper, and do not understand the ins and outs of keeping bees, but I am a human and have definite opinions about how we keep each other. And I think this writing deals with that question perfectly. Thank you.

  4. If you keep enough birds long enough, eventually an emergency will arise.
    No matter how careful you are, sometimes situations arise that will require you to take immediate, sometimes lifesaving action.

    The Plates are loaded with Life Force Energy?and transmits the same to the users- human, animals, Birds and Bees and plants or whatever that comes in contact except Metals.
    Lot of birds/bees die due to dehydration, sickness, injuries. Birds get hit on overhead Live Electric Cables and die within 15 minutes.
    The vets explain that such birds/bees hardly survive, even if timely medicines are provided, and even if they do, they take DAYS to fly off but with abnormalities.
    These Life Force Energy Transmitting Plates help revive the DYING birds/bees and they fly off within SECONDS. They are unconscious and seem like dead and don’t even respond to Water.You only have to keep the injured bird on the Purple Plate [feet on purple plate].Here we had been using a CREDIT CARD SIZE Plate on birds and bees.
    If while reviving you get Stung by them, just place the plate on the stung point for 10 minutes.The pain goes away within one for 2 minutes
    In fact the entire farm can be Energised with this technology resulting in increased production, accelerated GROWTH and Profits

  5. It is really quite sad that in many instances that someone writes thoughtfully and meaningfully about bees and loving ways we may relate to them, even revere them, some beekeepers invariably feel called upon to assert their presumed authority, the presumed need for their existence in the bees’ life, even their supposed sacrificial deed in liberating the bees of their precious stores. Bees make honey, they even sometimes make more than they need for the winter coming, but they never make surplus, as they have a sense of what might be needed if the season following next winter is poor.

    To help the bees, fundamental remedial measures in the way we humans live, grow our food, treat our landscapes and indeed keep bees are required. Essentially we should aim to return the bees to the trees whence they came before our impoverished minds contrived to house them in boxes like filing cabinets and declare ourselves their helpers, indeed their saviours. It is perfectly clear after more than a hundred years that the exquisite creature bee has been subjected to the laws of the production line that beekeeping as commonly practiced is very bad for bees. So much so that the leading bee scientists of the world are now concluding that the methods advocated by “natural beekeepers” have much to recommend them. For further information the website of the charity mentioned in the piece under discussion will prove a plentiful resource.

    This is a wonderful piece of writing from someone who appears to have looked into the matter with sensitivity and intelligence. I am grateful for that.

  6. Thank you Carrie, beautifully written.

    You wrote: “What would happen if we trusted in the innate wisdom of beings?”

    Indeed, the heart and latest bee science backs you up!

    If you are not troubled by a few of the beekeeper comments appended to this article then please ignore the rest of my comment:

    It is a pity when somebody spends a lot of time and effort sharing their own truth, some of it very personal, that a few feel obligated to add their quick 2 cents worth of dismissive comments to the bottom of an article. However, at the risk of distracting from the message of the article and falling into the same trap, I feel I need to challenge some of the comments.

    *geo “They can’t evolve fast enough to cope.”

    World renown bee researcher Professor Seeley is inclined to disagree with you:

    http://www.naturalbeekeepingtrust.org/darwinian-beekeeping

    I could quote many examples from around the world of wild unmanaged bees adapting to modern stressors (varroa, DWV etc.), where chemical solutions and an endless parade of electronic gadgets, manipulations and tricks in apiaries have failed or worse weakened the bees over many decades. Here is one example of bees fighting back:

    Seeley 2015 “Museum samples reveal rapid evolution by wild honey bees exposed to a novel parasite” Nature Communications, 6 August 2015 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms8991

    But let’s not kid ourselves, there is a limit to the destruction any organism can cope with. You would have thought the destruction of the barrier reef would be a wake up call. If the bees cannot cope with these stresses in the wild then no amount of beekeeping and interference will save them.

    @geo: “I can see the simplistic attraction of ‘leaving them alone’ I’m afraid it doesn’t really stack up.”

    This is not a “simplistic attraction” – it is how bees have been shaped over 30 million years. It’s beekeeping that is simply selecting on narrow traits such as honey production and passiveness while ignoring what it is undoing.

    Experts Peter Neumann¹ and Tjeerd Blacquière think it more than stacks up. Quote :

    “We conclude that sustainable solutions for the apicultural sector can only be achieved by taking advantage of natural selection and not by attempting to limit it.”

    ref: http://www.naturalbeekeepingtrust.org/the-science?list=1

    @matt “The Sun Hive is beautiful. But it is as much a unique toy as the Flow Hive.”

    This misses the point of the Sun hive. If you cannot see that the Sun Hive is all about the destruction and containment of nature by humanity and the eroding our human spirit, then yes it will be straw dome and a toy to the viewer. To others it will be a deep inspiration for reflection and change, and to the bees a sanctuary closer to their biology than a hive designed for the endgame of honey production. I could not think of a more serious and deeply thought out hive than the Sun hive.

    @geo: “Regarding honey, a colony needs about 20Kg to over-winter. Anything above that is a surplus and if I don’t take it it, it simply goes to waste.”

    Where does it go then? Does it just evaporate? How did bees cope with all that honey for millions of years before there were no beekeeprs? Of course it does not evaporate. It is managed by the bees for the bees. It is their insurance against poor years, downtime cycles, weakness and colony life cycle change (which are longer than 1 year). Bees do not need beekeepers to manage their honey and know better. Across the world bees are suffering a global down time, we need to re-evaluate our relationship to bees and honey.

    Finally a quote by Professor Seeley who sees the bigger picture of apiculture and not trusting the bees:

    “As someone who has devoted his scientific career to investigating the marvellous inner workings of honey bee colonies, it saddens me to see how profoundly -and ever increasingly- conventional beekeeping disrupts and endangers the lives of colonies.” Thomas D. Seeley

    Jonathan
    Disclosure, I am a trustee of the Natural Beekeeping Trustee and I know Carrie.

  7. Thanks for this, Carrie. I’m sorry that you needed help when you visited Edinburgh. Perhaps you needed to visit another place – perhaps somewhere in the country, where you’d have felt at home.
    I’ve just returned (I won’t say ‘come home’ because where I now am isn’t home and never has been) from a week in the countryside in Wales. ‘Hen wlad fy nghadau’ has laid its spell on me and I now know where I must be.
    And I shall go. I’m looking at buying a smallholding somewhere in mid-Wales. Both my daughter and her husband like the idea – and my husband, who initially wasn’t at all keen, now realises how much we all need it.
    So find a place where you can still be yourself – if you need to move. Or stay with your bees, whom you love. First of all, discuss it with them. They are wise.

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