“Good Nutrition, Good Bees” – Book Review

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‘Good Nutrition, Good Bees’

by David Aston & Sally Bucknall (Book Review)

AVAILABLE TO BUY FROM: www.northernbeebooks.co.uk

1st Edition. Published 2021 by Northern Bee Books, UK. ISBN  978-1-912271-95-5  9.

427 pages, £30.



David Aston and Sally Bucknall will already be familiar names to beekeepers for their earlier book on Keeping Healthy Honey Bees (2010).  That was a useful book, but I consider that their new book, Good Nutrition, Good Bees, is actually essential reading for well-informed beekeepers in these islands. It is hugely expanded on the earlier work, and the range and depth of research which is reported in this new book is most impressive. 

As in the earlier work, the authors take a very direct approach to conveying information, but in this new book, the topics are vastly expanded to cover a wide range of environmental aspects as well as the beekeeping topics of the earlier book. 

The older book is really a clear, straightforward handbook for beekeepers.  This new book (it is much more than a new edition) would be of great interest to anyone with a vital concern for the role of pollinators and pollination in the environment, both town and country.  It is, in fact, very ambitious and I think that the authors have achieved a remarkable success because it is so lucidly organized and written, carrying a huge amount of scholarship and research quite lightly.

I think this book will be of particular value to Irish and British beekeepers, as it is directly addressed to them, and to the needs of bees in these islands. Apis mellifera mellifera receives due respect, for example.

However, a word of advice:  do not be put off by the extraordinarily long list of contents at the start.  Running to nearly twenty pages, the contents are somewhat overwhelming at first glance.  My advice to the reader would be to take it gently, a section at a time, rather than to try and read it all straight through. 

The authors recommend this approach in their Preface:  ‘We have tried to offer a source which is very amenable to ‘dipping into’…’  In fact, I found myself doing just this, and deliberately chose a particular topic which was of interest to me.  You will understand why I chose the section on ‘Beekeeping and Gender Roles’ – though I suspect this might not be a very popular topic. 

It consists of a brief, factual paragraph (3.2) ending with the helpful observation that ‘Wooden hives containing honey are heavy to move, and this has encouraged women to work co-operatively…  There is scope for other changes to be made and adopted by the craft.’  I was delighted to find such a succinct section on a topic which I feared might be simply opinionated or (worse) bigoted. 

I then took a more systematic approach, and found this reinforced my view that there is much new and helpful information throughout the text.  For instance, in section 6, ‘The Recent History and Current Status of Beekeeping in England & Wales’, this comment sang out to me: ‘… we now refer to healthy honey bee management and integrated bee health management with the emphasis on disease prevention rather than the traditional approaches of disease control through identification / diagnosis and its subsequent treatment.’ 

This was considerably different from their earlier book and I felt this represented a genuine advance in our understanding of bee health.  Of course, there are sections on treatment, but the emphasis on maintaining (rather than ‘curing’) the health of the colony was paramount throughout the book. 

I would particularly recommend the two following sections, on ‘The Differences between Hunger, Malnutrition and Starvation’ and ‘The Role of the Beekeeper in Understanding the Honey Bee Colony and Factors Affecting the Species’ Survival’ where the authors draw on Prof. Thomas Seeley’s recent work.  These are very helpful to understanding the sections on nutrients (sections 17 -23). 

The authors make a wise observation which I feel our Beekeeping Associations should note: ‘ Whilst it is a good thing that there continues to be interest in people wanting to take up beekeeping, there are risks associated with too many beekeepers and their hives populating an area too densely with colonies for the locally available forage to sustain. 

Malnourished colonies are more disease prone and are unable to reach their potential, resulting in disappointed beekeepers and the population of honey colonies containing bees which at best are merely surviving and not thriving.’  That word – thriving – I feel is probably the most important concept in this entire book.

I would strongly recommend the sections on feeding bees, especially sections 39 – 44, which are scientific and clear.  As in earlier sections, there is no room for mere opinion in these notes:  the authors detail ‘The Main Reasons for Feeding Sugar’ and ‘General Precautions in Feeding Sugar to Colonies’, both of which assess the pros and cons, and the follow-up sections about how to feed sugar. 

The authors however, continue to emphasise the importance of the environment to the health of the colonies, and they distinctly prefer bees to have plentiful forage available rather than to be fed by the keeper.  In fact, this position was inferred much earlier in the book when the authors discussed whether bees are (or can be) ‘domesticated’ animals.  They wisely avoided entering any controversy about this, and decided to go with the ‘semi-domesticated’ label instead.

Finally, I was delighted to find so much in this new book from Aston and Bucknall which is about plants. There are tables of good forage plants, with information even about the times when wild plants will be releasing their pollens (dehiscing).  This was an absolute gift to any gardener who is interested in having healthy pollinators in their patch, not just for bees – the hover flies, butterflies and other wild pollinators will all benefit if the gardener takes note of these sections of the book (sections 29 – 38).

In the last section (61) before their conclusion, the authors critically discuss the blurring of the meaning of words like ‘environment’ and inferred another one which occurred to me as particularly badly blurred – sustainability.  They offer the word ‘embedded’ as the guiding principle for improving our management of the natural world’s relationship with human usages. 

They say: ‘economic and political actions must be embedded in nature…  (we) can no longer pursue activities and economic practices which continue to degrade and destroy these ecosystems with impunity.’   This is certainly the over-arching message of the book, and it is extremely valuable to have it spelt out in detail regarding our own beekeeping practices. 

Finally, although this weighty volume may seem somewhat intimidating, if you will allow yourself to ‘dip into’ and browse its contents, I feel you will find it a superb ‘resource’ for your beekeeping, and maybe much more than this as well.

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