If you have ever considered how you could reconnect with nature, here’s your answer – through bees. Have you ever wondered why bees make honey? What does a drone do all day long? Why should we care about the health of our bees? Paula Carnell is a bee consultant and honey sommelier looking to create a buzz about health. She says that bees are Mother Nature’s way of connecting nature with humanity, “What’s happening to the bees is inevitably happening to us as well”.
Paula called on her own experience battling a life-threatening illness to successfully help her uncover the secrets of naturopathic beekeeping, i.e. maintaining happy and productive bees without use of smoke, sugar and chemicals. Her enthusiasm is infectious and her determination to turn her near-death experience upside-down is inspiring. If you didn’t love bees before, you will after this!
Here are a few suggestions how to learn more about Paula and her quest to create a buzz about health:
Check out Paula's book Artist to Bees
Facebook : @paulacarnellcreatingabuzz
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[00:00:00] Paula Carnell: Being a naturopathic or a natural beekeeper does not mean that you are a lazy beekeeper. It means you're actually spending more time, more concentration, and you're doing more research to really understand your bees on a deeper level. [00:00:20] [00:00:40]
[00:00:54] Paula Carnell: I was born in Weymouth Dorset, so I'm a Dorset girl. As a child, [00:01:00] I loved to draw. That was my passion. And being outside, a bit of a tomboy, had a younger brother or have a younger brother, so we would be out playing with all the other kids, made up go-carts, and of course being by the coast, we would go down to the beach quite a bit.
[00:01:17] Steve: This is Paula [00:01:20] Carnell. She's a bee consultant and honey sommelier based in the South West of England, working internationally with landowners, honey producers and individuals wanting to reconnect with nature through bees. Among other things, she's a TEDx speaker, author of 'Artist to [00:01:40] Bees', and a 'Quest for bees in Bhutan'. In today's environmentally conscious world, some of the techniques used in beekeeping feel a little at odds with an emerging move towards the natural. Paula seemed like the ideal person to help me dive into the world of bees [00:02:00] to discuss that and their relevance to us today. Paula wasn't always destined for life among the bees, and it's helpful to share some of her journey to understand her current approach to honeybees, herbalism and humans.
[00:02:17] Paula Carnell: Well, I was always drawing. I'd always [00:02:20] loved drawing people. And right through school I was the artist, you know, through primary school and secondary school. I ended up being a fine artist for 20 years, that was my career. I had my own gallery and in 2004 I sold the gallery. I'd gone through [00:02:40] divorce, I had two young boys and then I met Greg and then we got married and I was building up my collection of paintings and I started to develop quite a successful career selling my paintings in America and in the UK.
[00:02:54] Steve: So all was going well, but then Paula was struck with an [00:03:00] illness that would turn her life upside down.
[00:03:03] Paula Carnell: I was completely bedbound. I didn't even have a wheelchair. And I didn't know what was wrong with me. Nobody knew what was wrong with me. I couldn't lift my head up. I could barely eat. I had [00:03:20] involuntary shaking. I was nauseous all the time. So, everything was broken, everything was painful, everything had stopped working. And that was very, very frightening. And this went on for six years until I got a diagnosis of Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. So I was 46 years of age.[00:03:40] I remember my mum and I coming out from that appointment and both crying, both with relief because he was so lovely, a Dr. Turnpenny. He was just so caring, so understanding. All he could offer was antidepressants and painkillers. You are never really prepared when somebody tells [00:04:00] you that, yes, you really are ill and we've got no hope and we can't see you living beyond 50.
[00:04:05] Steve: It sounds absolutely horrendous. What is Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome?
[00:04:17] Paula Carnell: Ehlers-Danlos is a connective tissue [00:04:20] disorder. And because we have connective tissue throughout our whole bodies, it affects everybody differently. But the easiest way to think of it is if you look at your wrist and when it moves, your connective tissue under your skin is like an elastic band. And the elastic band will keep springing back. [00:04:40] With Ehlers-Danlos, you have floppy, elastic bands. So it means if you ever have any operations or any kind of injuries, it's really difficult for your body to heal itself.
[00:04:50] Steve: Paula wasn't in a giving up mood and she knew the answer didn't lie in taking prescribed drugs. She remembered back to a period of [00:05:00] time as a young girl with chronic asthma, taking lots of Ventolin and Vintel, getting nowhere, when she met a medical herbalist, stopped taking the drugs and 35 years later, she's only had one asthma attack since. So she applied the same logic to Ehlers-Danlos.
[00:05:19] Paula Carnell: [00:05:20] And I booked to become a patient of a medical herbalist who happened to have moved from Dorset into Castle Cary. So she was in my town. I did everything she recommended, which is not easy. And it wasn't just take these herbs at these times of the day. It was meditate. It was declutter emotions, [00:05:40] really being hyper-aware of all the elements of your environment, of your terrain to ensure that your body's in the best place to heal itself.
[00:05:50] Steve: And within eight months, incredibly on the back of herbalism only, Paula was able to walk again, with sticks, but she didn't [00:06:00] need a carer anymore. This personal experience of the power of natural treatments would influence Paula as she moved towards her new passion - bees. [00:06:20]
[00:06:20] Paula Carnell: Well, two years into being bedbound, my husband was asking me what I would like for my birthday. And something I'd always thought I would do was keep bees. And being a Dorset girl and being forced to read a lot of Thomas Hardy and being very inspired by Bathsheba Everdene, I had this vision [00:06:40] of being a Julie Christie beekeeper, you know, with a lovely white linen dress on and... a straw skep. So I said to Greg, "I'd... really like a beehive". And he said, "Well what's the point of having a beehive? You can't get outta bed. We haven't got any bees. You don't need a beehive". And I just said, "If I have a beehive, the bees will come". [00:07:00] So I just wore him down and he built me a beehive. And this local chap, he actually put bees in my hive, and every week he would come up through the summer and teach me beekeeping. And that's how bees came [00:07:20] into my life.
[00:07:21] Steve: Fantastic. So tell me about bees.
[00:07:25] Paula Carnell: There are 22,000 species of bees in the world and 11 of them make honey. Here in the UK we have 275 species of bees and only one of them makes honey. And [00:07:40] many people feel we wanna save the bee, but everything about bees has been lumped into the honeybee. And even though we're all thinking about the honeybee, quite often people are looking at a bumblebee thinking that is a honeybee.
[00:07:53] Steve: Okay, so let's stick with the honeybee for now. What's the life cycle [00:08:00] of a typical honeybee?
[00:08:02] Paula Carnell: Honeybees live for six weeks, but the queen honeybee will live for two to seven years, and inside a beehive, a honey beehive, you'll have one queen, about 49,000 - 50,000 female worker bees that are living six weeks. [00:08:20] And then you'll have a few hundred male bees, which are the drones.
[00:08:30] Steve: So tell me about the drones.
[00:08:33] Paula Carnell: The drone is thought to do two things. Eat and mate. Mate with the queens. Basically the [00:08:40] drones are created from this time of year, early spring, and then they will be culled by the other bees at the end of autumn when there's no longer need for them to be mating with queens.
[00:08:51] Paula Carnell: So in the winter you actually get different type of honeybee that lives longer than six weeks. They can live for up to six months [00:09:00] because they go into this tauper state, which is like a semi-hibernation, and you need bees that can store food. So the summer bees will only live six weeks, but the winter bees will live for six months.
[00:09:11] Steve: And what does the [00:09:20] drone get up to?
[00:09:20] Paula Carnell: The drone could leave the hive and go off to a drone congregation area. So it's like a big pub for male bees where they all hang out quite often near a landmark like a tall tree, or hillside. Now if our drone goes out on his first expedition to the... drone congregation area, [00:09:40] they sense the pheromones of a queen, they'll chase the queen and mate with her. If he's successful with mating, as he goes to pull away, his genitals are ripped away from him and he falls to the ground to his death.
[00:09:53] Paula Carnell: [00:10:00] So he could have a short but very blissful life, or he could be one of the drones that goes and hangs out every day, right through the summer, still doesn't get lucky, and then the other female bees will either stop him coming into the hive at the end of the summer or will actually kill him because there's no need for him.
[00:10:19] Steve: [00:10:20] It all sounded good for the drone; and then you ruined it at the end. Now your husband bought you a beehive, but of course beehives aren't a bee's natural habitat. So what is?
[00:10:35] Paula Carnell: So, bees will choose to live in cavities, [00:10:40] often in trees, and that is their preferred environment. It's high up off the ground, they're safe from predators, including humans. They're opportunists. So if you have a branch that comes away, or a cavity that woodpeckers or squirrels have made in a tree and if it's vacant, the bees will move in and then they're quite safe [00:11:00] in that cavity. They'll also go for cavities in roofs of buildings, anywhere where they can produce their wax comb and live in safety. And they will line the interior of the cavity with propolis, which is in effect their skin. We have to look at bees as not as individuals. They're a superorganism. So the [00:11:20] 50,000 bees makes a one being.
[00:11:22] Steve: Okay. And so how did the beehive come about?
[00:11:26] Paula Carnell: Well all around the world, people have been aware of bees for thousands of years. So there's cave paintings of people climbing up rock faces or up trees and collecting a bit of honey. So humans have loved the taste of honey. The Egyptians [00:11:40] were very good at putting bees into boxes or baskets so that they could collect the honey, but also the royal jelly and the pollen. And they also used to put them on boats and go up and down the Nile because they found they got better crops where the bees were. And by putting bees in boxes, humans [00:12:00] have been able to take some of the honey and just control the bees.
[00:12:05] Steve: So with this control, the future of the honeybee is in good shape?
[00:12:09] Paula Carnell: Because humans manage bees in beehives, when factors outside our control, so the environment, is killing the bees or the bees are dying unexpectedly, [00:12:20] we notice because we are keeping the bees. We can actually rear new queens and replace queens and we can breed more bees. So the honeybee population can be managed to be quite stable.
[00:12:32] Steve: So the honeybee seems to be okay. What about the other species that you mentioned?
[00:12:38] Paula Carnell: The other [00:12:40] species of bees, so just in the UK, the other 274 species of bees, they're getting wiped out. But because they're not in hives, because they live in holes in the ground or they live in cavities in walls because they're solitary bees and they're living in old plant stems, we don't notice when they've been wiped out. The honeybee, [00:13:00] it's purpose is to make honey, so it's a generalist. It will pollinate lots of plants by accident because it's collecting lots of nectars. But the other bee species have spent millions of years evolving to pollinate a particular species of plants. And so we need that biodiversity of all the other [00:13:20] bee species.
[00:13:21] Steve: We'll come back to the issue of biodiversity in a moment, but I just wanted to backtrack a little and ask why bees make honey in the first place?
[00:13:39] Paula Carnell: So the reason [00:13:40] that honeybees make honey is because they are the only species of bees that have a colony that lasts through the winter months. And because there isn't anything flowering to produce nectar or pollen for them through the winter months, they have to collect a surplus that they can feed on through the winter.
[00:13:58] Paula Carnell: So just like the squirrel will be [00:14:00] collecting nuts, you know the, honeybee is collecting nectar for carbohydrate, pollen for protein. They will store the nectar, they evaporate the nectar to make it into a honey, so it will store for a longer period of time inside the hive. And then through the winter months, the bees will slowly eat the honey.
[00:14:18] Steve: [00:14:20] As Paula was learning her craft with Chris, her mentor, she started to become uneasy about certain accepted practices within the beekeeping community. They were instinctive concerns born from her personal life of conquering illness [00:14:40] through more natural methods. The first of those accepted practices was smoking the bees:
[00:14:47] Paula Carnell: I remember asking Chris, "Well, why do you use smoke?" And he said, "Well, it calms the bees". But I said, "How does it calm the bees?" And he said, "Well, they actually go into the hive, so away from the beekeeper, to fill their [00:15:00] stomachs up with honey. "Why do they do that?" "Well, they do that because they think their hive is on fire". And I instantly thought, "Gosh, that is a fight or flight response. That is not a calming response". And that's when I said, "Okay, we're not gonna be using smoke". I just use water because actually the bees don't like to fly in the rain. So if you [00:15:20] spray water, a mist of water, when you open up the hive, the bees go into the hive just to get out of the rain. And so it's less stressful than smoking them.
[00:15:29] Steve: And you had other concerns after one of your early harvests?
[00:15:33] Paula Carnell: My one hive had done really well, they were very calm, very happy. So we took 140 pounds of [00:15:40] honey and I felt like a proper beekeeper and I was really excited. But the next time Chris came up, he had this big brown package and he unwrapped it and it was a big block of sugar fondant. And I'm like, "What do you mean - sugar?" He said, "Well, we've taken all their food. We need to give them sugar to feed them through the winter". And that was [00:16:00] just such an awakening for me. I knew that sugar was a toxin. And to me that was enough to go, "That's it. I'm not feeding bees sugar".
[00:16:08] Steve: So that's smoke and sugar, but there's also the use of chemicals isn't there?
[00:16:14] Paula Carnell: So the other big problem that beekeepers face is varroa.
[00:16:18] Paula Carnell: [00:16:20] The varroa mite came into Europe and the UK in the early 1990s, and that first year it came in Hundreds of thousands of bee colonies died from verroa. And verroa is this little bug, a little parasite that gets into the [00:16:40] hives and it feeds off the fat bodies of the larvae inside the cells, inside the hive. So what happens is the larvae develop, but they develop deformed. And because they're deformed, they're then susceptible to other diseases and illnesses. It just weakens the colony. And some scientists came up with some chemical [00:17:00] treatments that would kill basically an insect on an insect. So you are killing a varroa mite on a bee. And what you would do is either spray or fume or drizzle this chemical into the hive, and the whole theory is that you've put the chemical in, the mites have come out, [00:17:20] therefore you've done your job. It's working.
[00:17:21] Steve: So what's the problem?
[00:17:27] Paula Carnell: As long as one varroa mite survives a chemical treatment, you now have a treatment resistant verroa mite. And this is what's happened. So we are 30 years on, [00:17:40] people are still using chemical treatments inside the hives, and we still have a verroa mite problem.
[00:17:45] Steve: Right. So what's the answer?
[00:17:49] Paula Carnell: Bees will groom each other to get rid of the varroas. If they see a bug on another bee, they'll scratch it off. but also they now will uncap [00:18:00] a cell, which has got a verroa mite in it, they'll crawl in, pull out the verroa mite, chew the legs off and spit it out. Then they'll recap the cell so the larvae can continue to grow.
[00:18:10] Steve: That sounds pretty gross, but effective?
[00:18:17] Paula Carnell: Bees will also, if they have infected or [00:18:20] diseased larvae, they will pull it out of the hives. So it's called hygienic behavior. But to be able to do that, the bees have gotta be in a healthy state. They can't be in a stress fight or flight state.
[00:18:30] Steve: Right. So healthy bees can sort out their own varroa mite problem if they're allowed to be healthy i.e. no chemicals. But there's [00:18:40] another problem to contend with when chemical treatment is used, isn't there?
[00:18:43] Paula Carnell: When that's used inside a hive, the second generation of male bees is infertile. And this means that those male drones are going off to the drone congregation area, they're finding a queen, they're mating with her, but they're basically firing blanks. And so when the queen comes [00:19:00] back to the hive, she starts laying eggs. She's not laying fertilized eggs. And so the colony dies out.
[00:19:04] Steve: So you made a great case for why traditional smoke, sugar, chemicals, are not the best solution for beekeeping. If I wanted to take up beekeeping the natural [00:19:20] way, what's the most important tip you would give me?
[00:19:23] Paula Carnell: Don't buy bees from outside your area. Buy them from a neighbouring beekeeper, but don't buy them and ship them in from another country because it's very important that knowledge of the local environment. For the bee survival, they need to know where they can get nectar at what times of year.
[00:19:37] Steve: But you said most of the bees died within six weeks [00:19:40] anyway, so how does that help?
[00:19:41] Paula Carnell: There's this wonderful quote from, a brilliant beekeeper called Willie Robson, who is a commercial honey producer in Northumberland, and he says bees have a corporate memory. If a bee was to go out and find a source of really good, rich nectar or pollen, it comes back to the hive, but that bee's gonna [00:20:00] die anyway within six weeks. And so it's important that the bee shares that knowledge with the whole hive. So then it becomes a corporate memory because the next year, none of those bees are still living. You've got the queen who's carried on through, but you'll have several generations who are behaving in a way that was [00:20:20] influenced from information gained many years ago.
[00:20:25] Steve: One of the points coming through is this idea that naturopathic beekeeping is about continuously growing your depth of understanding.
[00:20:33] Paula Carnell: So you have to build up your knowledge. It's no good thinking, "Oh, I'm gonna be a natural beekeeper. I'm gonna have some bees, and I'll just let [00:20:40] 'em do their own thing". Because if you were gonna let them do their own thing, let them live in... the wild cavity, don't put them in a box.
[00:20:47] Steve: So tell us about your learning, which has started to build a bigger picture relating to the bees importance to the health of our environment and us.
[00:20:59] Paula Carnell: [00:21:00] One of the studies I came across was by the Welsh Botanic Gardens and they've got bees and they've got in their gardens, 8,000 species of plants. And they wanted to know which of the plants their bees went to to make the honey. they got the honey analyzed, and when the results came back, they were really astonished because they found the [00:21:20] bees preferred 11 species of plants, and they included hawthorn, blackthorn, willow, hazel, dandelions, brambles and ivy. So it was basically all the woodland, all the hedgerow, all the wild plants that were outside the botanic [00:21:40] gardens.
[00:21:40] Steve: So the bees ignored the exotic collection of plants inside the gardens in favour of the traditional plants outside. How do you explain that?
[00:21:49] Paula Carnell: I came across a wonderful biodynamic beekeeper called Jacqueline Freeman, and she wrote a book called The Song of Increase. What she learned was that the [00:22:00] bees look to the plants for the minerals and they can see where the minerals are by what is flowering. The bees are collecting a variety of nectars to provide the balanced nutrition in their hive to see them throughout the year.
[00:22:17] Steve: Right, so the bees look towards [00:22:20] specific plants for the specific needs of their hives. That's incredibly clever. And in that respect, you talk about the importance of the dandelion?
[00:22:35] Paula Carnell: The dandelion has really deep tap roots, and they go down into the soil [00:22:40] to break down the calcium and potassium and they bring it up through their roots and they process it. They turn the rock based minerals into an easily absorbable plant-based mineral. And the reason they're so important in apple orchards is apple trees have shallow roots, so they can't reach the calcium and potassium. [00:23:00] So they're dependent on the dandelions bringing those minerals up to the surface. Now, the real genius is that the dandelion seeds will be taken by the wind for up to 60 miles, but they will only take root in soil that needs calcium and potassium. And so Jacqueline Freeman had noticed how the bees [00:23:20] have told her that you have a marching of plants across the landscape, which are providing this map of where the minerals are. So if you know which plants process which minerals, you know how to get your minerals.
[00:23:34] Steve: And you of all people recognise the benefits of [00:23:40] taking the right minerals the right way?
[00:23:43] Paula Carnell: If you were to take a calcium tablet, it's ground up rock calcium and your body can't process it. But if you were to take a plant-based form of calcium, it goes straight into your cells and you reap the benefit. Dr. Linus Pauling was the one who did the most research on it, [00:24:00] and he even won a Nobel Prize for his research. And he believed that every disease known to man came down to a mineral deficiency. And today the only medication I take is daily plant-based minerals because I can see that we are not getting it in our food because we are not allowing the free roaming plants to [00:24:20] mineralize our soil.
[00:24:21] Steve: So the bees hunt the flowers that will give it the specific minerals it needs for its hive, and in doing so, provide us with the roadmap of where to find those essential minerals?
[00:24:33] Paula Carnell: They are God or mother nature's way of connecting nature with humanity. Bees [00:24:40] are literally crying out, slapping us all around the faces and going, "Look at what you are doing. You cannot be killing us, all the bees, without also killing yourself. And that's why my mission is to create a buzz about health because the bees are teaching us [00:25:00] about our environment. And if we're sharing that same environment, what's happening to the bees is inevitably happening to us as well.