The Therapeutic Benefits Of Beekeeping

This Spring, I took responsibility for the honey bees colonies at Ruskin Mill. Prior to this I caught a couple of swarms last year with my colleague Tim, and he kindly initiated me into the ways of beekeeping to give me a starting place on my beekeeping journey. I also commenced conventional beekeeping courses in Stroud, which has provided me with good practical knowledge.

As part of my role at Ruskin Mill, I agreed to run a weekly beekeeping session with students. We started the season with three beehives, and caught four swarms over May and June, to bring the total number of hives up to seven.

I went to Land Workers Alliance Fair this summer, and listened to a talk by Ali Alzein who is the founder of Bees & Refugees in London. With apiary’s spread out across London they bring refugees and bees together in a mutually beneficial relationship. The refugees care for the bees, let them swarm naturally, and only take a small fraction of their honey stores. While the bees provide purpose and therapeutic benefits for those that look after them.

Ali himself a refugee from Syria swears that beekeeping has eased his post traumatic stress disorder. At one point he had 20 hives in his garden in London, and decided to leave his job as a successful fashion expert to bring bees and refugees together.

“By introducing beekeeping as a craft, community-building activity, and therapy, Bees & Refugees supports individuals and communities in their healing journey while promoting environmental sustainability”

Ali’s talk made me start to think about the therapeutic benefits of beekeeping more deeply. Ruskin Mill College, provides a practical skills therapeutic educations to young people with special educational needs.

I understand why gardening, and crafts provide therapy to the students, but I feel I need to research and also putting into writing why I believe beekeeping can provide a therapeutic education. Along the way I hope to learn ways of promoting is anything that I can do to promote the therapeutic element to the students that choose beekeeping on their timetable. Although, my hunch is that the bees themselves bring the therapy, and I am the facilitator.

Honey bees live in hives, and very social creatures, which is interesting when you consider that most other bees are solitary. The worker bees forage nectar and pollen and bring them back into the hive. The nectar is passed around the bees, before being placed into a pre-made wax comb, when enough of the water evaporates it becomes honey, and the bees cap it off with a layer of wax.

The pollen enters the hives, on the bees pollen baskets on their back legs, and is taken off a stored in the comb, to be feed to young larva as ‘bee bread’. As you can see the honey bees are able to work together, and are selfless in their duties to the hive.

Taking time to observe the bees is very calming, I enjoying watching the flight paths as they spiral down to land on the front of the hive, before wandering through the entrance. On a warm day, for each bee that enters, it seems as if another bee sets of to forage at the same time. The bags of pollen are also noticeable, and I wonder if this weight causes the meandering spirals that the bees make on their way down or if they are unsure as to where the hive entrance is until they are within reach.

Here are some of the ways in which beekeeping is therapeutic:

Stress Reduction & Mental Health: Beekeeping offers a chance to connect with nature and be present in the moment, promoting mindfulness. The act of tending to bees and observing their behavior can be calming and meditative, providing an escape from stressful thoughts and daily worries. Beekeeping can serve as a healthy distraction for individuals dealing with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. Focusing on the tasks involved in beekeeping can provide relief from overthinking and intrusive thoughts. While tending to the bees you have to be gentle and focus on what you are doing.

Sense of Purpose and Achievement: Beekeeping gives individuals a sense of responsibility for the well-being of the bees, fostering a feeling of purpose and accomplishment. Taking care of the hives and managing the bees can bring a sense of pride and fulfillment. Putting together frames or cleaning frames in the winter provides purpose, the wax can be used creatively to make candles or soaps.

Social Interaction and Community: Beekeeping can be a social activity, allowing individuals to be part of a community of like-minded beekeepers. The interactions with fellow beekeepers, sharing experiences, and discussing bee-related topics can combat feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Connection with Nature: Spending time outdoors while beekeeping allows people to connect with nature, which has been shown to have positive effects on mental health and well-being. Being in green spaces and observing the bees’ interactions with flowers and the environment can be uplifting. Even the smell of the hive, or the hum of the hive can be uplifting.

Therapeutic Use in Mental Health Treatment: Beekeeping has been used as a therapeutic intervention for various mental health conditions, including PTSD and severe disabling mental illnesses. Engaging in beekeeping activities has shown positive effects on patients’ well-being and self-esteem.

Educational and Learning Opportunities: Learning about bees and beekeeping can be a stimulating and engaging process, offering an opportunity for personal growth and continuous learning. The study of honey bees is so intriguing. The Ruskin Mill students at the beginning of the beekeeping sessions, really enjoyed learning about them, as the facts are quite exotic e.g. The worker bees sweat out wax”

Green Prescribing: Being in nature and engaging in activities like beekeeping are increasingly prescribed by healthcare providers to improve mental health and well-being, leading to a reduction in the use of healthcare services. Ali from Bees & Refugees mentioned that they have started to work with NHS.

Karin Alton & Francis Ratnieks (2022) Can Beekeeping Improve Mental Wellbeing during Times of Crisis?, Bee World, 99:2, 40-43, DOI: 10.1080/0005772X.2021.1988233

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