BEEKEEPING IN THE NORTHEAST - An account of my beekeeping, not a treatise of expertise, but for friends & family who wish to keep bees vicariously through me, and for the occasional apiarist passer-by.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Farmers & Beekeepers

Of Interest To Farmers & Beekeepers – Shared here is what I came away with from many different New England beekeeping events of 2012.

Farmers and Beekeepers share a long history of Nature's insistence that they cooperate toward a healthy abundant harvest; but unlike Farmers, who are well acquainted with the need for natural selection in producing a reliable, quality crop, beekeepers have been learning a new way called, well... "beekeeping".  

Beekeeping itself, of course, is not new. My own ancestors, as long ago as 3,000 years B.C. on the island of Crete, kept bees; but increasing their stock or replacing lost hives by sending off to America's state of Georgia for new bees every spring was not an option. So how did this island bound civilization as well as others do it and what has changed since then?  

We do know a few key facts: Anciently, bees were smaller than the common honeybee of U.S. Apiaries, yet longer living, higher yielding producers of that valuable golden anti-bacterial healing syrup: Honey. This seemingly magical result from nectar that is processed inside the bee's digestive system we now know is owed to the health of the microbes entertained there. New studies also reveal that the increased size of today's U.S. honeybees - willed through a misguided belief that bigger is better and achieved through a century long practice of comb size manipulation - has left our modern pollinator more vulnerable to parasites that count on larger breeding spaces in that comb.  

Honey bees also became managed for long distance commercial pollination projects, especially in the U.S.A. We recognized the need for honeybees in an effort to feed a growing, new nation sprawling from sea to shining sea. You might suppose this would result in the insect's pollinating ability winning out genetically over its talent for quality honey production and normally you may be right. It is true that 80% of the "honey" on grocery store shelves is a standardized honey blend heated, for the purpose of maintaining a good look on the store shelves, and imported primarily from South America and Asia; but the fight of our modern honeybee against invading diseases and parasites has also been managed - with chemical treatments - treatments that kill or alter those valuable nectar processing microbes.  

The success of the species is no longer a war being waged by survival stock ready to brave our complex modern ecology. Beekeeping instead has become a way to perpetuate an inferior version of this important insect. Buying new bees every spring is not just a Northern beekeeper's lot due to winters both harsh and mild; it has become the modern way to keep hives alive across the country, north, south, east, and west for decades in the U.S. 

A recent conference in Massachusetts revealed a new - old way of beekeeping. Veteran beekeepers from around the country shared their stories of struggle with modern methods and apiary loses over their 30 to 40 years of commercial beekeeping experience. These individuals taught that the common sense approach any modern school yard child might guess is the answer: allow honeybee colonies to evolve through the process of natural selection.  

The problem is that it could be too late. Our earth is so saturated with chemicals, both agricultural and industrial, that this may be impossible for our girls to achieve at this point in their history. There are many reasons. Among those that the average beekeeper can wrap their minds around are these three:  

First: Honeybee genetics have broken down from generations of exposure to artificial hive maintenance products. In the natural world bees draw their own comb. Today sheets of purchased wax product made from recycled hive wax, containing all the chemicals used in those hives from which the wax is acquired, is the norm. Bee Schools across the country traditionally advocate use of this "foundation" as essential to starting a new hive. 

These chemical residues are influencing the many essential microbes in the hive, and more dramatically the fertility of drones. Sterile drones in they and the queen's once-in-a-life-time mating ritual results in Queens with a limited life span. When the queen runs out of sperm she is replaced by her colony. Queens just a decade ago commonly lived for five or six years; today, by contrast, they are reportedly replaced as often as six times a year. 

Second: Poor species selection practices by the beekeeping community have resulted in a bee with no common sense. Much like domestic fowl - our dumb ducks for example - bees are, well, bee-brained. Author Michael Bush calls them "brood laying fools".  

What is a smart bee? Well, actually, like any survival species there are traits required to make survival possible. In a northern climate a Queen would lay, as well as her colony behave, with discrimination - depending on the nectar flows, temperatures, and seasonal changes. Yes, there are species that do this. Are they the favorite honeybee in the U.S. or even in Tamworth and Sandwich? No. That brood-laying-fool, commonly known as the Italian Honeybee, is popular because their seemingly endless supply has doomed them to being handled as expendable.  

Third: New insects introduced through modern trade practices promote desperate attempts by farmers to save the current crops, trumping long term natural selection methods of cultivation. Is this an issue for our community? Yes!  

In addition to invading species, Genetically Modified (GMO) wind pollinated and mono crops are consuming the U.S. farming community landscape. "GMO" seeds are not those selected for their genetic superiority; these are seeds manufactured with pesticides built in to their DNA. Bees are insects. They also don't care if the corn doesn't need them. Pollen is pollen. As reported in the September 2012 issue of Bee Culture magazine, in addition to producing contaminated pollen, "GMO" seeds are coated with a powder to keep them from sticking while dispensed into the ground by modern planting machinery used by farmers large and small.  You've seen those picturesque scenes of large mid-west field tractors with powder billowing from behind in their tracks? Crops genetically modified to include pesticides in every part of the plant, depend on the wind for pollination, which made them a logical choice; but that wind blows those insecticide molecules throughout the landscape, creating a sad modern phenomenon that wipes out whole communities of honey bees, not to mention coating the nearby crops that depend on them.  

These consequences were certainly anticipated as acceptable by the powers that be. Coming up with ways to use wind pollinated crops like corn to feed the world by its inclusion in virtually every processed food we and our animals eat seems destined to become an important, albeit pathetic, survival feeding methodology for the perpetuation of our species; but can we indeed get all we need from our food sources without the bees?  

If there is hope it can begin with farmers and beekeepers. Are we in this for the honey, the pollination, or the opportunity to experience the joys of watching over our beloved insect community? Whatever the reason we can start making better choices about how we keep our bees and choose our crops. We can open discussions with our neighbor farmers who often do not understand the complex world inside the hive the way we are just beginning to. We can also keep talking to our friends and make them aware of the value of chemical free hive products and how their own local choices can influence and support the efforts of their neighborhood farmers and beekeepers. 

Recommended Books: The Practical Beekeeper by Michael Bush, 2011, Volumes I, II, and III are now at the Cook Library. See also The Complete Idiot’s Guide To Beekeeping by Massachusetts beekeepers Dean Stiglitz & Laurie Herboldsheimer.

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