The Great Beekeeping Debate

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Of all the subjects we cover on this blog none is as controversial as beekeeping. I think most outsiders would be surprised as just how testy things get when conventional and natural beekeepers bump into each other. It’s a debate every bit as heated as gun control or abortion.

The two sides are divided on a number of practices. Probably the most important is the issue of whether or not to treat bees for diseases and pests (most notably, varroa mites). Other issues include the use of foundation, keeping feral bees, re-queening and the type of bee housing. Even within each camp there’s a kind of spectrum between a hyper-interventionist stance and a hands-off approach. Some “natural” beekeepers treat their bees with essetial oils, for instance.

But I think the divide is more philosophical. It’s about systems thinking versus an overly reductionist stance. Reductionsim and systems thinking, in fact, can be complimentary. In science you take apart a problem to look at individual causes and effects. But you must, at some point, put those parts together to look at the whole. As the alchemical saying goes, “solve et coagula,” “dissolve and join together.” Reductionism is fine and useful. What’s not good is the arrogance that comes from thinking that since you understand part of the problem you understand the whole and can immediately start applying technological solutions. As Nassim Taleb has pointed out in his books The Black Swan and Anti-fragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, monkeying with complex systems from a point of ignorance leads to horrible, unintended consequences.

Take the issue of varroa mite treatments. Let’s say you test a miticide’s toxicity on bees. You expose the bees to the miticide. The mites die and the bees live. Success! But . . . the unforeseen. What if that treatment wreaks havoc on the microbiology of the hive? What about a chemical’s effect on the symbiotic relationships with those microorganisms and their bee hosts? What happens when the mites develop resistance to the miticide? What happens when propped-up weak bees swarm and establish themselves in the midst of a feral population? These are all difficult to understand long term questions that highlight the danger of moving quickly from an isolated study into an immediate application. Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has written and lectured extensively on these issues.

Natural and conventional beekeepers are also asking different questions. I’ll be frank. The California State Beekeeper’s Association meeting that I attended in 2015 left a very bad taste in my mouth. It really should have been called the Almond Pollinator’s Association meeting. It was all about facilitating the pollination of California’s unsustainable 1 million acres of almonds. Those million acres are pollinated by at least 1.7 million beehives that have to be trucked out of state every year once the almond pollination season is over. Speaker after speaker blamed natural beekeepers for their disease problems. Retired UC Davis bee expert Eric Mussen brought the ad hominem attacks to a fevered pitch by calling natural beekeepers, “hippies” and “bee-havers.” I haven’t heard “hippie” used this way since Spiro Agnew left this mortal coil. And Agnew would have been right at home with an organization that still has a ladies auxiliary in 2016 (in contrast to natural beekeeping organizations I’ve seen that are integrated and, in fact, made up of a solid majority of women).

The question of how we pollinate millions of acres of monocultured crops in different parts of the country is a different question than how to keep a few hives in a biodiverse urban area. To be fair, the first question is essential since it’s how we currently keep everyone fed. But much of the advice given to large scale beekeepers does not always apply to small scale backyard beekeepers.

The hubris can go both ways. Those of us on the natural beekeeping side can also think we understand the whole better than we do. We can fall into the same reductionist traps. Just because a mite treatment is “natural,” such as dousing a hive in essential oils, does not mean that it’s healthy for the bees. We also must not lose sight of the fact that we are in a relationship with honeybees that goes back many thousands of years. They aren’t exactly wild animals in most places and may depend, to varying degrees, on our support. Someday we might reach a kind of sweet spot between highly interventionist and low intervention beekeeping methods. My bet is that it’s on the low intervention side of the equation, but only time will tell.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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091 Artist John Hartley’s Contingency Research

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Our guest this week on the podcast is London-based artist and researcher John Hartley. John is probably best known for turning an office (desk, computer and business suit!) into a sea kayak. We talk about a bunch of John’s projects, including the kayak, and the intersection of art and ecological thinking. While listening to the podcast I’d suggest taking a look at John’s work which you can see on his website ambivalency.net. During the show we discuss:

Special thanks to Kate of the blog Wild Economies for tipping me off to John’s work.

If you’d like to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

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Beware of Bee Removal Scams

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If you’ve got bees living in your wall you’ve got three options: leave them in place, call a beekeeper to remove them or an exterminator to kill them. The best choice is just to leave them in place as long as they aren’t bothering anyone. The second best choice is to call a beekeeper to open up the wall, remove the bee comb and bees and take them away. I did a post on how a bee removal like this is done.

I suspect most people reading this blog will not want to call an exterminator. On top of killing a living, sentient being, an exterminator will leave all the honey in the wall. The honey will attract pests and, possibly, drip through your wall or ceiling. Bees left in place will not let their honey drip or get robbed by mice.

Unfortunately, there seem to be a lot of fraudulent bee removal companies out there who promise “humane” removal but who actually just use chemical fumigants to force the bees to abscond. Colonies forced out this way are nearly certain to die. Having done a lot of cutouts it’s easy to see why fly by night companies do this. Proper bee removal is a lot of work and many property owners aren’t willing to pay what it’s worth do a bee removal properly.

If you need a bee removal service do not just Google “bee removal.” The same sort of scam going on with locksmiths is going on with bee removal services. A panicked homeowner with a bee situation makes an easy target. Bee removal scammers, just like the locksmith scammers, show up and start jacking up the price. Then they do substandard, possibly dangerous, work.

If you’ve got a bee problem look up your local beekeeping association or club and ask for a referral. If you’re an LA local you can contact HoneyLove or send me an email through this website. If you’re in my part of town and the work doesn’t involve ladders, I might be able to help.

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Is Honey the Same as Sugar?

Photo by Hans/Pixabay.

Photo by Hans/Pixabay.

This weekend’s natural beekeeping conference, put on by HoneyLove, was informative and inspiring. On the blog this week I thought we’d take a look at some of the issues brought up at the conference beginning with the research of Dr. May Berenbaum, an entomologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Berenbaum’s specialty, for many years, was the interaction of plants and insects. Her interest in bees began with her frustration with the common idea that honey is nutritionally indistinguishable from sugar. In her presentation, in chart after chart, she showed the huge difference in the biochemistry of different honey varietals. Take, for instance, antioxidant levels. It turns out that darker types of honey, such as buckwheat, have a lot more antioxidants than lighter varieties like citrus honey (the exception to this rule is sunflower honey which is both light and high in antioxidants).

The same differences can be found with the antimicrobial properties of honey. Manuka honey, produced in Australia and New Zealand has the highest antimicrobial levels of any type of honey. But, Berenbaum warned, there’s a lot of fake Manuka honey on the market.

One of the most mind bending bits of research Berenbaum described was the discovery that some sources of nectar contain chemicals that can help a beehive recover from toxins and that the bees themselves self-diagnose and then seek out these nectar sources. Just think about that! Unfortunately, she also noted that agricultural states like Illinois, where she lives, lack the nectar source biodiversity that bees need to stay healthy. It’s a state made up, almost entirely, of corn and soy fields.

Her talk was somewhat of an indictment against one of the common practices of conventional beekeepers: feeding bees sugar. The problem is that these simple sugars lack many of the biochemical components found in honey that bees need to stay toxin-free and robust.

Berenbaum did not discuss the impacts of honey on human health but I’ll go out on a limb and guess that those higher antioxidant levels in dark honeys are probably better for us too.

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Saturday Tweets: Faux Victorian Couples, Junkyard Flintnapping and a Squirrel-cam