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.