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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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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Natural Beekeeping Conference This Weekend!

13900131_1415069945173422_1735699895366642927_nAll the big names in the natural beekeeping movement (including Michael Bush and Dee Lusby and many more) are coming to SoCal this weekend. And I’ll be doing a crazy talk on Sunday morning as well as scoring some future podcast guests. Hope to see some of you there. More info and the schedule can be found here.

Join HoneyLove August 19-21, 2016 for an unforgettable weekend filled with educational lectures and workshops, hands-on demonstrations, the latest in natural beekeeping techniques and findings, an elite collection of exhibitors and sponsors, rare opportunities for you to connect with likeminded beeks, sweet raw honey tastings from around the world AND OUR ANNUAL YELLOW TIE EVENT on August 19th, 6-9pm!

There will also be “Special Interest Groups” on both days covering a wide range of topics for both beginner and advanced beekeepers (see full schedule at the bottom of this page).

All who are interested in bees and beekeeping are welcomed to attend! #HLONBC

Limited tickets available to this awesome weekend so REGISTER NOW!

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Help! I’ve got Paper Wasps

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Around this time of year we field a lot of questions about paper wasps, likely because the nests get larger in the summer. The most popular nesting site for paper wasps around here is in the eaves of a house. When the nest is by a door people tend to get uneasy.

Take a chill pill
Don’t panic! Paper wasps are extremely docile and rarely sting. Most importantly, paper wasps are a beneficial insect. They eat beetle larvae, caterpillars, flies and nectar (making them pollinators). They are your friends in the garden. Right now I have a large colony living in the eave of our front porch right over my favorite chair. I’ve sat in that chair, with my head a mere four feet from my paper wasp buddies, for many hours and have never once been bothered.

Biology
Like honeybees, paper wasp are social insects. A mated queen lays eggs. But the similarity ends there. Paper wasp nests range in size between a dozen to 200 individuals. A honeybee colony can be made up of 60,000 workers or more. And honeybees only gather pollen and nectar. Paper wasps feed their young with protein (other insects).

What a paper wasp sting feels like
About the only way you can get stung by a paper wasp is to grasp one. I did this inadvertently once when I reached behind a fence. Keeping bees, I’m well aware of what a honeybee sting feels like. The paper wasp sting was, initially, sharper than a honeybee sting but the pain dissipated quickly.

Paper wasp control
If you don’t want a paper wasp colony next to a door or window it’s best to get rid of the colony early in the season. You can knock it down with a stream of water from a hose or with a long pole. Make sure you have an exit route planned! They will no longer be peaceable after you do this.

Most importantly, after you knock down the nest (a good while after, of course, after they’ve calmed down), oil the location where they were with cooking oil or furniture oil so they can’t attach a new nest in that spot. You can also buy poison at the hardware store but who’s a fan of poison!? It’s really unnecessary. If you have a bee suit you can put it on and remove the colony with a gloved hand. But the best option is to leave them in place so that they can eat all those nasty flies, beetles and caterpillars. A wasp colony makes your yard a healthier, more balanced place.

Also, as you decide what to do with the nest on your house, keep in mind the fact that the colony will dissipate come winter. They will produce a young queen who will move elsewhere, and the remaining workers will die off. In other words, if you can wait until cold weather, your wasp problem will solve itself. Then you can knock down the old nest and grease the area so they don’t revisit that spot.

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