Michael Thiele and the Love of Bees

On Saturday, September 21st, Erik and I will be attending a day-long Biodynamic Apiculture Workshop with Michael Thiele, sponsored by the fine folks at Honey Love. We hear there are still some open spaces, so please join us if you can. Erik has seen Michael Thiele speak, and says he is mesmerizing.

Michael Thiele is the founder of Gaia Bees, and co-founder of The Melissa Garden (a honey bee sanctuary and resource center). His approach toward bees is deeply respectful and non-exploitative. He views honey as a gift and a medicine, not as a crop.

In the video above he is demonstrating a hive of his own design, the Sun Hive or Haengekorb, the shape of which reflects the nature, needs and processes of the bees–not us. He describes the hive as an “offering to the bees” to support their welfare. As you will see in the video, he and the bees share a remarkable understanding.

What is Killing the Bees?

bees and poppies

What’s the cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD)? We may be getting closer with the release of a study from the University of Maryland about fungicides and other chemicals used in agriculture.

This study is more interesting than many others I’ve seen. It looked at how pesticides interfere with honeybee’s resistance to a common parasite Nosema ceranae. Bees exposed to a widely used agricultural fungicide, chlorothonatil, were more likely to succumb to nosema. The most provocative result for me was that bees exposed to fluvalinate, a miticide used by beekeepers on their own bees, were also likely to get nosema.

Perhaps the villain in CCD is the beekepers themselves. Don’t get me wrong, pesticides probably play a role in CCD. But we must also remember that commercial beekeepers:

  • Treat their bees with pesticides to control mites and these chemicals, as the study points out, harm the bee’s immune systems.
  • Move hives thousands of miles every year to provide pollination services.
  • Place their hives in monocropped areas where their bees can forage on only one kind of nectar/pollen such as almonds in California and citrus in Florida.
  • Use foundation (sometimes made of plastic sometimes made of wax that may be contaminated with pesticides) that does not allow the bees to build their own comb.
  • Regulate (through the use of foundation) the amount of drones the queen can make. Drones may be a sacrificial first defense against mites.
  • Use queen excluders to prevent the queen from moving freely through the hive.
  • Kill the queen and re-queen every year, often using artificially inseminated queens.
  • Import hives from other climates.
  • Feed hives high fructose corn syrup.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder warns about what happens when we prop up and interfere with complex systems like beehives or the economy. When we don’t allow failure (such as trying to prevent mites with chemicals) we set ourselves up for bigger disasters down the road. It’s very convenient to be able to point the finger at the pesticides farmers use. But just like Ben Bernanke, the big beekeepers can’t see the foolishness of their own practices. Point this out at most local beekeeping association meetings and you’ll be shown the door.

This cluelessness is why I recommend new beekeepers avoid most state beekeeping organizations. For a practical and wholistic approach to beekeeping see Michael Bush’s website, The Practical Beekeeper and look at the videos at the Backwards Beekeepers.

Are you part of a natural, no-treatment beekeeping group? Or is your local beekeeping club open to alternative methods? If so, leave a comment . . .

Bee Fever in Los Angeles

honey love photo

Photo: Honey Love.

This week’s LA Weekly has an article, “Could LA Become a Honeybee Mecca” detailing efforts by two groups, Honey Love and the Backwards Beekeepers, to legalize beekeeping in Los Angeles. The process, while slow, looks promising thanks to the hard work of Honey Love and sympathetic city councilman Bill Rosendahl.

The article also neatly sums up the radical “backwards” approach to beekeeping advocated by LA’s maverick urban beekeeper Kirk Anderson,

Anderson learned from apiarist Charles Martin Simon, who invented the concept of “beekeeping backwards.” Simon’s approach was stupidly simple: Give the bees a clean box, put them in it and leave them alone. If they get sick? Don’t medicate them. Let them die. Then get some more bees.

Amen. Selecting for strong bees is an approach that, in my opinion, holds the answers to colony collapse disorder.

I also like Anderson’s thoughts on mainstream beekeeper’s all consuming obsession with counting varoa mites. Anderson says, “To me it’d be like joining the Kennel Club and talking about my dog’s fleas.”

How to Make a Bee Skep

skep

I was in a local thrift store a few years ago when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted an intriguing object. It was a bee skep. Trying to keep clutter in our house to a minimum I considered not buying it. But I just couldn’t pass this one up. In my mind it goes into my pantheon of epic thrift store finds along with Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space and a classified 16mm film rocket test film from the 1950s.

Should you not be so fortunate as to find a skep in your local thrift store, Modern Farmer Magazine has a post on how you can build your own. Looks like a fun project.

How skeps are used
The following series of videos show how skeps are used. Part 6 documents the steps leading up to the honey harvest. It’s a labor intensive process. To get at the honeycomb, skeps are “bounced” over an empty skep to remove the bees. These bees are then combined with weaker hives and overwintered.

It’s easy to see, from the hard work and level of skill required, why the modern and much easier to manipulate Langstroth style hive boxes replaced the skep. And skeps are technically illegal in the US as state bee inspectors require hives with moveable frames that can be easily inspected.

There are some, however, who believe that skeps more closely resemble what honeybees choose to live in when left to their own devices, such as the cavities in old trees. We may see the revival of the skep . . .

Root Simple Media Frenzy: Bees, Chickens and Road Kill

kpfk

Rob McFarland of Honey Love on KPFK.

I was on KPFK this week along with Rob McFarland from HoneyLove (a great organization that is helping legalize beekeeping in Los Angeles among many other projects). We were on to talk about why bees are dying off in the Central Valley and about keeping chickens in the city. You can listen to the interview here. I really enjoyed being on this show–we all sat around talking for an hour after the taping.

I was also on an internet news show called The Point chatting about eating road kill (something I know nothing about) and Ed Begley Jr’s reality TV show (guess I burned that bridge). You can watch this show here.

How to Remove Bees From a Tree

bees in a tree

The Los Angeles Fire Department responds to the North Hollywood bee incident. Photo: LAFD.

First let’s cover how not to remove bees from a tree. My beekeeping mentor Kirk Anderson described an incident that took place this week in North Hollywood,

What happened was a HUMAN was cutting his tree down. It came down alright, with the bees that were in the tree. The bees didn’t expect or enjoy the trip to the ground. The home owner ran with the bees right after him. The bees found the neighbor’s dog and figured it was the dogs fault. The dog died of bee stings. The homeowner called 911 and the fire department came and foamed the bees. He then called a exterminator who sprayed the bees with some kind of poison. The exterminator told him he had to clean everything up because every bee with in 50 miles was coming to his backyard for breakfast in the morning. The homeowner caused this problem.

Kirk concludes by quoting George V. Higgins who said, “Life is hard. It’s harder when you are stupid.” Amen.

So how could this have been prevented?

  • Preventative tree maintenance. Hire an qualified arborist to keep your trees healthy.  A large cavity filled with bees is generally a sign of a diseased or damaged tree. The bees may be the least of your concerns. You could be looking at a large limb crashing down on your house. Judging from the news footage the tree the idiot homeowner decided to cut down himself appeared to have codominant stems. This probably caused a crack leading to disease which, in turn, led to a cavity to form. Perfect habitat for bees! This was entirely preventable with judicious pruning.
  • Leave the bees alone. If they are way up in the tree and not bothering anyone, take a chill pill.
  • Hire a beekeeper to remove the hive. What Kirk has done with tree hives is to come at night when all the bees are in their hive and wrap a screen around the entrance so they can’t get out. Next day he comes with a chainsaw and saws off the limb with the bees in it. Then he gives the log filled with bees away to someone who wants to put it in their garden.
  • Hire a beekeeper to do a “trap-out.” This is harder to do and takes at least six weeks. The beekeeper comes after dark and installs a one way exit for the bees. Next to the exit the beekeeper places a hive box with some brood comb (baby bees) in it. The worker bees leave but can’t get into their old home. They take up residence in the new box and make a new queen. If all goes well the beekeeper comes in six weeks and takes away the box. I took bees out of a kitchen vent this way and wrote about it in a blog post.
  • Know the difference between a swarm and a beehive. Swarms are how bees reproduce. Often they will land on a tree branch temporarily while they search for a permanent home (like a diseased tree). Swarms are usually harmless and will take off within a few days.
  • Lastly, if you enjoy poisoning and killing things, I suppose you can hire an exterminator. Just don’t try to do it yourself with a can of raid.

How To Capture a Bee Swarm With Kirk Anderson

Swarm season is here in Southern California and will arrive elsewhere in North America with the coming of spring. In this video, beekeeper Kirk Anderson shows you how to catch a swarm. It’s the best way, in my opinion, to get bees to start your own hive.

Why? Swarms, unlike packaged bees, are free. They are also local, meaning the bees know how to deal with your micro-climate. To capture a swarm you:

  • Spray the swarm with a mixture of white sugar and water–this keeps them busy cleaning themselves while you . . .
  • Knock them in a nuc box (a cardboard box that holds five frames–get one at your local beekeeping supply shop).
  • Take the nuc box home and let them settle in for a few weeks. Then you can transfer the frames to a permanent hive box.

That’s just about it. Bees tend not to be aggressive when they swarm (they have no honey to protect).

To see more how-to videos featuring Kirk visit the video page of the Backwards Beekeepers.

Picture Sundays: A Native Bee Hotel

Don’t know much about this native bee house other than that it’s near Paris.

For more info on native bee habitats, see our post from earlier this year.

Update: reader Drew left a comment to say that this habitat is in the Jardin des Plantas in Paris which is attached to the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (http://www.mnhn.fr/le-museum/).

Thanks to David Dalzel for the tip.

Radical Beekeeper Michael Thiele Ventures Into New Territory

Thiele with an unorthodox hive–picture from his website Gaia Bees.

One of the lectures I went to at the National Heirloom Exposition in Santa Rosa earlier this month has really stuck with me. It was a talk by radical biodynamic beekeeper Michael Thiele that, frankly, I walked into biased against. But by the conclusion I could tell that the whole audience, including myself, left deeply moved by what Thiele had to say.

The reason for my bias was that I was not too impressed with the two other biodynamic lectures I attended. One was just too pseudo-scientific even for my intuitively biased brain. The other lecturer, when asked why biodynamicists follow certain unusual practices such as burying dandelion flowers stuffed into the mesentery of a cow responded, “because Rudolf Steiner said so.”

Thiele was different. He is influenced by, what I believe to be, the true spirit of Steiner’s ideas rather than the dogma of his followers. Steiner, I think, would want us all to continue to use our sense of intuition rather than rely on what he said to do. Thiele balances what we know from science about bees with an intuitive relationship with bees as a whole, and complex, organism.

Continue reading…

What Do Microbes Have To Do With Homesteading?

So what are the activities that microbes make possible around the homestead? To name just four:

  • Fermentation
  • Beekeeping
  • Soil Fertility
  • Human beings

Pretty important stuff. In fact, new systems thinking, applied to our natural word, is demonstrating that things like human beings are really just symbiotic sacks of microbial life. An article in the Economist, “Microbes maketh man” discusses just how important microbes are to human health:

The traditional view is that a human body is a collection of 10 trillion cells which are themselves the products of 23,000 genes. If the revolutionaries are correct, these numbers radically underestimate the truth. For in the nooks and crannies of every human being, and especially in his or her guts, dwells the microbiome: 100 trillion bacteria of several hundred species bearing 3m non-human genes. The biological Robespierres believe these should count, too; that humans are not single organisms, but superorganisms made up of lots of smaller organisms working together.

Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has made the same argument about bees. Elaine Ingham has emphasized the importance of microbes in soil.

Mess with the complex interdependent relationships between microbes and people, soil etc. and you’re asking for trouble. This, for me, is the argument against things like GMOs, Miracle Grow or conventional chemical beekeeping. We don’t know enough, and probably never will know, how 100 trillion bacteria will react to our latest innovation. Best to be conservative when it comes to microbial life.

Looking forward to seeing more of this microbial paradigm shift in science.