Are We Keeping Too Many Bees?

640px-Beehives_in_Mankato,_Minnesota

Image: Jonalthunder

Someday I’ll get around to writing a fill in the blanks form for journalists doing the inevitable urban homesteading backlash story. You know, “Folks are tired of all the chores and are dumping their [chickens/vegetables/bees] and returning to a life of [shopping/golfing/riding jet skis].” This month’s backlash story concerns urban beekeeping in London.

Reader Cassandra Silver (who has a really beautiful blog) alerted us to a bee story in the Independent, “How do-gooders threaten humble bee.” The gist of the article is that urban beekeepers in London have more hives than the nectar and pollen sources can support:

The London Beekeepers Association (LBKA) is warning that there could be “too many bees” in the Greater London area for the environment to sustain. One beehive needs 120kg of nectar and 20kg to 30kg of pollen a year to sustain its bees; honey production will decrease if there are not enough pollinator-friendly plants to meet demand.

I’m confused about the article and the quotes from the BLKA. Is the concern about the bees or about having less honey? Focusing on honey can indeed lead to bee overpopulation. Bee populations self-regulate. If there are not enough food sources colonies will die off.

That is, unless people are feeding bee colonies sugar to prop them up (and I assume they are because feeding bees is one of the many misguided bits of advice that mainstream beekeeping organizations promulgate). Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has many good reasons for not feeding bees except under certain limited circumstances. One of the unintended consequence of feeding bees is that you could easily contribute to an overpopulation problem. It would be better to let populations decline and stabilize, in my opinion.

One good thing that might come out of London’s alleged bee overpopulation problem, that the article points out, is that the situation might prompt people to plant more flowering plants. Public and private urban spaces all over the world would benefit from landscaping that takes pollinators into account. Such landscapes tend to be beautiful, nourishing both to the bees and the human soul.

On Monday, the African bee myth.

The Smell of Bees

545px-27-alimenti,_miele,_Taccuino_Sanitatis,_Casanatense_4182.

Image: Wikimedia.

A friend called me over to her house today after her gardeners complained about a beehive. We both marched around her yard peering at the eaves of her house. All we found were a handful of wasps.

Then I smelled it–that distinctive, slightly sweet but hard to describe smell that beehives put off. I looked up through a bougainvillea bush and found the hive–living in a garage wall next door to my friend’s house.

If you know what this smell is, please leave a comment as I’ve been unable to find a good answer. I’m guessing that it’s a mixture of many smells: fermenting honey, pollen, wax, propolis, pheromones, etc. And I’m sure that the bees can parse out these smells as easily as we skip around the internet. Micheal Thiele describes beehives as, “a giant nose.”

To us this hive smell is a complex mixture of smell notes, like a good bottle of wine. I have a feeling that to the bees it’s their internet: a complex network of information.

Radical Apiculturalist Michael Thiele

Micheal Thiele approaches a hive.

Micheal Thiele approaches a hive.

Could the huge loss of bees in recent years be because we treat them, like so may other farm animals, as cogs in a big industrial ag machine?  This is just one of the questions posed by apiculturalist (he rejects the term “beekeeper” – more on that below) Michael Thiele at a workshop Kelly and I attended which was sponsored by Honey Love.

The language of bees
Thiele began his lecture with a critique of the language we use for bees–first off the term “beekeeper.” “Keeping” bees suggests the constant interference bees get in our industrial system: being dosed with insecticides to treat mites, moving them thousands of miles a year, feeding them high fructose corn syrup, artificially breeding queens, etc. Thiele proposed the term “apiculture” as a word that suggests living with bees rather than keeping them. Feral honeybees as well as the bees of natural apiculturalists, after all, keep themselves and seem to be doing better without all the intervention.

The same goes for the word “worker.” Thiele suggested that when we use this kind of 19th century industrial language we’re thinking more of our own desires than the true nature and health of the bees.

The bien
Thiele wants us to think of a hive holistically, as a superorganism he calls (as did Rudolf Steiner) the bien. As Thiele puts it, the bien is “one being . . . permeated with life based on love.” In Thiele’s inclusive view the bien is much more than just a few thousand individual bees. The bien also includes all the symbiotic and parasitic relationships bees have with microorganisms, flowers, honey, gravity–even wax moth larvae and mites. When we take a whole systems approach, Thiele suggests, we’re more likely to admit our ignorance and approach the hive with humility. Thiele’s description of the bien reminded me of Martin Buber’s  I-Thou as opposed to I-It relationship, i.e. subject to subject rather than subject to object. In fact, several hundreds of years of materialism in the west has, sadly, degenerated most of our relationships into I-it relationships (think separateness and detachment).

Intuition
Due to the sheer complexity of the a hive, Thiele suggests our relationship with the bien should rely, for the most part, on intuition. When we deal with other humans–or a dog or a horse–we have a face to look at. With bees there is no face. Bees also have an otherness about them that makes a connection with them a very different experience than dealing with our fellow mammals. Unfortunately, the intuitive senses we need to relate to a bien that lacks a recognizable face have atrophied in our culture, another victim of I-it.

At the end of the workshop, when we visited some hives in a backyard in Santa Monica, we had a chance to see Thiele demonstrate his intuitive approach to bees. He approached the bees, without a veil, with a quiet reverence. Kneeling, he placed a hand on top of one of the boxes. A guard bee came out to fly around his face. Thiele told us what to do when this happens: relax and try to connect with the bien. After buzzing around for a minute or so, the guard bee left.

I’ve had three encounters with guard bees since I’ve seen Thiele demonstrate this. Two times I followed Thiele’s advice and the guard bee flew off. Once I did the opposite, freaked out and promptly got stung. It’s yet another of the odd metaphysical experiences I’ve had with bees. To the skeptics I’d suggest that this non-verbal communication is no different than what you’d do with a frightened horse: relax, try to establish a contact with the horse brain and you’ll be fine. Freak out, and things could go badly for both you and the horse.

A machine for living
Along with the industrial language that we use to describe bees, Thiele suggests that it’s well past time to rethink the industrial hardware we use to “keep” bees. The 19th century Langstroth hive still dominates, and this form of hive could be likened to a 19th century factory design: a honey factory. Thiele thinks that Langstroth hives are for our convenience rather than the health of the bees. Thiele says we need to look at how bees live in nature to find clues for the types of housing we should provide. Thiele has been experimenting for years with various designs, some as simple as just a hollowed out log, others more elaborate such as the sun hive, a beautiful woven object:

sun hive The sun hive has movable frames, a feature that is mandated by law in the US. Provocatively, Thiele noted the difference between a legal obligation and a moral obligation. In our hive designs we may have to transcend the law. And we’re also going to need to get creative. Thiele’s sun hive, by his own admission, is by no means the last word on the subject. Thiele hopes that we can begin the process of experimentation, always asking the bien what it wants rather than being focused on our own interests. I’ll take a look at some alternate hive designs in-depth in future blog posts.

The alchemy of bee-ing
As the late apiculturalist Charles Martin Simon said, “it’s not about the honey. It’s not about the money.” Focus on those two things and we’ll destroy ourselves along with the bees. Apiculture, according to Thiele is “an art of the soul.” Bees, he says, are messengers for different levels of consciousness. They link the realms of heaven and earth in their daily journeys. They may also be the key to integrating our disjointed souls.

To see more of Thiele’s work including some videos visit Gaia Bees.

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.