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).

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 hiveThe 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.

Leave a comment


  1. Fascinating. This is why i keep coming back here. I love this blog… actually everything on this site. A good place to come and re-balance. Now i need to start trying some of it out. I WILL make myself practical!.. but it could take some doing : )

    • I recall one thing Michael said about top bar hives. He said they were too shallow–especially as the the sides of the hive angle inward. You know how they form sort of V shape, with the lower part being more narrow than the top? (I’m not sure if all top bar hives do, but this is what he was talking about.)

      Well, he has studied the natural form of bee comb, the shape they make when they can do what they please, and it follows a specific curved shape — you can describe it as the shape that a necklace makes when its held between two level hands.

      He says bees really want to make this shape with their comb, and the geometry of the top bar box can make this hard. The angle of the sides of the box can conflict with the (theoretical)length and curve of their comb.

      Ah–here’s a shorter way to put it: It’s like forcing a U to fit inside a V.

  2. Thank you for introducing me to Thiele. I was helping a friend open her two hives, victims of robbing, and we were talking about how inappropriate the title of “Queen” is. She is from Germany and said the old German word is “die Weise” – the wise one but also the one who points.

    I love the composition of the picture, like an old-fashioned portrait. And the contrast between Thiele, “unprotected” and the space-suits. Very nice!

    • That’s very interesting term for the queen. Would be interesting to look at the language surrounding bees in other languages too, though it’s interesting that much of the innovation these days is coming from Germany (Thiele was born in Germany). Thanks for sharing.

    • I was corrected, its “die Weiser” with the r, which makes it more active. In Dutch (my language), “wijzer” means a pointer (as a noun) and the one with more wisdom. So all of the stuff I said in the superlative!

  3. Warning, this information may not be safe.

    Its not just bees. Last summer we had a wasp hive not far from the house, I never found where it was but the wasps visited the compost heaps, the fruit trees and our lunch table which, being a beautiful summer, was always outside. We also had WWOOFERS staying with us throughout, although they came and went, usually 3 weeks at a time.

    Often the wasps would settle on a sandwich or a glass on the table, sometimes a half-eaten piece of fruit. My instructions to the WWOOFERS and my own behaviour were not to be troubled by the wasps.

    If they were on a piece of food we were about to eat, just gently brush them off without attempting to hurt them or even to drive them away, merely to move them to a safe place while we ate or drank the food.

    In the course of 4 months we had only one WWOOFER who was stung, on the toe, and then only because I think he accidentally stood on a wasp in the lawn. Nobody else was troubled at all by them and we did not trouble them.

    I have heard of someone who had a wasps nest by his back door and the family cohabited safely with them, needing only to be sure the “introduced” new people by standing with them beside the nest so that the wasps “knew” that the new person was approved. Since wasps are very territorial, I’m assuming that once we have a nest in the locality we need only form a relationship with one family. Sincde they also prey on a range of pests that we prefer not to have in the garden, I think its a good deal.

    The whole thing was intuitive but it seemed to work. I intend to do the same again this summer. Anyone else with more experience of this process?

  4. Hi.
    (I’d turn to you for the most thoughtful, least self-centered, kindest, & wisest approach to anything. I can’t tell you how I appreciate your wide interests and all the thorough clarity with which you present them & the light touch with which you mull them over.
    Because this view of things did not settle for simplistic answers, I thought I’d seen the discussion on Root Simple. But now I’ve found it– (http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/how-dogooders-threaten-humble-bee-8229460.html)– and wonder what you make of it. Perhaps it hasn’t come up on the blog because it’s not a problem here. But it came to mind when I read this: http://la.curbed.com/archives/2013/10/why_isnt_backyard_beekeeping_legal_in_los_angeles_yet.php
    And because every time the culture belatedly addresses an issue after it has become critical, or tries to assuage some of the terrible damage humans have caused, I am filled with dread–anticipating some ghastly new form of trouble unleashed because of our inability to follow the complexity of the natural world.

    • Hi Cassandra. Thanks! We’ll do a post on this, because it’s a good question. My initial response, though, is that this sounds a lot like a people problem and not so much like a bee problem. And btw, I too have felt your dread!

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