Just Thinking Out Loud: Why It’s So Hard to Save the World

Save the world logo

About a year ago, our local bee club hosted a fundraiser at the local movie theater. They showed More Than Honey, an excellent documentary about honey bees and and their worldwide population decline. After the film, there was a short Q&A with some local beekeepers. A woman in the back stood up and asked about honey production. She identified as a vegetarian and said that based on what she saw in the film, she was going to stop eating honey. She wanted to know if that was what honey extraction really looked like and whether or not it hurt the bees to take their honey.

If you haven’t seen the film, there is a part that, as a bee-lover, is kind of hard to watch. It shows a commercial honey farm extracting honey in a very systematic, very insensitive manner. The workers are yanking frames out of the hives, slamming them into huge extractors. It shows bees getting smooshed and hives being ripped apart. The woman likened it to something out of the upsetting documentary Food Inc. I had to agree with her and was disappointed when the guest speaker did not assure her that that is not how most small-scale honey farmers process honey.  He did say that the farm featured in the film has changed their practices, but she did not seem satisfied by his answer.

As we were leaving the theater, I made a point to end up near her as we were exiting. I mentioned to her that if she wants to eat honey, the key is to find a good, local beekeeper and ask them about their hives: how many do they raise, why do they raise bees, how many pounds of honey do they extract, etc.  She was very fired up and proceeded to lecture me about how humans were stealing from the bees and probably the reason bees were dying is because humans were eating all of their food. Ok. This is just plain not true, but there were so many misunderstandings and I had such a short time to correct them! She proceeded to explain that she cares so much for animals, she only drinks almond milk instead of dairy, doesn’t eat meat, etc, etc. The conversation was nearly over when she said, “I mean, I won’t even kill a fly. The only insect I will kill is a mosquito. I hate those things.” Now, I admit, I was a little fired up because she had equated beekeepers to factory farmers, so I said, “Well, bats and swallows would probably be upset to hear that, since they eat mosquitoes.” I thought I was pretty smart, but she didn’t seem to care at all about the plight of bats and swallows.

On the drive home my husband was lucky enough to witness my diatribe. Here’s a woman who is acting with only good intentions. She has strong feelings about animal rights and, therefore, is living her life accordingly. In her choice to only drink almond milk, she is sending a message to the dairy industry. However, as a beekeeper, I have a real problem with the almond industry. And this, my friends, is why it is so stinkin’ hard to change the world.

In 2013, 940,000 acres of California’s land area was taken up by almond fields. In fact, California holds over 82% of the world market of almonds. These trees grow in fields completely barren of other vegetation. Each February over a million beehives are trucked to California to pollinate these trees because without bees, there would be no almonds. In order to ensure a single bee visits several trees (a necessity for pollination – the pollen from one flower won’t set fruit on the flower from the same tree), the growers must flood the landscape with bees. We’re talking between 2-3 hives per acre. I’ll do the math for you, that’s 1,880,000 – 2,820,000 beehives in one place at one time. Because per hive prices are on the increase, almond producers have become picky about only paying for strong hives (8 full frames or more), so the number of honeybees that get trucked to California each year is around 1.7 million. That’s about 85% of available commercial honeybees. (You can see a list of keepers and brokers HERE.)

California almond fields

California almond fields

So I look at that woman who will only drink almond milk and I think about the impact that industry has on the honeybee population in this country. I think about the fossil fuel used to drive the hives around. I think about danger of placing 85% of our pollinators at the same place at the same time. I think about how much water is necessary to irrigate fields of this magnitude.

Likewise, I have friends who worry about peak oil and climate change and fight hard for alternative energy solutions, such as ethanol. As a beekeeper, I know that ethanol means the growing of more corn. I know that in this country, it is nearly impossible to buy corn seed that is not coated in a neonicotinoid class of pesticides that will inevitably end up in the soil. I know that wind pollinates corn, but that bees frequently visit corn for the pollen found in the tassles. I know that when farmers plant corn in large-scale operations, they shoot the seeds into the soil and the dust (which carries with it pesticide residue) often settles on the edges of fields, in puddles and on dandelion heads. Bees visit these places. It’s getting harder and harder to deny that pesticides are waging a devastating war on the honeybees in this country.

My point in this post is not to criticize people who have agendas other than honeybees. In fact, we need a variety of people to fight for a variety of causes to ensure that each gets the attention it deserves, but my time with honeybees has forced me to ask some questions about priorities and also to really internalize just how damn hard it is to change things. After all, what benefits one organism, may be to the detriment of another.

It is very Orwellian to think about when you step back and consider how our food supply is generated. How it should work is a farmer should plant a seed (let’s take apples, for example), that seed would grow into a tree and that tree forms flowers. That flowers are then pollinated either by wind or insect (insect, in the case of apples). It’s pretty problematic that our crops are not producing because we don’t have the insects to do it. When I plant my garden I take for granted that the tomato plants will grow fruit and the squash plants will produce squash. I worry about tempurature, soil quality, and rain. I never worry that there are enough pollinators (not just honeybees) to pollinate my plants. But increasingly, this is something we should be worrying about.

Without a significant honey bee population, growers in China have taken to pollinating by hand.

Without a significant honey bee population, growers in China have taken to pollinating by hand. Source

The reality is, we are only one step away from having to pollinate our food by hand or machine. Trucking millions of hives of honeybees around the country to pollinate our fields is simply NOT NATURAL. Here’s the pollination schedule:

I don’t have a solution and I certainly don’t think anyone should stop fighting for whatever cause inspires him or her to act.  I simply wanted to contemplate how complicated this world is. It seems as if your fight to save one piece comes at the expense of something else. That’s depressing, I know, and so I’d leave you simply with the challenge to go out and do something for the good of the planet. Don’t just post on Facebook, actually DO something. Because really, as individuals, that’s all we can do.

I tell myself that keeping bees, living simply and naturally, and buying locally help, but sometimes it feels like those things are only a minuscule dent in an enormous problem.

But don’t you get stung a lot?

Beekeeping Stings

When people find out I keep bees their first question is usually, “Why?” and a close second is, “Do you get stung a lot?” Basically, the answer is no. No, I don’t get stung a lot… or ever, really.  However, I do want to tell you about the few times I or my husband have been stung because I think you’ll notice a trend:

1. The very first day we brought our first nuc home, we suited up and installed them just as we had seen done on YouTube.  We got inside, peeled off our layers of bee suits and realized we forgot to put the jar of sugar water in.  Now, I’m feeling pretty confident. Heck, I just installed a package of tens of thousands of bees, right? So I put my hood on (but not the entire suit) and went out to put the sugar water in. I opened the lid and used my hive brush to gently brush the bees off the tops of the frames, so I could set the jar down. I didn’t use any smoke and, let’s be honest, what could be more invasive or threatening to a species of any kind than sweeping them along with a giant, yellow brush? I got stung right on the leg. It was just a pinch. It didn’t swell or anything, so it was no big deal and, thankfully, did not deter me from beekeeping.

2. Once my husband was mowing a few feet in front of the hive and a bee accidentally flew into his eyebrow/eyelid. He swatted at it out of instinct and – BAM – a sting in the eyebrow. This did swell and was quite uncomfortable for the next 24 hours, as you can imagine.

3. Another time, we were out working the hives and a bee started to crawl down my husband’s boot (note to self: pull pants down over your boots). He was holding the smoker, so he swiped a waft of smoke towards the bee, which caused the bee to hurriedly head down into his boot. Makes sense because the reason we smoke the hive before working it is to send the bees into the hive. So, duh, the bee headed to a safer place – the darkness of his boot! In an attempt to get his boot off, he squished her and she stung him.

4. Very recently I was showing the hives to a friend who was over for a gathering. I intended to just open the top cover so he could peek in. Neither of us were wearing any protective clothing and I went to our most docile hive. The cover stuck, so I bumped it with the butt of my hand to loosen it. We peaked in and as I was lowering the cover back down, I got stung just above my knuckle. Now THAT sting bothered me for a couple days. It was swollen for 24 hours and then itchy on and off for several days after.

5. Lastly, and very recently, we were working the hives and my husband got stung through his bee suit. The suit was kind of snug against his arm and while we were working, someone stung him – right through the fabric!

I offer these examples to make one important point: only one of these stings was just a plain “got-stung-while-beekeeping” sting. Three of them were idiocy on our parts. The only two times I have been stung, were times when I was not respecting the bees and their colony.

My husband only wears a jacket and veil these days. He only occasionally wears gloves. I still wear a suit, jacket, veil, and gloves because that’s how I feel most comfortable. You can’t swat when you’re in there and you need to stay calm. I know that I am the most calm when I work the bees this way. My husband tells me that working without gloves means ignoring the tickling of bees crawling across your hands while you’re working or feeling the vibration of the buzzing if one gets between your fingers. Totally cool, but not a point I’m at yet.  My advice to new beekeepers is to learn about bees and what makes them sting and then do whatever you can to follow the bees’ rules. After all, you are the one invading their home. Sure you use that smoke to calm them down, but you’re opening an otherwise pitch dark hive, you’re pulling frames of precious brood and honey out of the hive, examining them in the sunlight, and sometimes, no matter how careful you are, you squish a bee while moving frames or putting the lid on. It’s a wonder we haven’t been stung more often.

Here are some facts about honey bees to help you make educated choices about how you work the hive:

– Only female worker bees can sting. Drones cannot sting.

– When honey bees sting mammals, they die. Honey bees can sting other insects (like other bees) repeatedly without dying, however. They die because their stingers are barbed, so when they try to pull out, their lower abdomen is torn apart.

from PBS.org

from PBS.org

– Bees sting when they perceive a threat. After the sting, a pheromone is released that tells other bees to follow suit. Therefore, if you are near a hive and get stung, you can smoke the area or calmly move away until they settle down.

– Queens can sting repeatedly without dying, but rarely do (well, they sting and kill rival queens)

– When bees swarm, they are unlikely to sting because they need to conserve their energy until they find a new home.

– As a beekeeper, you can avoid being stung by wearing protective clothing (of course), learning how to properly use a smoker to manage the hive, minimizing disruption to the hive when you’re working it, and avoiding swatting and sporadic movements.

– Recently another beekeeper told me clove oil (applied to the hands) helps keep the bees calm while you are working them. I’m completely intrigued by this, but haven’t had a chance to try it out!

If You Get Stung…

If this happens while you are working a hive or have any frames out of the hive, etc, you’ll need to smoke the area, and remain calm. If the sting causes you to have to leave the apiary, calmly replace hive components and then walk out slowly (obviously if it’s an emergency, just get out!). Make sure no bees have hitched a ride on your jacket. I have found they only do this when they are annoyed with me or someone has already stung me and those pheromones are flowing.

You want to make sure to remove the stinger as soon as you can. Removing this will help reduce the amount of venom in your body. Wash the area with soap and water. Bees are actually quite dirty and it’s always important to wash a sting thoroughly with soap. You can use a topical ointment (there are many over the counter bite treatments) or try a natural remedy. I usually ice the area to prevent swelling and I might take an anti-inflammatory (like ibuprofen) if it’s really sore.

I guess, in the end, you have to just accept the likelihood of stings if you are going to be a beekeeper. A honey bee sting is certainly much tamer than that of a wasp or hornet. If you learn to respect your hives and dress appropriately, you can probably keep bees and suffer very few stings over the course of your beekeeping career.

happy-beekeeping

Next Generation Beekeeper

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Last Saturday we finally picked up our packages!  Just look at all the glorious bees!

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We only purchased four packages, so don’t get crazy!  It was cool to bring the boys because there were bees flying EVERYWHERE and I was so proud of how calm the boys stayed. Nolan (almost 2) didn’t have a clue what was going on, but Dylan (almost 6) was totally into it. He reminded us (before we got out of the car), “Remember, no swatting at them” and he carefully tip-toed around the driveway so as not to step on any.  It just melts my heart to know that all my  brainwashing teaching has been put to good use!

In the spring we bought Dylan is his first bee suit and he has been SO excited to use it.  I wasn’t sure how he’d do once he was actually in the midst of bees, but he handled it like a pro! He was so calm and didn’t seem concerned at all. Later he said, “I was a little scared, but I didn’t scream or run.” Ha!  So I would normally post some pictures of our package install, and I am still going to, but these all include the little one.  Give a mom a moment here!

dylan beekeeper collage

Inspecting the queen, “Is the candy bubblegum flavored?”

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He even wanted to help with the actually “dumping of the bees”:

A job well done…

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Closing it up…

Dylan the Beekeeper Collage 2

Inspecting his work…

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Breeding Better Bees

Below is my latest post to the Kalamazoo Bee Club blog. It’s a rework of a topic I wrote about previously:

Breeding Better Bees

Of all the things potentially killing honeybees (pesticides, poor nutrition, colony collapse), disease is one of the areas where the individual beekeeper may have some impact. Most commonly, hives are plagued with varroa mites. Varroa mites are external parasites that attack both adult honeybees and brood. They attach and suck the blood of the bee. In cases of brood infestation, bees often hatch with deformities and/or weaknesses. Left untreated, mites can ultimately kill a colony.  I recently watched a video on youtube and the man said, “Are you in denial about your mite problem? Repeat after me: I HAVE A MITE PROBLEM.” If you aren’t sure if you have mites in your bee yard, you probably do.  I think they are more responsible for weakened colonies than we perhaps give them credit for.

varroa

There are various treatments (both chemical-laden and natural) and many, many opinions about the treatment of varroa mites. Dr. Marla Spivak has been one of the more outspoken members of the beekeeping community who has suggested that constantly treating for mites is basically just propping up weak bees. She and her team have been working to breed mite-resistant bees since 1994. And, simply speaking, this sounds like the best solution (in my opinion), but also the most difficult. I’m encouraged by some of the work researchers are doing around the country, but as a backyard beekeeper, I need to help my colonies now. Improving the genetics of any living thing requires several generations as well as access and a bit of know-how.

This raises an interesting philosophical question about beekeeping, however. How long are we going to play the game of, what Meghan Milbrath calls, “annual beekeeping”? Every time we lose a colony in the winter and replace it with packages in the spring, we are not doing anything to help the honeybee species as a whole. Beekeepers need to start making purposeful queen selections, whenever possible. Again, easier said than done, I realize.  One idea to consider is to requeen your packages with local queens – survivor stock being ideal, of course.

Another possibility is getting in touch with some of the universities who are breeding hygienic bees and see if they have queens for sale. Case in point, I signed up to be a part of the Michigan Pollinator Initiative through Michigan State University and Northern Bee Network.  Last week I received an email from Dr. Meghan Milbrath explaining that Purdue University has been breeding what they call ankle-biter bees. These highly-hygienic bees actually bite the legs off the mites.  They are selling queens for $150 each, provided you are willing to make upwards of 100 queens to sell or give away, so as to introduce these new traits into the local population.  I find this kind of work fascinating.

There are many books, classes, and youtube videos about queen-rearing and many beekeepers who would probably be happy to show you their system (you can find many of these resources on this website, in fact). I think those of us committed to beekeeping for the long-haul need to stop propping up weak colonies and start breeding for strength. My piece of advice to you would be, don’t be afraid to fail. Do your research and give it a try. It’s time for backyard keepers to start contributing to the problem of bee deaths as well as the university researchers.

Certainly solving the varroa mite problem will not solve all of our beekeeping-woes, but it will certainly help the bees immensely if they are not fighting environmental obstacles, while also suffering from problems within the hive.

Here are some resources to check out:

Queen-Rearing Essentials by Larry Conner (a great book to get you started)

Backyard Queen Rearing with Larry Conner – an extremely thorough video about queen-rearing on a small scale.

New Direction for the Minnesota Hygienic Line of Bees – an overview of Marla Spivak’s work

An overview of Dr. Greg Hunt’s work with ankle-biter bees (includes a video of a lecture he gave about the bees and his process)

Northern Bee Network – a link to the NBN in case you are interested in contacting Meghan Milbrath for more information about the purchase of ankle-biter queens.

happy beekeeping

What’s a girl to do with no bees to care for?

We are anxiously awaiting the arrival of our packages. We ordered 4 from Georgia and they were due to arrive April 29th. Apparently there was a transportation problem and now they won’t be here until May 16. I’m going crazy over here!

I’m teaching a class at the local community ed entitled “Intro to Beekeeping,” so I’m hoping people actually sign up for it! The first “class” is really more of a workshop. It will be 3 hours long. Two of those hours will be in the classroom and the last hour will actually be at my house, watching me work a hive. The intent was this class was just to provide a really basic overview. So this class might appeal to people who don’t even want to keep bees, but are just interested in learning more.  Then, this fall, we’re going to run a 6 week “Getting Started in Beekeeping” that will offer more specifics for people who are ready to really get going.  Anyway, fingers crossed that people sign-up!

In the meantime, please enjoy this video of our President reading “Where the Wild Things Are” to a group of children, who are then visited by a bee. My favorite part is when he says, in his soothing-Obama-voice, “bees are good.”

Thinking Ahead…

thinking ahead

When my husband and I were first interested in beekeeping, we went to a “Beekeeping for Beginners” workshop.  It was a couple hours long and so incredibly overwhelming. I remember being frustrasted whenever anyone asked a question, no one would EVER give a straight answer. You’d get answers like, “Well, there are a couple ways you could do it…” or “Just because I do it this way, doesn’t mean it’s right.” As a newbie, I just wanted one person to tell me ONE way to do things. I could figure out all these supposed “other” ways later.  However, now I understand. It’s not an exact science because every hive and season are different. What works for one hive one year might not work on a different hive even in the same year.  And now I’ve become that person who can’t give a short answer about anything bee-related!

So I was going to give you a little glimpse into this by just summarizing our plans for our hives this year. I thought I’d run through what our plans were to begin with and how they have already changed. I’m sure what we plan to do now, will not even be what we eventually do. So I offer this, not to confuse you, but you shed some light on why I can never answer any questions directly and why I can never give a short answer!

After attending Megan Milbrath’s workshop at the MI Beekeeper’s Conference earlier in the month, I was sold on this idea of splitting hives into many nucs and then overwintering a dozen or so small ones and only a few full hives. This seems to be gaining popularity in parts of Canada and New England. The benefit? If the average hive loss is 30% (higher for us) then you’re simply spreading your eggs among many baskets, so to speak. Let’s say I go into winter with 3 hives and I lose one (30% loss). I have two remaining. But if I split two of those three hives into 2 nucs each, I could go into winter with one hive and four nucs. Let’s say I lose two (a little higher than our 30% average), I’m still left with 3 hives ready to go in the spring. The downside? A nuc is not a full hive. A nuc is only about 5 frames, so you have to feed them all winter and also keep them warm-ish as they aren’t big enough to really form much of a cluster. So keeping them alive might be easier said than done.

Here are some nucs being overwintered by Crystal Bee Supply in Peabody, MA

Here are some nucs being overwintered by Crystal Bee Supply in Peabody, MA

This brings us to step #2: A bee house. My husband has been doing a lot of research about European bee houses. These are sheds, basically, where people store their hives in the winter. The hive entrance obviously faces outside, so the bees can leave for cleansing flights. We’d really just be stacking nucs together and keeping them out of the wind – no heaters or anything like that. Although, I did have the genius idea of combining it with the chicken coop so that the bees could benefit from the small amount of heat the birds give off.

Here's a huge beehouse from Honey Shop in the UK.

Here’s a huge bee house from Honey Shop in the UK.

But then….

We spoke with some seasoned beekeepers about this over-wintering-nuc plan and one thing that occurred to me is that it might keep bees alive through the winter, but it does nothing in the way of breeding hardier bees. We would be feeding and keeping them warm, this will not necessarily produce winter-hardy bees.

Another issue to consider is the temperature, moisture, and circulation within a bee house. We were envisioning something more along the lines of a lean-to, but we’d have to be careful that it doesn’t get too warm, things stay dry, and there is adequate airflow.

On top of everything, what if this summer is unseasonably hot? wet? dry? cool? Or what if next winter is unseasonably mild? cold? windy? You get the idea.

So it’s not a science.

Here are some things we know for sure.

  • We ordered 4 packages of bees from the south.
  • We’re hoping to be able to split each package at least once. If they all thrive, this would mean we’d go into the winter with 8 hives.
  • We’re hoping to requeen this summer. From a statistical standpoint, nucs with local queens who have survived one winter have the best chance to survive again. Packages that have been requeened with queens from survivor stock have the next best chance of survival and just straight-up packages have the least likelihood. So we’re going to spend the early part of the summer learning about queen rearing and obtain some local queens.
  • We are both still really interested in the idea of a bee house, so assuming we do end the summer with 8 hives, we’ll probably experiment with 2-3 of them. We are moving and rebuilding our chicken coop anyway, so adding a lean-to on the side would not be a huge problem.

We pick up the packages May 9th, so we’ll just have to see where the bees take us!

Beekeepers

Raising Beekeepers

raising keepers

I have two sons and it’s important to me to raise beekeepers. I mean this both literally and figuratively. Sure I’d love for the boys to grow up learning about and loving honey bees the way their father and I do, but more importantly, I’m interested in beekeepers of the figurative variety.

dylan collage

In the years I’ve kept bees I’ve learned (or am still learning about) so many different aspects of nature and this love of and respect for the natural world is really what I hope to pass on to my sons, through their beekeeping experiences. Here are a few things I’ve come to learn or appreciate about nature, that I hope my kids understand as well…

  • dylan bee suitThe life cycle: When I go out to inspect the hives, I’m looking for the queen, or evidence that she’s alive and well. I’m looking for brood, drones, pollen, nectar, honey. As a result, I’ve seen all the stages of a bee’s life cycle and I’ve grown to appreciate how fragile it is. Watching a new bee emerge from a cell and take its first flight is awe-inspiring and cleaning up a hive filled with tens of thousands of dead bees is equally as impactful. It is, perhaps, because I’ve seen the beginning of life, that I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the loss of life.
  • The complexity of systems: Another reason why the loss of a hive is so upsetting is because I’ve learned so much about how complex the beehive system is. This is one area where I’m still learning (and always will be, I imagine). Their organization, their communication, the work they do, everything about the world inside a hive is truly fascinating. A beehive serves as just a sliver of the complexity that makes up our own natural world and I hope my boys grow to understand that even minor disruptions can have real and lasting impacts. (If you don’t believe this, consider the varroa mite.) Additionally, I hope my boys grow to understand the reality that we as individuals are just tiny specks in this giant universe, but we as humankind can have great impact (for better or for worse).
  • The weather: Now that I’m a beekeeper I’m hyper aware of the weather at all times. I spend all spring scanning the ground for the first dandelion. I watch weather forecasts with a new sense of suspense. During the summer I know if we’re overdue for rain or if it’s unusually hot because I’m always viewing the weather through the lense of “how will this affect the bees?” I know many people that are aware of the weather in this moment, but don’t notice or keep track of trends. Maybe this doesn’t matter, but it does make me less upset when a beach day is rained out if I know we desperately need the rain.
  • Nature’s beauty: Now I realize this is a subjective topic when we’re talking about bees. I happen to find the honey bee incredibly beautiful (even more so now that I’ve taken a microscope class in bee biology) and I find honeycombs to be really cool too, but I realize not everyone has the same standard of beauty. However, I do hope I raise kids who are able to slow down and appreciate the beauty all around them.

In a more general sense, I’m hoping my boys grow up to appreciate nature and also respect it. I’m hoping that looking at the world through a beekeeper’s eyes will help them to do that. They might not want to carry on the family smoker (see what I did there?), but if they can at least understand that we are all interconnected and that we, as humans, play a crucial role on this earth, then I guess I’ve done an okay job. So I’m not saying everyone must go out and become a beekeeper (tho that would be awesome, too!), but I am suggesting finding some aspect of nature to submerse yourself in, at least every now and then: gardening, nature walks, camping, bike rides, anything that gets you outside, breathing fresh air!

bee collage