From the Beekeeper's Desk

Varroa Mite on Honey Bee
Varroa mite on a honey bee.

Beekeeping is like any faction of agriculture. Just as there are a hundred ways to grow carrots, there are hundreds of ways to keep bees, given the available components and philosophies. With this in mind, there is a surprising phenomenon beekeepers encounter early on when they become new beekeepers which is extreme prejudice, peer pressure, and mockery if they choose a path other than using commercial-type Langstroth hives and treatments. To explain this further, I need to take a side-step and head down a small, well-worn rabbit hole...

Commercial beekeepers are in a supremely difficult position. A great example of the epic issues with monoculture are exemplified in the over 800,000 acres of almond trees in California. It's only a small exaggeration to say that almost all of the managed beehives in the U.S. are trucked out to the almonds to pollinate them each year in February. The reason bees cannot be kept in the almonds year-round is alarmingly simple: nothing else is planted. There would be nothing else for bees to eat or forage upon during the rest of the year and they would starve. Aside from almonds, the land is a desert.

Aside from the obvious problems with this example of monoculture, the greater issue for honeybees is that they are all trucked to this one area where they then share pests, diseases, and genetics before they are driven back to their home communities where they then share them there. While the many causes for Colony Collapse Disorder are still being identified, it cannot be ignored that CCD is an ongoing tragedy of shocking proportions. Commercial beekeepers need to feed their families and try and preserve their businesses. To attempt to keep their colonies alive, they have little other option than to medicate and treat their bees with chemicals at sometimes alarming rates. As food consumers, we depend upon their bees and as business owners, commercial beekeepers depend upon their bees.

In past years, we have met a handful of commercial beekeepers. I have yet to meet one that doesn't bemoan how they have to keep, and treat their bees, in attempts to keep the colonies thriving. Commercial beekeepers are in the difficult position of what they must do to try and save their livelihood, what industrial agriculture demands of them and their honeybees, and what they wish were the reality as beekeepers. The commercial beekeepers I have met wish they were in the position that I am, as a hobby beekeeper. I'm in a luxurious position in that I can develop my own philosophy by trial and error. I get to tow a hard line; I don't ever treat my bees, with anything... natural or not, I let my weak colonies die off and repopulate from my strongest, I have gotten my losses down to 15-20% over the last 6 years, my livelihood isn't being threatened from every angle by a witch's brew of pesticides, diseases, and industrial agriculture.

So it is odd then that when folks begin beekeeping now days, they should immediately run into an old-guard of side-line and hobby beekeepers, at community beekeeping groups and forums, that attempt to minimize and mock them if they are attempting to do things more naturally, and differently -- from choosing easier-to-use hive styles that give the bees an experience more like that they might have in nature, to not treating with chemical medications and miticides. We know that commercial beekeepers have little choice about the way they keep bees, but as side-line beekeepers, we are not constrained to box-type hive styles that need to be easily stacked and trucked around the country. If we lose our colonies, our families don't have to tighten their belts and change their lifestyle.

If commericial beekeepers are envious of the hobby and side-line beekeeper's many choices and available beekeeping philosophy decisions, why is this old guard so threatened? And more importantly, why are they attempting to qualify and judge someone else's interest in beekeeping? After all, aren't we all in it for the bees? And if what we have been doing the same way for the last hundred years is no longer working, isn't it time to change what we are doing? And quickly?

Here is an article about the almonds and bee losses from earlier this year:

Jill Reed
Jill Reed




March 17, 2014

there is one simple thing commercial keepers could do which they won’t and don’t and that is use natural queens instead of laboratory made ones. they have created a genetically inferior race with little genetic diversity engineered for many things but not survival. the vigor of the species is the keystone to the whole problem. they/we are ripe for pandemic population collapse—oh wait we already are experiencing this. they would be far better off using “survivor” queens of mixed races and letting the weak hives die off and the strong ones multiply. with stronger bees they could ween themselves off of pesticides and antibiotics and revers the negative feedback loop they are in. they are making stonger pests and weaker bees. weaker bees=more antibiotics and pesticide=weaker bees=more antibiotics. natural selection would have it as stronger bees=less antibiotics and pesticides=stronger bees and eventually no antibiotics or pesticides needed.

this attitude of “i wish i could, but can’t” sounds like an enabled drug addict, not responsible animal husbandry. maybe they can’t go 100% organic or make radical steps all at once, but they can make incremental steps in the right direction over time. do they need a 12 step program? seriously. i for one am tired of the whining and lack of action from the EPA, FDA, industrial beekeepers, environmentalist, politicians and everybody else involved. a lot of talking and studies but never any action.

there is no shortage of orchards needing pollination and not enough bees for the job? who has the power here? the keeper could force an industry change in regard to the types of pesticides and fungicides that are used and when. at a minimum they could force the orchard managers to open a safe window where no spraying is done to help keep it out of the hives. comply or you cannot use my bees. fact is that almond orchards are sprayed while the bees are onsite and flying. the excuse is they have to do it and it is too hard to do at night because the orchards are too big and the workers will get lost. wait two weeks or by a GPS and work at night. where there is a will there is a way. the problem is lack of will and an abundance of laziness. this model is unsustainable. in China they are now hand pollinating the orchards because the land is too toxic to support bees from overuse of pesticides. (in typical Chinese fashion the government university as officially declared that humans are more efficient so it is all good. what BS!) do we have to get to that point to make a change in our practices?

apparently it does not take a scientist to identify the problem with bees in the industrial word seeing as how the agroindustry’s scientists can’t figure out what the backyard keeper has—stop poisoning the bees and stop helping the weak ones breed.


February 03, 2014

I run a sideline queen rearing business. Like you I practice a lot of tough love to develop my stocks. I keep many kinds of hives as well. I love them all for different reasons (my favorite is a tbh I’ve made out of a wine barrel), but there are legal issues in my state and in most states with how we can keep bees. The law (if it is to be followed to the letter) requires that bees be kept in “movable frame hives”. That is open to some interpretation of course. But in all my non-Langstroth style hives I have to spend larger amounts of time making sure that my combs comply to this law of the land, to satisfy the local bee inspector. I’m sure the laws have good intentions, being able to inspect for diseases by the bee inspectors who may be investigating an outbreak in the area, quickly and sufficiently, is probably the most likely.

To do beekeeping at even a hobbyist or sideline level, one must still comply with the law. As much as I’d like to try a traditional Japanese box hive (no movable frames but bees build wherever and however they like) I risk not being able to keep bees at all if I try it.

In my state:
4-11-4. 1) (a) A person may not raise bees in this state without being registered with the department.
4-11-6. Hives to have removable frames…
(1) A person may not house or keep bees in a hive unless it is equipped with movable frames to all its parts so that access to the hive can be had without difficulty.

Even as a sideliner I need to manage my risks it would seem…

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