What Happens When We Stop Observing?

You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t possibly live long enough to make them all yourself. — Samuel Levenson

Front Sign for The Dunoon Honey man

One of my recent experiences has been while beekeeping between Sydney and the PRI’s Zaytuna Farm, in The Channon. Over the last two years, I have learned a great deal from working and living in a Permaculture system but also from the endless advice from experienced beekeepers. One of the more experienced ones, Nevil Watts, lives just up the road from Zaytuna Farm in the township of Dunoon.

Just back in February, Nevil and I took a good deal of honey off the hives in order to have them lighter for transport. The honey was extracted and what was left on the bees would have sufficed until the move, as long as they were going to a good honey flow. When I didn’t make it back to move them, their stores dwindled. Between then and just the last week or so, they have been hammered with about six weeks of rain, which needless to say, didn’t help much.

Truck Loaded at the Channon

I returned last week only to find several of the hives had starved out, and the ones that didn’t were not at all happy about the mess I had put them in. I loaded them up and moved them all back to Sydney to keep a close eye on them and hopefully nurse them back to health. Their next location is a bit closer to Sydney and has budding Tallowood at the moment, among others, which should potentially give them a good boost of pollen to help get through winter.

What I mean by nursing back to health, is giving the bees a supplemental feed of sugar syrup to help them build up strength. The ABC & XYZ of Bee Culture mentions that two parts sugar and one part water is good for their stores during autumn or winter months and one to one is good for spring to stimulate the hive. It is a normal occurrence and possibly done each year to stimulate production. But, I could never imagine feeding bees sugar or anything artificial prior to this point, for any reason. By being able to observe and let the bees have enough stores, it avoids the need to feed artificially.

Whenever someone asks if I feed my bees sugar, it seems to me to be a complete taboo as far as honey production and beekeeping goes. I think that the idea of exploitative commercial beekeeping and industrial production of a natural element in the system, to the point where the system no longer resembles nature, cannot be justified as ethical. When I speak with commercial beekeepers and those that share the commercial mindset, it seems to them as completely normal to feed bees artificially.

Artificially Feeding the Bees Raw Sugar Syrup

But from this I have learned a valuable lesson, that an outward physical action, by observing, can be seen from two seemingly opposing perspectives — feeding the bees artificially for production or feeding the bees artificially for survival. And to me, this case seemed extremely urgent and even more justified for the survival of the remaining hives than just to get a greater and quicker yield of honey. Similarly, as people who live in an industrial society we may, at some point, have to compromise our values, such as what we choose to consume, in order to get through a situation that is not completely within our control.

The Bees back in Sydney

The flowering events in the area around Zaytuna Farm have been very beneficial for honey and pollen. They range from Tallowood to Macadamia, Bloodwood to annuals, perennials, Madera vine and even Privet. But without observation, thoughtful, ongoing maintenance and an awareness of the surrounding rhythms, the elements in the system suffer.

Honey Label for Zaytuna Farm Honey

The lesson ultimately, for me, was this: that we must never lose hold of our observation. Whether of plants or animals, what we need to do is have a continuum of experiential data and mental notes that we are interacting with. For me to live in Sydney and keep bees 700km away was not only impractical, but also detrimental to the health and prosperity of natural elements within the system. It also was making it quite difficult to observe any of those elements. Animal systems are a bit more dynamic, I would imagine, and require more short-interval system maintenance than say, a food forest. But the results seem to be directly related to the consistency, length and depth of one’s observation of that system.

Over time, we are given many lessons. I hope that we as people are able to stop and reflect along the way, as these lessons are invaluable to our growth and interaction with the world around us.