How to Revive the Honeybee

I recently saw a new film, Queen Of The Sun: What are the bees telling us?, about the global honeybee crisis and colony collapse disorder. From a holistic perspective the movie tells a story of transformation of beekeeping and the relationship of humans and bees to explore what is really going on. Once there were times when honey was so appreciated it could not be sold but only given away, yet now we have moved into an era of ruthless one sided exploitation in the search of economical profits, both in beekeeping as well as the agricultural and land use practices surrounding it. As most of us are aware, we have now come to face the consequences of this transformation. Queen of the Sun is a fascinating prelude to rediscovering the synergistic relationship between humans and bees, and is complemented on a practical level by natural beekeeping. Bee guardianship, a natural beekeeping approach taught by Corwin Bell from Boulder, Colorado, encourages and appreciates the beeness of bees and helps to nurture their currently delicate existence by integrating top bar hives into our own backyards, gardens and farms. I think permaculturists could do a lot of good by linking up with these people.

The colony collapse disorder

In 1923 Rudolf Steiner predicted that, if the mechanized and industrialized beekeeping that was already well on its way in his days continued, in 80 to 100 years the bees would disappear. If you do the math, the "sudden" colony collapse disorder gets some perspective in light of this prediction. The practices mentioned include agroindustrial breeding that flattens the bees genetics, malnourishing feeding with sugar and high fructose corn syrup, and loss of habitat to endless monoculture fields sprayed with toxic chemicals. Even the crops suitable for bees, such as fruit and almond orchards, are only able to provide them nutrition for a marginal few weeks in a year if these orchards sprawl for hundreds of thousands of acres without diversity of plants to supply them with nectar throughout the rest of the growing season. Bees are extremely sensitive to chemical residues, and even traces of the new neonicotinoid pesticides — banned in many countries, including the home country of the company making them — can have serious effects on them. Some research even indicates that a bee contaminated with toxic chemicals would rather fly out to die than deliver her poisonous load of nectar and pollen to the hive. The bees are wise, and they’ve been here for a 140 million years — a lot longer than us and our agricultural science.

We should also remember that one reason why we are so dependent on bees for pollination and food security is that the other 4000 species of pollinators there are have also radically diminished by the monocultures that have devoured their original diverse natural habitats and the traditional hedgerows dividing fields.

Breeding healthy bees

One of Steiner’s concerns on beekeeping was the artificial breeding and queen production practices adopted by beekeepers with the industrial mindset. In a natural setting, on her first week a new queen takes off on her mating flight and finds her way to a "drone zone" where a crowd of male bees hang out. She mates with up to a dozen drones, thus collecting a diverse mixture of traits and local genetics to pass on to her next generation. As described by Corwin Bell, the genetics of each drone is like a key on a piano, and together with a combination of those traits and skills the queen can create a beautiful symphony of a functional new bee colony. With the local drones also comes the encyclopedia of the local area encoded in their genes, including information about the medicinal plants, length of seasons and so on. This encyclopedia is referred to in many occasions, including when the bees decide to start preparing for the winter instead of building more brood. For example Californian bee packages shipped high up on Colorado Rockies simply don’t know that over there the winter arrives earlier and are therefore more prone to become surprised by the cold unprepared. That makes their wintering less successful and the colony more prone to fail. When, as is the industrial practice, a queen is artificially inseminated with only one drone and thrown into an unknown colony in a cage, and all her offspring are the same, then over generations of this kind of treatment the bees become genetically blunt. Bees like that are less likely to make a functional colony out there and more likely to fail. Appreciating and nurturing the local, wild and diverse bee genetics of your area is a key factor of keeping the bees’ vitality up and running. By multiplying by themselves they have proved to be fit for the climate and have a balanced spectrum of traits needed for the colony to thrive.

Back Yard Hives reviving the honeybee

Like with farming and gardening, there are ways of keeping bees in a natural way as well, nurturing them and reweaving the relationship of synergy and companionship without chemicals. In May I was introduced to bee guardianship, a natural beekeeping approach taught by Corwin Bell. Watching and listening to Corwin and his assistant Claire handle the bees with such a gentle peaceful ease and listening to Corwin untangle the current problems piece by piece made me feel a similar kind of relief and inspiration as with my PDC with Geoff Lawton few years ago. There certainly is a way out of the crisis caused by people’s greed and thoughtless practices, and that it is a beautiful path, surprisingly easy to take by anyone, and very unlike the warfare-like attempts to control the superficial symptoms we’ve seen so far.

Bee guardian Corwin Bell with a top bar hive. Notice the window that
gives an easy peek at the bees without disturbing them

The bee guardian approach is a model of a network of backyard beekeepers committed to supporting the welfare of the honeybees, working with them as a living system. The bees are integrated back into our lives and environments and provided with a supportive, chemical free surroundings to live in. Bee guardians also establish networks for catching wild swarms and passing them on for people wanting to start their own back yard hive, so if you feel like having a bunch of honey producing protegés, you can look to see if there are any in your area. Catching and finding homes for feral swarms is valuable work because exterminating wild bees is another threat to good bee genetics and native bee breeds.

Housing for bees is arranged in top bar hives where the brood nest is not separated from the honey storage and where the bees build their combs hanging from, well, top bars instead of a frame. The surplus honey is harvested often in the spring time, which makes sure the bees have what they need for themselves, or one comb at a time during the peak flow of the nectar season in the summer. Other yields of the hive include medicinal propolis, "bee bread" made of fermented pollen and nectar and beeswax for candles, skin care products, etc.

An interesting thing I learned about using a smoker, a common beekeeping tool, was that it causes relatively long-lasting disturbance to the communication among the bees. The bees communicate with pheromones, delicate scents they produce. Smoking blurs this system for a couple of days every time it’s used and so makes the life in a compact social environment much more difficult. In order to maintain peaceful working conditions simply observing and respecting the mood of the hive is a good way of building trust and connection with them. Corwin’s advice was that on a bad day it’s better to just leave the hive be and come back another time.

Checking a top bar hive. Opening only one bar at a time is less aggravating for
the bees, and observing the mood in the hive enables
doing the work without smoking.

Supporting the bees in your area

There are many things that can be done for the honeybee even if you don’t feel like becoming a beekeeper yourself. In our own immediate surroundings a lot can be done to help our hard working friends thrive. Filling free niches in your garden and lawn with flowers and herbs, and looking at some "weeds" through the eyes of a honeybee will provide bees in the neighborhood with precious forage. One of the recommended examples is dandelions which provide nutritious early spring pollen for feeding the young worker brood, which later in the season will become the work force for collecting the first large nectar flow.

Bees also need water to drink, so you can set up a little basin with stones in it to help them to have a refreshing sip on a break. Urban and suburban areas have a lot of potential for beekeeping, and your plants might be supporting an unknown rooftop beekeeper next door. A farmer too can provide much needed bee habitat in rural areas for foraging bees by establishing hedges with flowering plants or building into the landscape a mosaic of meadows, diverse pastures and other insect friendly and nectar-abundant islands. And don’t forget that bees are happy to do you a favor as well, and pollinate your edible crops!

Also the invisible structures of the bee world need support. If you find a swarm, find a bee guardian to pick it up and provide the bees a new home. Buy your honey raw from a local chemical-free beekeeper as an investment in your health, the health of the bees, and positive change. In many countries the neonicotinoid pesticides are still allowed, so you can contact your decision-makers and voice out the concerns related to those chemicals. For anyone I’d recommend watching Queen of the Sun and visiting the website for tons of useful and inspiring information.