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The Best Beekeeping Meeting I Ever Attended

Since the arrival of tracheal and varroa mites, beekeeping meetings have for the most part reflected the industry's depressed state of mind, and more recently they leave one with the overall impression of individuals or small groups of beleaguered soldiers, digging deeper and deeper into their foxholes-- terrified they will run out of ammunition to fight the array of imaginary (or at least microscopic) enemies proliferating all around them. Even when things threatened to move off in a hopeful direction-- towards using the organic acids for mite control, and then shifting the focus to bee-breeding-- the whole process has been commandeered by a bunch of elites who insist that progress must be as glacially slow as possible-- with the maximum amount of money and attention going to "research", and only tiny or non-existent relief going to beekeepers standing in their beeyards waiting, like a bunch of gerbils, for their next meal. The full restorative power of Nature is not allowed to operate, beekeepers are encouraged to follow instead of leading, and everybody suffers as a result.

Still, for people who love bees, and whose expectations are not too high, the meetings are always enlightening. Even the staunchest proponents of doom and gloom or the status quo are interesting to talk to informally; you always meet some great people; and you never know when a ray of hope or a good idea might pop up. I feel honored to be invited to some of these meetings-- especially when my views and experience contradict the gospel preached by those who often control the industry dialogue.

Now, I had been warned, but I was still not prepared for the difference in attitude and ambiance I would encounter at the 2nd Annual Treatment-Free Beekeeping Conference in Leominster, Massachusetts in late July 2010. If you are genuinely looking hard for a positive new vision of beekeeping for the future--this is an event you must attend. Most of the 100 or so attendees were hobby beekeepers and some wanna-beekeepers. So there was plenty of naive, positive energy there, to be sure. (We need a certain amount of that sort of energy.) But there was also, among both presenters and attendees, an astonishing variety and depth of practical and successful experience with bees kept without treatments of any kind. Aside from this meeting's overall ambiance, the thing that struck me most was the balance somehow maintained between an overall awareness of the gravity of current beekeeping problems, and the simplicity, ease and elegance of the solutions arrived at in very different locations and circumstances. Almost all of these solutions, however, were only won after a very difficult struggle; and all of them required the cultivation of an open mind and learning how to allow Nature's multifaceted powers of resilience and recovery to function without impediments. All of those who have achieved this with bees are pioneers at this point. Many of them have been ignored, ridiculed, harassed or even worse, as part of their reward for achieving something deemed "impossible" by "experts"; or by those who are always trying to co-opt the end result while other people do the work. (As in all other worthwhile endeavors, it's not possible to have real, long-term success with honeybee health without doing the work.) All of this makes our pioneers all the more determined to share what they know with all honest and genuine comers-- making it easier in the future than it was in the past. The completely open nature of all the conversation, the willingness to help and share, and the absence of competitive and proprietary feelings were all very striking at the Leominster meeting.

At the same time, it must be stressed that there were no special recipes or any single, infallible road to success revealed. In fact, some of the presenters have completely opposed views on certain points. The overall message of the conference I would summarize in three statements:

1. There are now both commercial and hobby beekeepers succeeding with untreated bees, in many parts of the world and using an astonishing variety of equipment, stocks and techniques.

2. There are good examples, shared experience and guidance available to help people who want to move toward non-treatment; or to start off that way from the beginning.

3. Many of the non-treatment beekeepers have had similar experiences, but in the end each beekeeper discovers his or her own combination of stock, equipment and management that works for them in their situation. There is no substitute for steady attention and work-- applied in your own location.

As the presenters got up to give their talks, one after another spontaneously burst out with what a huge relief and pleasure it was to be at a meeting entirely devoted to a healthy future for bees and beekeeping, with everyone freely sharing whatever they have to contribute. The gravity of beekeeping's current plight was kept always in mind, but the shared convictions about destructive agricultural practices and the correct way to overcome them created a huge sense of relief and shared energy for just about everyone who came to this meeting.

Here's the cast of "characters" who presented at the 2010 Leominster meeting, and a brief description of their work and message:

Dee Lusby's name is known to everyone who has made even a half-hearted search for knowledge about treatment-free or "organic" beekeeping. As far as I know, she has the only commercial apiary in Europe or North AmErika that has been completely free of treatments since before the varroa invasion. Her bees are in Arizona's Sonora Desert, between Tucson and the Mexican border. She and her late husband Ed, (a descendent of one of the oldest beekeeping families in the U.S.) pioneered the use of small-cell sized foundation and combs for control of parasitic mites and overall bee health. Their pioneering work--which was so far ahead of its time-- their independence and long-term success, and their outspoken defense of their practices have generated a huge amount of controversy that continues up to the present. Dee's talks are sometimes hard to follow due to the many esotErik references cited, and frequent mentions of the fights she's had to wage with an Establishment with different aims and methods than her own. But if you can separate the "heat" from the "light", what lies beneath is a very broad understanding of honeybee health, and one of the best blueprints so far available for keeping bees healthy in the long run. Her assertion that the solution to our honeybee problems is one third genetic, one third management, and one third environmental is, in my experience, completely bulletproof. Let the detractors say what they want, she still maintains 800 colonies with minimal help and produces several varieties of beautiful desert honey. She helps to organize a treatment-free conference every year in Arizona, and invites the attendees to see for themselves that her bees are healthy and vigorous in a difficult environment. Some of the major equipment manufacturers are now making and selling small-cell foundation, so the cell-size controversy is likely to be resolved as more people try it out and weigh in. I'd been in touch with Dee and Ed off and on by phone for many years, and it was a great pleasure to meet her in person for the first time last summer. My own untreated apiary has evolved into something quite different from Dee's, but she and Ed provided a lot of the initial inspiration and courage necessary for me to pursue this path.

Another presenter, Sam Comfort, is a beekeeping tycoon. Well... he's the biggest top-bar beekeeper in the Northeast. Actually, he's not very tall or heavy, but he does have more top-bar colonies (around 200) than anyone I know of except maybe Wyatt Mangum in Virginia, or Les Crowder in New Mexico. I always thought it would be great to have a top-bar hive or two and see what the bees would do inside; but I shuddered at the thought of trying to make a living from them. But Sam seems to be doing well selling top-bar boxes and top-bar nucs in the Hudson Valley.

Just out of college, Sam cut his teeth working for a couple of Vermont beekeepers, and later learned how to raise queens for them in South Carolina. He worked for another couple of outfits in Florida, before heading to Montana to work for a honey and pollination business based there. As Sam tells it, he worked pretty hard for a couple of years, and also built up a hundred or so colonies of his own-- which he was allowed to bring along on the trucks to the almonds, and collect the pollination fee. I guess he always lived in the company trailers, and didn't have much opportunity to spend money. So his back wages built up for quite awhile, and when he left and his employers bought out his bees, they had to pay him in one shot what a new doctor or a tenured professor might make as an annual salary. This allowed Sam to "retire" for awhile, and try to figure out an easier way to live around bees. That's when he came back to his old haunts in the Hudson Valley, reverted to his hippy ways, and started his top-bar apiary (anarchyapiaries.com)-- keeping it completely untreated from the beginning. Sam brought some top-bar hives to the conference, and enjoyed manipulating them for us in his shorts and sleeveless T-shirt, without shoes or even a smoker. Some of us think Sam should be a little more responsible, but he does have a very large and entertaining store of beekeeping experience for someone as young as he is... Oh yes, he's also written some great songs about what it's like to be a worker, drone, or queen; and to be honest some of us strongly resent the fact that, no matter how smelly or dirty he is, the young women all cluster around him like flies around molasses...

Corwin Bell, another top-bar beekeeper from the Denver/Boulder Colorado area, has a wonderful and hilarious presentation about how he became a beekeeper, and all the painful lessons he had to endure in order to unlearn his initial training and allow the bees to thrive on their own. He now oversees a huge swarm "rescue" network of volunteers who save unwanted swarms and establish them in top-bar hives. His other career is in computer mapping, so he has a computer map of the location and status of all these semi-feral colonies, now numbering in the hundreds. Many of these hives are continuously occupied for several years, with almost no care or interference. Some of his apprentices are now starting spin-off programs in other western locations. (backyardhive.com)

Erik Osterlund has been one of my earliest, most steadfast and best friends during the years of struggling toward treatment-free beekeeping. Many long phone conversations have occurred between my home in Vermont and his in Sweden. Last summer marked the fourth time I've had the privilege of meeting him in person-- each time here in the U.S. Erik works part-time as editor of the Swedish beekeeping magazine (Bitiningen), and part-time as a commercial beekeeper. In both of those capacities he has travelled to many distant countries to observe and report on bees, mites and beekeepers who have managed to live together in harmony. He was a long-time associate and disciple of Brother Adam, and still follows closely the breeding protocols of his mentor. The bees he has now are derived from Buckfast stock (which is quite popular in Sweden) with the addition of apis mellifera monticola, which he obtained on an expedition to Kenya together with other Scandinavian beekeepers.

I've described Erik many times as "the best prepared for the varroa invasion of any beekeeper I know, or can imagine." Varroa didn't reach his part of Sweden until three years ago, so he had to observe, test and select his bees in other mite-infested locations before the parasite reached his home apiary. He also downsized all of his combs to 4.9 size cells before the mite invasion. (More on this next month). Erik's wide experience in both research and practice, his calm demeanor and deep religious faith gave the meeting a wonderful grounded quality, which might have been impossible to achieve by the rest of us AmErikan iconoclasts.

Mike Palmer is a very accomplished honey producer from Vermont who now has a rapidly growing queen and nuc production branch of his apiary as well. He is still using treatments on his bees, but we have hope for Mike, and he has fully embraced the principles of selection and rapid mid-summer propagation of nucleus colonies, which were essential to the success of myself and others who no longer treat. Mike likes nothing better then sharing what he knows, and he gave some great lectures and demonstrations about his methods, as well as his take on the current state of the honey market.

As part of the Vermont contingent, I put in my two cents, but my biggest contribution to the meeting may have been to convince Chris Baldwin to stop fretting over grasshoppers for a few days and join us in Leominster. Chris is a honey producer who raises his queens and nucs in Texas in the spring, and produces honey in S. Dakota during the summer. Aside from the Weavers, he has the largest apiary of untreated bees that I know of--1500-2000 honey producing colonies-- and is also my best example of how larger apiaries can move to eliminate treatments. Chris got on board with the Russian bees a couple of years after I did, and just like all of us early converts, he endured some serious losses along the way, including an episode in July 2006 when two-thirds of his bees died in one day in S. Dakota when the temperature reached 124 degrees (F). But, by propagating his best survivors, flooding his mating area with his own drones, and rapidly propagating new colonies, his bees are now not just survivors of mites and virus, but also record high temperatures and even trips to the disease cesspool of California almonds. Unfortunately, despite his great success with breeding and propagating bees, his apiary has been held hostage for several years now by a terrible weather cycle in his part of S. Dakota. In addition to being a great beekeeper, Chris is a great guy who loves to share and help others, and we hope he can come to the meeting again next year. (southbeekota.com)

The cast of presenters was rounded out by Julian Wooten of N. Carolina, who gave an impromptu and entertaining talk about supplying the bees and training the actors for making the film: The Secret Life of Bees. And the last official talk was given by James Fearnley of Nature's Laboratory LTD in England. Just as we were starting to become jaded by too much of a good thing, James roped us all in again with his fascinating accounts of a long career with beehive and botanical pharmaceuticals, and how these things are going to be absolutely essential to maintaining human health in the future. We all hope to see and hear more of him in the future as well.

Now, there's one more show to report on, and I saved the best for last. These great presentations, the wonderful atmosphere and special camaraderie would never have come together in the same place if it wasn't for Dean Stiglitz and Ramona Herboldsheimer. As far as I can tell they did 99% of the event planning and organization; and even with a good sized crew of family and friends helping out, they still managed to do about 60% of the work during the conference-- including teaching a two-day beginners course and giving presentations themselves on management and hive microbes.

Dean and Ramona started out as many hobby beekeepers do now, struggling for years to keep their new package colonies alive, despite following all the standard advice. After hearing about, and then working with Dee Lusby, the bee fever really descended on them and took over their lives as they abandoned the "shoot-em-up" defensive school of beekeeping, and embraced a more positive and pro-active approach. Now they are basically trying, with their own bees, to find out how many of Dee's management ideas are suitable for New England. They also have started bottling and selling different honeys from treatment-free apiaries. It's noteworthy that they were sought out by the Penguin Group (of publishers) to write the beekeeping volume for the "Complete Idiot's Guide" series. Penguin, on their own, decided this was the best way to portray beekeeping in general, and this is the only post-varroa book I know of entirely devoted to treatment-free beekeeping. (Other than needing more photos, it's very good.) And then, in their spare time, they organize the conference...

It would be hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of organizing an event than these two did. The venue was beautiful, set in a preserved tract with footpaths thru the surrounding forest and fields. There were nice airy rooms inside and plenty of outdoor tables for eating and visiting. The food was wonderful, and anyone with the nerve to complain about the cost of the meeting should just save their money for a few trips to McDonalds-- since the food by itself was worth more than the fee for the entire meeting. The talks were arranged so that a story line emerged and built on itself as the meeting progressed, and every evening people relaxed around the campfire, visiting, singing songs and telling stories into the wee hours...

Earlier I recommended this meeting to everyone searching hard for a more positive vision of beekeeping's future. Dean and Ramona have found a new venue for the 2011 meeting that can accommodate both more people and more bees. So make your reservation soon (at beeuntoothers.com). It's OK to be concerned and upset about the plight of the honeybee, but please bring an open heart and mind, and leave your pessimism and proprietary notions at home.

Audience (photo by Erik Österlund)Audience (photo by Erik Österlund)

Queen_ – Dean Stiglitz meeting attendees and looking for the queen while making up nucleus colonies. (photo by Erik Österlund)Queen_ – Dean Stiglitz meeting attendees and looking for the queen while making up nucleus colonies. (photo by Erik Österlund)

Speakers – (front row l to r) Dean Stiglitz holding Gwen, Ramona Herboldsheimer. (back row l to r) Corwin Bell, Dee Lusby, Chris Baldwin, Mike Palmer, Sam Comfort, Kirk Webster, Erik Österlund, James Fearnley. (photo by Erik Österlund)Speakers – (front row l to r) Dean Stiglitz holding Gwen, Ramona Herboldsheimer. (back row l to r) Corwin Bell, Dee Lusby, Chris Baldwin, Mike Palmer, Sam Comfort, Kirk Webster, Erik Österlund, James Fearnley. (photo by Erik Österlund)

Emily and Sam – Sam Comfort and Emily Neustrom playing music by the campfire. (photo by Erik Österlund)Emily and Sam – Sam Comfort and Emily Neustrom playing music by the campfire. (photo by Erik Österlund)

Kirk and Mike – The author and Mike Palmer making nucs. (Julian Wooten in red shirt). (photo by Erik Österlund)Kirk and Mike – The author and Mike Palmer making nucs. (Julian Wooten in red shirt). (photo by Erik Österlund)

Meal – Food at the conference was great. (photo by Erik Österlund)Meal – Food at the conference was great. (photo by Erik Österlund)

Sam – Sam Comfort demonstrating his top bar hives. (photo by Erik Österlund)Sam – Sam Comfort demonstrating his top bar hives. (photo by Erik Österlund)

Chris Baldwin visiting my apiary in VermontChris Baldwin visiting my apiary in Vermont

 
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