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Nature Has All the Answers, So What's Your Question?* and A Page From a Treatment-Free Beekeeping Diary

Maybe we're asking the wrong questions, or asking too many small questions instead of facing up to the bigger and more important ones. The current decline of honeybee numbers and vitality apparently has several causes. Extensive monocultures; crop protection chemicals; the aging of commercial beekeepers; pollution; the dumping of honey and pseudo-honey from abroad; parasites and diseases; urbanization--each of these plays a role and generates its own long list of questions about the problem and possible solutions. Most people who have been around bees since the early '80's feel that the arrival of tracheal and, especially varroa mites is what touched off beekeeping's downward spiral, which is still continuing. Once the varroa arrived, the urgent questions came along over many years, in an order something like this: "What is varroa?"; "How can we keep them away from here as long as possible?"; "How can I kill them?"; "Now how can I kill them?"; "How can I kill them without poisoning my bees?" Finally, a few questions turned in a more hopeful direction: "Can we breed bees that don't need to be treated all the time?"; and "How can I raise bees of my own that don't need to be treated?" Now we can see that the tracheal and varroa mites weakened the bees so much that all their other problems became more threatening to them. It's so much harder to keep bees alive now, and stay in business as a beekeeper, than it was in the early '80's. On a recent trip to Iowa, it was amazing and moving to someone from rocky New England to see such a uniformly fertile countryside and the amount of corn and soybeans that are produced there. But it was also sobering to learn that, in a large state that was once a paradise for bees from one corner to the other, there are now only ten commercial beekeepers--(the same as in my tiny state; which has only a very small percentage of its land suitable for really productive beekeeping.) With such huge monocultures, all requiring pesticides every year, productive beekeeping in Iowa is now largely confined to the river "breaks", and a few areas with dairy and mixed farming...

...It's important which questions you are asking; in what order; and what you will accept as answers. Each question and answer gives a direction to your thoughts and energy. Nature really does have all the answers, as well as all of the cards. We think we have some of the cards, but we don't. In trying to create and restore balance, health and harmony--and if we care about future generations--we need to ask the right overall guiding questions. These are the ones I keep coming back to:

"How can we live by creating a better world, instead of by consuming and destroying the one we have?"

or:

"How can we tap the creative and restorative power of Nature, instead of diminishing it?"...

In a few different venues, I've given a presentation called Making Varroa into an Ally. The first is of Sir Albert Howard, the British agricultural scientist who gave voice, direction, and an intellectual framework to the modern organic farming movement. (I've written about him before, in the ABJ--June 2006.) After a lifetime of work, one of his principle conclusions was that pests and diseases should always be seen and welcomed as friends and allies, not as adversaries to be destroyed. Their real purpose, he concluded, was to indicate where our methods, crops and livestock are weak and unbalanced, and to show the pathway to restored health and vitality. Within a few years of the arrival of tracheal mites it was clear, in my apiary, that this principle was active and easily usable in honeybees. Still, I wondered if it would apply in the case of varroa, which was so out of balance with its new host, and with so little co-evolution. The good news is that now I an convinced that these ideas apply in this case also--the process just takes quite a bit longer to run its course. I have no doubt that varroa will, in the end, be an enormous help to both honeybees and people--as they both struggle to adapt to a rapidly changing world. It has been a great trial, privilege and thrill to watch this process at work, and it convinced me that Nature really does have all the answers, if we can just learn to be humble and ask the right questions. "How can varroa help to restore health and balance to beekeeping and agriculture?" is a much better question than, "How can I kill the little buggers?" Utilizing varroa this way is not a mystery to me anymore. It's not a mystery to Kent Anderson, (Ky.); or Chris Baldwin, (S.D.); Dan Purvis, (Tn.); Dee Lusby, (Az.); Danny and Binford Weaver, (Tx.); Hans Otto-Johnson, (Norway); Erik Osterlund, (Sweden); John Kefuss, (France); and I'm sure to many others who are not as visible.

There are examples to follow now, and capable people with experience who can give good advice. Each one of them will tell a slightly different story--and that's as it should be because, in the end, each beekeeper has to work out his or her own relationship with his or her bees and locations. I recommend following this path to everyone; though hobby beekeepers will have to work together as a local club, and commercial beekeepers will have to move their focus to honey production and bee breeding. When Sir Albert Howard's ideas and organic farming spread throughout mainstream agriculture, our other beekeeping problems will disappear. So another good question to ask is: "What can we do, as beekeepers, to encourage a more healthy and balanced system of agriculture that uses pests and diseases in a positive way, instead of killing them and poisoning the rest of the food chain in the process?" Every single agricultural commodity in N. AmErika is being produced efficiently and profitably by organic methods somewhere, by one or many people. But you have to search them out--just like the beekeepers who are succeeding without treatments, their voices are often marginalized by those with vested interests in the current destructive system. When you fly over Iowa, and it seems as though the entire state is planted in just two crops, which are both sprayed with the same herbicide during a few weeks in the spring, the thought occurs to you that they may as well just change the name of the state to Monsanto. Then at least there would be some transparency when we hear during a Senate debate: "I yield the floor to my colleague from Monsanto..." We should help organic farmers if we can. Farmers who can switch to organic methods now will be ahead of the curve and much more comfortable in the future, when the rest will be forced to switch by rapidly rising energy prices. Will it be like what happened in Cuba when the Soviet Union stopped supplying them with oil? Another good question...

Notes From a Treatment-Free Beekeeping Diary--January 2010; hopefully generating some good questions....

I live in a beautiful state with lots of trees and rocky hills. There's a small part of the state that's really good for bees, but for the last two years, the weather has been a really serious challenge. In fact the last really good summer for bees here was in 2005. Well... 2007 was not too bad, and things were looking promising in the spring of 2008. A very dry and cool April and May made for a slow and steady build-up, and great conditions for selling bees and doing the spring work. My notebook says: "Best looking bunch of bees I ever sold. Because of good winter survival, it was hard to get all the good new bees into honey production." The main honey flow started late, with the best basswood flow I ever saw coming at the beginning of the flow instead of in the middle. As the basswood ended, clover was starting to kick in, and things were looking very good indeed, with supers already filled and more piled on.

But the pattern shifted, and the honey flow ended right there as record setting rain and cold temperatures set in for the rest of the summer. In my sandy vegetable garden I often have to haul water at some point to keep the plants alive in mid-summer. But in 2008, tomatoes, carrots and corn all just up and died from having their roots sitting in water for weeks at a time. Bees were unable to forage, and started going downhill. The worst thing that happened though was when the fall flowers also failed to yield much nectar or pollen when the weather improved in September. It took me by surprise--I've never before seen the bees uniformly fail to get into good shape for winter when it's sunny and warm in September. My dairy farming neighbors tried to explain to me how, when there's excessive rain on our heavy clay soils, the plants are unable to manufacture sugars normally for weeks after the weather improves, and the cattle feed is no good either... In any case, the bees were in terrible shape in the fall, many of them not worth feeding. I have one yard I use just for nucleus colonies where the boxes like clockwork become heavy in the late summer and fall, and I usually have to worry about swarms coming out in August. When I checked them after extracting in 2008, there wasn't a single frame of honey in the entire yard. The colonies were all alive, but they had quit raising brood, and had tiny non-viable clusters. I should have harvested some of the queens and sent them to my friends in California as an experiment. But by October, time and energy are running out, and I was already getting behind. I blew the bees out of these, and many other large and small colonies, in December.

The following winter was cold and snowy, but nothing out of the ordinary in weather history. As expected, the bees were weak in the spring, with additional losses over the winter. Including the colonies blown out in December, the colony count was reduced to 50% of its previous peak in July of 2008. So, this became one of only two years since 1992 when I haven't been able to sell any overwintered nucs. The summer weather in 2009 wasn't much better than in 2008, the difference being that this time the rains started earlier and ruined almost the entire summer honey flow. I thought this was going to be the first time I've ever seen the honey crop fail completely in this location, but somehow the bees managed to make a small crop during the last ten days of July, At that point it seemed much better than nothing. Thankfully, the late summer and fall weather was sunny and pleasant; the bees needed feeding for winter, but were otherwise in very good condition.

Despite two years of terrible weather, and no treatments of any kind since 2002, the stability and resilience of the apiary continues to slowly improve. The cycles of collapse and recovery (now caused primarily by extreme weather rather than by mites or diseases) in the end help to build the apiary rather than tear it down. Doing the queen rearing work during the rainy summer of 2009 was not as pleasant as other years, but the results were surprisingly good, and the colony count grew from 340 to 1000 during this time. (Remember, many of those colonies are nucleus colonies intended for overwintering.) The last cycle of brood was very healthy looking, and only about 20 colonies were deemed non-viable and blown out in December. Severe weather has made some serious inroads into the amount of honey and nucleus colonies available for sale during the last two years, but the steadily increasing value of those commodities (especially those from untreated apiaries) has compensated for this somewhat, and a positive cash flow has been maintained without too much trouble.

The model of a healthy, treatment-free northern apiary, based on the balanced production of queens, nucleus colonies and honey has withstood many challenges since it took on its present form around 1990, and especially since all treatments were withdrawn in 2002. Reverence for, and the restorative power of Nature were consulted and utilized at every possible opportunity. Bee breeding and the rapid propagation of new colonies were used together so that bees and mites could adapt to each other through the normal insect collapse-and-recovery cycle. Economic success was assured only by the counter-intuitive process of ignoring economic concerns and focusing instead on the natural ability of bees and insects to be healthy, productive, and responsive to changing conditions. Much of the stress and worry has been eliminated, and beekeeping has become more interesting and enjoyable than ever before. This interest and enjoyment is available to every beekeeper who can put their own ego off to the side, think and work at the same time, and adapt Nature's methods to his or her own situation.

To end, and summarize, I offer these three photos as a substitute for the three well known monkeys with their hands over either their eyes, ears, or mouths. The first we could call: "Speak No Evil"; the second: "See No Evil"; and the third: "Just Evil".

The first shows two well-known and very hard working members of the beekeeping community--Michael Palmer and Randy Oliver--being extremely polite and saying nothing about the terrible condition of the bees during a visit to my apiary in October 2008. At this low point in the cycle the bees looked terrible, to me and everyone else, and I'm sure they wrote off treatment-free beekeeping as a complete hoax and not worth pursuing. The second photo shows some more friends and refugees, this time visiting the apiary in early August in 2009, just after the first Treatment-Free Beekeeping Conference in Leominster, Massachusetts. From left to right that's Erik Osterlund (Swedish commercial beekeeper with 200 colonies, creator of the "Elgon" bee, and editor of the Swedish beekeeping magazine--Bitingen); Ramona Herboldsheimer and Dean Stiglitz (authors of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Beekeeping, and organizers of the Leominster conference); and Michael Bush (beekeeper and publisher of www.Bushfarms.com/bees.htm). They visited during one of the apiary's high points when, even after two months of steady rain and a near failure of the honey crop, the apiary had expanded to three times the April colony count. Every frame of brood seemed to be perfect, and it was hard to find mites or even a single bee with bad wings. Now.... these are my people, but I have to point out that they also left with a mistaken impression--it looked much too easy. The truth is somewhere in between what my two groups of visitors took away with them. The important point is that the system keeps functioning throughout--able to take advantage of any and all favorable conditions that come along; and still survive extreme weather or biological challenges--even benefiting from them in the long run.

The third photo is one that I hate to show, but I just don't believe any real progress can be made by hiding or denying aspects of reality. This is a breeder colony that is locked up because other queens and colonies have been stolen in the recent past. Several of the people who have succeed in developing apiaries that can function without treatments have been subjected to a similar and disturbing pattern of theft and other forms of harassment. This is surely the most pathetic and destructive response of all--doing nothing to help the industry recover from its current difficulties, and damaging everyone involved. Each individual, untreated apiary has to be built up gradually over four or five years, as a joint project between the bees and the owner. Once such and apiary exists, maintaining it requires the same skills, work and quality of attention that created it in the first place. The end result cannot be bought, sold, connived or stolen. The starter stock for such an apiary can now be purchased from several sources, always for a tiny fraction of what it cost the owners to develop these stocks, and for a tiny fraction of their future value if they are propagated and selected intelligently.

We can finish on a related, but more positive note by returning to my friend Erik Osterlund and his apiary. I've had the privilege if knowing Erik for many years, and he has in fact been harassed by some members of the Swedish beekeeping "Establishment" for allowing the publication of many articles about beekeeping without treatments--in Europe, North and South America, and the Middle East. But far more interesting is the case of his own apiary. He lives in south-central Sweden, where varroa mites were not observed until 2007. I find it hard to believe that anyone on earth was better prepared for the arrival of varroa that Erik. More than a decade before the invasion, he was already seeking out survivors from infested areas and stocks that could have potential mite tolerance. Every year he propagated his bees from these survivors and promising races and sent daughters to his friends in mite-infested districts to be tested and to become future breeders. He fell under the influence of Ed and Dee Lusby and the small-cell cartel; started buying foundation mills and replaced all his combs with 4.9 foundation. Years before the mites arrived, his hardy and productive bees had tested survivor parents on both the male and female side, and were completely adapted to the small-cell combs. I often joked about mailing him some mites so that he wouldn't have to send his breeding stock back and forth across Sweden and Europe....

When the varroa mites finally arrived and started to multiply in his home town of Hallsberg, Erik's apiary fell apart just like every other apiary did when first exposed to this pest. He lost 50% of his bees between August 2008 and May 2009, and felt certain he would have lost 90% if he hadn't made an emergency treatment with thymol. Hopefully, all of his preparation and hard work will result in a comparatively quick recovery from the initial shock--maybe like what John Kefuss experienced when he abandoned treatments after years of trying to breed for resistance while still artificially controlling mite numbers. I think Erik's case provides additional and very clear evidence that bees and mites must live constantly together in order to develop genuine tolerance, health and resilience for future apiaries; that both known and unknown factors are involved in the process; and that the collapse-and-recovery cycle needs to be embraced and utilized, rather than feared and avoided. "Nature has all the answers, so what's your question?"*

*(Quote attributed to ecologist Howard Odum)

 

captions:

 

1. Sir Albert Howard--pioneer of organic agriculture science and practice

 

2. Michael Palmer (left) and Randy Oliver visiting my apiary in October 2008

 

3. Left to Right: Erik Osterlund, Dean Stiglitz, Ramona Herboldsheimer, and Michael Bush

 

4. Breeder queens locked up

 

5. Beautiful bees and perfect brood in early August 2009--yes, almost all the colonies looked like this at that time

 

6. Close-up of brood--August 2009

 

7.Molly Lohman holding a frame of brood for the first time--late September 2009. Despite terrible summer weather and near failure of the honey crop, brood remained healthy right to the last round

 
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