The three years since my last posting on this website (Feral Bees-2016) have been especially busy here on the farm, with some construction and preparations for bringing livestock (other than bees) into the picture. There were a few memorable trips as well, including a journey to Sweden–the first time I have ever travelled outside of the U.S. and Canada.
In the spring of 2016, my apiary came through the winter almost completely unscathed, with almost all the bees in great condition. After more than fifteen years of running the apiary without treatments of any kind, and with less and less record keeping and micromanaging each year, it seemed as though I really was keeping bees almost exactly the way I had before the varroa invasion–and with the same results. But after a great summer, and the best honey crop since 2005, my heavily laden clusters started dwindling away much faster than normal, and over the following two winters, I experienced the worst losses I’ve seen since the original collapse I went through at the beginning of non-treatment. In the spring of 2017, I wasn’t able to sell any surplus bees–in 30 years of producing and selling overwintered nucs, there have only been three springs like that.
Right now, in April of 2019, my own situation is much improved, but over the last three years it has become starkly clear that, here in Vermont, we are now starting to experience exactly the same sequence of events described to me over many years by my queen customers in the upper midwest, as their territory was gradually diminished and poisoned by industrial agriculture. We still have a diverse landscape here, and possibly only one pesticide use seriously effecting a large number of bees (the seed treatment of corn with systemic insecticides), but all of this has changed my thinking and focus over the last three years.
It was the thrill of my life to discover, by accident, that small (nucleus) colonies of bees could overwinter reliably here in Vermont, and to gradually build this into a system of beekeeping that was very productive, and based on bee breeding. By these means, both the tracheal and varroa mites were transformed from existential threats into partners and allies. Running a productive and profitable commercial apiary without treatments of any kind for nearly twenty years has generated as much wonder, humility and satisfaction as any farmer could hope for.
But none of this work has any meaning if the environment we and our bees live in is becoming constantly degraded and poisoned. I’m now completely convinced that honeybees and beekeepers can adapt to all the natural challenges of pests and disease–but they have no way to adapt to the escalation of poisons in the environment. This has become the real existential threat to the future of healthy beekeeping, and health for humanity as well. It has been especially disappointing and disturbing to watch the bee science and bee advice communities fossilize so quickly around the idea of adapting to and co-operating with industrial agriculture as the best way forward. My own spirits have been lifted considerably by the opportunity to do some work together with the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pa; where they reject the industrial model out of hand, have provided healthy alternatives for more than seventy years, and don’t put up with any of the nonsense constantly broadcast by those who profit from the industrial model.
All of my essays included this year reflect this change of emphasis. There is some repetition in the three pieces, as they were written originally for different publications:
Honey From The Earth is the original version of what became the preface to the book of the same name–published this year in English for the first time.
Successful Organic Farmers… is scheduled to appear, in a somewhat neutered form, in the June 2019 American Bee Journal. (I do appreciate the editor (Eugene Makovec) accepting the article, and for preserving my point of view.)
The Limitations of Science… will be published at some point in Farming magazine.
The other change that has started over the last three years is the slow process of making the apiary a little bit smaller each year–so that I can continue to do most of the work myself while age begins taking its toll. Instead of trying to make the apiary as big, productive and profitable as possible–hoping someone might buy it–I’ve decided to keep it as a small, peasant-type business that’s the right size for my ability, plus a small amount of extra help. My chief joy in my life as a beekeeper has been doing the day-to-day work myself; and old people need to have suitable work, exercise and focus just like everyone else does. I haven’t become rich by American standards, but there’s been no other source of income since 1992, and I have to admit– I never dreamed I would make so much money from keeping bees. I was also shocked to find out that even after a working lifetime of rejecting the greedy American model of affluence and economic progress, and devoting myself to a trade that nearly disappeared from our culture during that time; I would still end up with more assets than 90-95% of all the people who live on Earth. There’s a lot of room for thought here. It’s time to start spending more time trying to describe in a more complete way how this came about, and how I tried to deal with the enormous obstacles our society insists shall be in the way of anyone who follows this path.