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A New Paradigm For American Beekeepers

Jan 1, 2008 | 2008 Writings, View All Posts

This was written in preparation for a talk at the 2008 National Beekeeping Conference in Sacramento, Ca. The actual, give and take session was likely somewhat different…

The paperback dictionary on my desk defines paradigm as: “an example serving as a model.”

In his book Grass Farming, Alan Nation defines paradigm this way: “ a set of rules and regulations (written and unwritten) that tells you how to behave to be successful.”

Since I was given permission to give this presentation, I’ve thought a lot about how in the world to describe to a group like this, what’s really happening in an apiary that hasn’t used treatments of any kind for more than five years; where mites are now considered to be indispensible allies and friends, and where the productivity, resilience, profitability and enjoyment of the apiary are just as good as at any time in the past. I wouldn’t dream of killing any mites now, even if I had an easy and safe way of doing so. The serious problems I have at the moment are of a completely different nature, and I’ll say more about them in a few minutes.

There are three main points I wanted to touch on this morning before we open this up to a general discussion:
First; to review how treatments were gradually removed from my apiary, and continued results of total non-treatment since 2002.
Second; a few observations about the interaction between bees and mites as non-treatment continues, and
Third; my take on how to preserve the apiary’s stability and resilience as energy prices rise, and weather becomes more unstable and unpredictable.

Before we get to any of this though, I want to stress that none of the steps I’m going to line out—or any other list of steps—will ever lead to a really healthy apiary if you don’t have a good attitude and the proper orientation between yourself and the other living things that are all around you. It’s one of those ironic truths that real wealth can only be accumulated in farming by working for the benefit of other living things before yourself. An agriculture focused on profit and accumulation of material things will always end, sooner of later, in the kind of failure we’re witnessing now in American beekeeping. Any gains or successes apparently made along the way are always at the expense of other people or by degrading the environment. But once you start working for the benefit of other living things first, then all kinds of new opportunities and possibilities begin to present themselves, including the production of genuine new wealth from the energy of the sun, and the chance for a much better, less stressful life.

I watched and felt these processes work themselves out in my own bees as they were challenged by tracheal, and then varroa mites. Even though I was trained my my mentors to see pests and diseases as friends and teachers, I was terrified of these mites when they first arrived, and I reacted the same way most beekeepers did—by killing them any way I could that seemed safe and easy. As long as I continued on this path, the apiary, slowly but surely, became more fragile, vulnerable and stressful to operate. When I lost my fear of the mites, stopped killing them, and determined to learn all I could from them, the apiary went through the same process all insects go through in natural systems when they receive a serious challenge or shock—a period of collapse into some fraction of their former niche; followed by a rebound into the unoccupied space, with greater vitality and resilience than they had before the shock occurred.

I watched the bees go through this process twice—first with tracheal mites, and then with varroa. I was very lucky that there was a space of several years between the arrival of tracheal, and then varroa mites. Without the experience and tutelage of the tracheal mites, I might not have had the courage to face up to varroa mites in the same way. Varroa, as you know, is a much more difficult problem, and required the combined and co-ordinated use of many breeding and management tools in order to achieve a harmonious balance between bees, mites, and beekeepers. I described this undertaking in detail in the ABJ over the past three years.

Now, let’s review the practical steps that were taken to remove treatments from the apiary. This was a gradual, lengthy process that began in 1996 and ended with the last treatment applied in April of 2002. And it would have gone nowhere if I didn’t already have in place an apiary with the coordinated production of honey, queen bees and nucleus colonies.

The first step was to Prepare for, and Invest in the transition to a treatment-free apiary. I knew the bees would have to go through quite a bit of shock and disruption to make it through this process, so I tried to prepare by paying off my debts, putting some extra money aside, and laying in extra supplies of all sorts so that my expenses would be as low as possible during the transition. I invested time, energy, money and bees into the project, so that natural selection could begin to function, and the best way of rapidly propagating the survivors could be identified.

I reduced my number of colonies, so that more time could be spent with each one. No matter how you cut it, any kind of healthy beekeeping in the future is going to require spending more time on each colony than we have been used to in the recent past. This is very important, and I’ll come back to this at the end.

Breeding and Management were always used together. On the breeding and selection end, the key to success was having access to the Russian bees, which already had good tolerance of both mites, and many other positive characteristics. (I have to stop here for a minute to again thank Tom Rinderer and all those who helped him with the Russian bee project. I’ve been shocked by some of the derogatory comments I’ve heard about this work from some “leaders” and “authorities” in the community. Practical results in the bee yard is not always the goal of research. But right now this is a pretty important goal, and I want to say unequivocally and without exageration that having access to these bees has been of more practical help to me than all the other U.S. bee research done over the last 15 years put together. Varroa mites were the biggest beekeeping problem most of us had ever faced, and these bees have provided an elegant and comprehensive solution for those willing to put aside their prejudices and work seriously with them.) The Russian gene pool in the U.S. still has a lot of diversity and variability, which makes it capable of further improvement by selection and propagation—especially in a continuous zero-treatment situation where mites make the selections and both the known and unknown mechanisms of resistance are preserved and amplified. Some sort of mating control is necessary for this work to proceed; so that survivors can mate with other survivors one generation after another.

On the Management side the key was to withdraw treatments gradually from one part of the apiary at a time—first from Queen Rearing, then Nuc Production, and finally Honey Production.

There are a few new observations to report about bees and mites now that I have quite a few of both which have been living together unmolested for almost six years. I can’t prove it, but I feel quite certain now that both the bees and mites are changing as a result of this long period of co-habitation. I was very interested to read Tom Seeley’s paper about his survivor bees in the Arnot Forest (near Cornell University), and his conclusion that the bees’ success was not due to any resistance to mites, but rather because the mites were becoming less virulent. (Apidologie 2007, vol 38, pgs 19-29). I offered to supply Tom with some bees and mites together if he wanted to study them, but unfortunately he is now moving on to other research topics. If there’s anyone in the research community I haven’t alienated yet, I’m happy to extend this offer. It might be perfect for a student who needs a thesis project.

My last topic for today is to look at how the health, stability and productivity of a successful untreated apiary can be preserved, and even enhanced, as new challenges come along. Just as 1996 may have been the best time to start working on long term solutions to the mite problem, now is the best time to start preparing for much higher energy prices, and more unstable and unpredictable weather. Solving these problems requires the same positive attitude and open mind that mites have been trying to teach us for the last 20 years.

If we use Nature as the primary guide, put the bees first, use patience, and let the bees show us how to proceed; then a really good answer to one problem often helps to solve others. Keeping the focus on genuine colony health over many generations will go further than anything else in solving our current problems in a comprehensive way. I keep saying it over and over: “Management and Breeding must be used together”. Part of the practical way to bring all this to life is to forget about increasing the gross income and concentrate instead on reducing costs (especially fuel costs), reducing colony numbers, spending more time with each colony, and increasing the intensity of production. All these changes will be essential in the future when energy prices start to spiral out of control—and there really is no other way of hedging against unpredictable weather either.

Intensity of Production is one of the most important, most neglected and least understood principles influencing the success or failure of all farm enterprises. This is simply the combined, relative measure of productivity per unit (per colony in our case), per hour of labor, and per dollar invested. A farm business with high productivity in all three of these areas is almost invariably a strong success—no matter what size the farm or apiary might be. However, smaller owner-operated farms have a better chance of utilizing this principle and reaping the best reward—because the skill, knowledge, and attention necessary to achieve very high intensity of production is way beyond the ability of most hired labor and absentee owners.

Producing honey, bees and queens together as an integrated system in the Northern States is a good way to increase intensity of production, and to begin providing alternatives to both Africanized bees and this madness of moving colonies thousands of miles in order to make a living from them. I’ll give just one real-life example to illustrate what I mean. This also shows how the mites, and a positive attitude, helped the apiary to become more resilient, productive and profitable:

When I first brought some bees of my own to the Champlain Valley, it was not the first time I lived there. I worked with bees in Addison County for one season several years earlier. When I returned with some bees of my own, I noticed one of the yards I had formerly worked in was no longer occupied. I asked my old boss about it, and he said the property had changed hands and the new owners wanted fifty dollars as yard rent instead of the customary 30 lbs of honey. Claiming that he never produced fifty dollars worth of honey in there (probably an exaggeration, but you get the idea), he had decided to move the bees out. I asked if he minded if I started using that spot, and he said: “By all means, help yourself.”

There was in fact very little clover and very few dandelions (our major honey plants) growing nearby. But it was close to where I was living at the time, and I needed a place to raise more queen cells to help compensate for the losses we all experienced upon the arrival of tracheal mites; and to produce queens for sale. There was a big swamp nearby, and also quite a bit of sumac and honeysuckle, so I thought there might be more of a light, steady honey flow—which is enormously helpful for raising good queen cells. This turned out to be true, but the trouble was that, with the cell builders qetting lots of attention and kept strong throughout the summer, they started producing dependable, large crops of honey. By the end of the cell-building season, it was getting to be quite a job lifting the honey up and down to get at the cells. But by producing both honey and queen cells from the same colonies, the productivity of the yard had increased dramatically—by all three measures of intensity (production per colony, per hour of labor, and per dollar invested). A few nucleus colonies were also produced from extra brood.

I valued the queen cells at two dollars each at that time, and thought I was doing pretty well to be reliably producing about $7000.00 of bee products from that yard of 32 colonies. But then the varroa mites came, and things had to be adjusted once more. In order to keep the cell-building colonies untreated, I eventually adopted a cell-building method where each colony in the yard raises just one batch of cells. The queen, most of the brood, and about half of the field bees are removed to another location as part of the process. When these removed colonies recover and become populous again, they provide enough bees and brood for at least three nucleus colonies from each original cell builder. So, as a result of struggling with varroa mites, this yard has become more productive than at any time in the past, and now produces honey, queen cells, and nucleus colonies.

Last summer I had a visit from a Connecticut beekeeper who also raises cells and queens (some of you know Rollie Hannon). As I was taking some cells out of the cell-builders in this same yard we’re talking about, he reminded me that he was now charging five dollars each for his cells. This made me wonder whether it might be time to once again figure out how much income this yard is producing. An overwintered nucleus colony, with a home-raised queen and growing to cover eight frames during May, is worth at least $150.00 here now. If 100 of these are produced out of this yard of 32 colonies, and only 65 are good enough to sell the next spring (a very conservative estimate) then the value of bees produced is pushing up towards $10,000.00. When you add in the value of the 2,000 queen cells and 100 shallow supers of honey produced in this spot almost every year, the total value of products now exceeds $20,000.00. Even if you add the 12 little breeder queen nucs to the total number of colonies producing that income, it still runs over $450.00 per colony. And that income was produced with only a small amount of extra equipment and investment above what was used to produce the original $50.00 (?) worth of honey. That’s intensity of production. And that’s why I advise everyone who asks me about how to become a full-time beekeeper to work out their entire, detailed scheme for the apiary with less than 100 colonies, and just two or three locations, before becoming any larger. If intensity of production is built in at the beginning, and you can maintain it as you slowly grow; success is nearly certain. If you start quickly and grow rapidly with a low intensity of production, there will be many extra difficulties and the constant risk of failure.

In real life I don’t earn that much actual cash from my long time cell building yard. I don’t sell queen cells at present—they get invested back into other parts of the apiary, and usually show up as a profit somewhere else. And it’s quite like something I heard Roy Weaver say many years ago: “You see these gray hairs? They don’t come from mites or AFB; they come from trying to get the supply to equal the demand!” And yes I can see someone in the back now waving his hand who needs to point out that there’s much more labor involved in producing all those bees and cells than there is in producing just honey. It’s true, but that labor is much more productive of income per hour than simple honey production. And that’s the point—to counter the effect of rapidly increasing energy prices we’ll need to produce more income per location, per colony and per hour. By taking better care of fewer colonies we’ll be in a better position to deal with weather extremes as well. Even with so much of our farmland devoted to a monoculture desert, there’s lots of opportunity for present and future beekeepers to take better care of fewer bees, travel less, and make more net income.

In conclusion, I’m hoping my story hasn’t given the impression that I don’t have any serious problems. By adopting a new paradigm—a new model to follow for how to make a living from bees—the most serious pest and disease problems have apparently been solved. But whenever a new paradigm threatens to replace an old one, there is always a backlash of resentment, jealousy and resistance from those who have—or think they have—a vested interest in preserving the old paradigm, or their old position of prominence or “authority”. It’s just like Gandhi said: “First they ignore you; then they laugh at you; then they fight you; and then you win.”

I wish I could say that the backlash against me consisted only of invented comments floated on the internet… but I can’t. Some who knew exactly what they were doing targeted the things they knew would upset and damage me the most—my bees, my ability to make a living, and the harmony of my home and work. If the intent wasn’t to obtain for nothing the results of all my hard work, then it must have been to drive me out of my home of 20 years, where I helped raise two boys who are now like my own sons, where I have many friends and devoted customers, and where no one has ever brought to me directly and honestly any conflict or problem of any kind that wasn’t solvable in a ten minute conversation.

I bring this forward not just to expose the difficult realities of paradigm change and to illustrate how desperate our community has become by clinging to an old paradigm that is no longer working; but also because it’s part of finding a new way to produce our food and restore the beauty and harmony of the environment. Let’s go back to Alan Nation’s definition of paradigm: “ a set of rules and regulations (written and unwritten) that tells you how to behave to be successful.” A new model for agriculture based on putting the needs of Nature ahead of our own is never going to function based on manipulation and conniving, theft, or by playing this person off on the other. The really important accomplishments are always achieved through honesty, trust, co-operation and steady work by all involved. There’s plenty of territory and potential to produce income for everyone who is currently keeping bees. In fact , one of our biggest oncoming problems—along with energy and unstable weather—is the vanishingly small number of young people making their living from bees. If I’m ever allowed to speak at a meeting like this again, I’m hoping to be able to report on this, and some ways to make progress.

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