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Helping Honeybees Refill Their Niche – The Apiary Farm

Jan 1, 2011 | 2011 Writings, View All Posts

View from the top of the new property

I’m embarrassed to admit that I can only remember three specific things that I learned in the Ecology program that I attended for a semester at the Evergreen State College many years ago. The first is that ecological succession is often guided simply by seed source, rather than any other more complex or mysterious mechanism. The second is the idea from Edgar Anderson’s book, Plants, Man and Life; that our crop plants very likely originated from the sloppy habits of early villagers, who kept dumping their garbage in the same places near their homes– an early unconscious, creative venture between people and Nature. And the third is my favorite– the scientific definition of an Ecological Niche: an n-dimensional hyperspace–(where n is an unknown and potentially infinite number). This definition, from the heart of science itself, is at once an elegant description and a stark admission that all creatures live and function in more dimensions than we can perceive or measure, and so are ultimately unknowable to us.

These three ideas may seem like a small amount of knowledge to glean from a semester’s work, but they have served me very well indeed as the basis of practical work in agriculture and beekeeping; and have bolstered my steady conviction, from those early days until now, that the best intellectual support for practical work in farming and beekeeping comes from Ecology and the work of the very best farmers (and beekeepers) rather than the scientific study of agriculture or the methods of the vast majority of farmers trying to function as part of a culture based on exploitation and abuse.

It was the greatest thrill of my life to watch my bees begin to recover and expand after being exposed to the unchecked ravages of out-of-balance varroa mites, and then begin to evolve into something potentially better than I had before the mites arrived. During all this time, it was very helpful and comforting to know that, in any case, I would never be able to understand everything that was going on. My honeybees are refilling their niche now. I tried to help them by watching constantly; by exploring any leads they suggested; using the best practices I knew of; and by applying the principles I learned from people with greater experience and success than myself. But in the end, I’m not really sure how the bees did it.

This whole process reminded me that beekeepers have a niche to fill too, and also have to operate somehow in more dimensions than they can know or understand. I was reminded of this when the simple tasks I had worked so hard on for years were suddenly the focus of two extreme and determined groups– one, weighing in from every continent, insisting that I had given birth to a miracle; and the other full of resentment that escalated into harassment requiring the involvement of the police. In the first case they were trying to make something that should be ordinary into something extraordinary. In the second, I don’t think the real reasons deserve any mention here. But in both instances the real problem is that answers to our practical biology problems have to come from making the world of Nature more important than ourselves– and how in blazes can we do this and allow it to spread within a culture that exists by exploiting natural resources and abusing other people? The question now is not whether honeybees can refill their niche as pollinators in the food chain, but whether people can refill their niche as aware and decent human beings.

The rest of this story is definitely a tale of: “Be careful what you wish for… it may come true.” In 1999 and 2000, I published in the Small Farmer’s Journal an essay titled: “The Best Kept Secret”* It was written right at the end of American beekeeping’s honeymoon with Apistan, and in anticipation of the difficult time ahead searching for real solutions to the varroa problem. Before this struggle began in earnest, I wanted to record the wonderful things I had learned about farming as a way of life– and also the difficulties of pursuing that life in a neurotic culture that depends absolutely upon farmers, and simultaneously seeks to destroy them. A part of this essay was a detailed, year by year description of how my apiary developed. At the time, I wasn’t sure the apiary would survive the coming struggle with the new super-parasites.

But now that the bees have demonstrated their ability to co-exist with varroa, and that varroa in turn has proven capable of becoming a friend and mentor– just like other pests and diseases– it’s time to bring “The Best Kept Secret” out from under the rug, and see if it can become more than just a secret. Here’s one of the last paragraphs of my old essay from 1999:

“Right now I’m focusing on making the apiary even more productive and efficient, and making the work easier; so I can continue to raise bees and honey when I’m older. If I ever expand again, it’s going to be on a different basis: The details have escaped me so far, but if there are young people anymore, interested in beekeeping as a way of life, I’d like to have a few of them come here to learn the trade, and be able to propagate the bees they need to start on their own. I’m not sure if such young people still exist, but if so I’d like them to get a better start and a better grasp of the basics than I did– at a time when they can make the best use of such things. This one’s still in the planning stage, but it should be possible to expand the apiary, within its existing locations, enough to support one or two apprentices, then spin off the excess bees as the young folks return home to start propagating bees and producing honey on their own. If even one or two full-time apiaries resulted from this process, I’d be able to at least approach my own definition of successful beekeeping.”

Bill McKibben getting ready to help harvest a honey crop

I thought all this would remain permanently in the idea stage, but three years ago, some of my friends convinced me to write down a more detailed description of my ideas, which I passed on to a few friends to get some feedback. By an by, it fell into the hands of the author and activist Bill McKibben, who I had come to know through working with some of his students at the Middlebury College Organic Garden Project. If his name doesn’t ring a bell, you might just say that he did for Global Warming what Garrison Keillor did for the radio. Bill spends most of his time now with his activist group: I was quite surprised when he took a serious interest in my proposal, and he helped me to negotiate a lifetime lease to a very interesting piece of property, where I might finally be able to have a better situation for my helpers, where the apiary can be preserved over the long run, and where the end products will include new beekeepers as well as honey and bees. The key concept here is to have a place where all the participants can live and work on the same property, and create Nature-based alternatives for more of life’s arenas than just the workday.

After many years of observation and reflection, I don’t believe that a healthy agriculture for the future can emerge from the current structure and function of our society. A Nature-based and regenerative agriculture that can help us make the transition to a fossil fuel-poor world has to come from a place with some degree of separation from the destructive and predatory practices that surround us now. I’m much happier working directly on practical problems than I am talking or writing about them. So my idea is to have a place where myself and two or three helpers can live, and where we can cultivate not only bees, but also the attitudes and habits necessary for bringing Nature to a central place in our families and living successfully that way. This also means having a place where the connection between healthy farming and healthy beekeeping can be made and demonstrated.

My “Board of Directors” at the new shop site: a few of Addison County’s many organic farmers

The old beekeeping is dying and the new beekeeping is, at the same time, struggling to be born. There are people seeking to make a living by hauling thousands of highly stressed colonies back and forth across the country–at great expense and risk; and at the same time it’s now theoretically possible to produce $30,000.00 of income from the nectar and pollen in just one location by producing overwintered nucs there. You don’t need to have a lot of colonies or equipment to make a living from bees now if your effort is directed in the right way…

And I have to tell the story of my friend Andrew. After working for a few of the “Living History” farms in the Mid-west– doing the farm work with horses and Civil War-era technology– he and his wife developed a very successful farm producing meat for local people on a subscription basis. But undiagnosed Lyme Disease ruined their health, and forced them to abandon farming. I first met Andrew when he came offering to help–and hoping to find out if beekeeping was something he could still do, at least as a hobby. He worked a couple of days helping me make nucs– not saying too much, just watching and helping. Eventually, I gave him one (1) nucleus colony. As I got to be friends with the family, I knew there was some beekeeping going on there, but I didn’t really pay much attention. So I was astonished to find out recently that he had, in three years, propagated that one colony up into 70 nucleus colonies. These bees drew all their own combs, and were never treated at any time. The new queens came from a variety of sources–only a few of them came from me. (Come on graduate students–here is your chance–the first one who can show that the mites are evolving as well as the bees will have made his or her career.) If his present progress continues, in a few years he will have enough bees for four or five locations, and considerably more income from bees than his present low-wage job provides. Maybe there is hope for beekeeping’s future.

Andrew obviously has a knack for beekeeping. But I also attribute his success to his training, experience, and love for animal-powered agriculture–which requires constant and year-round attention to many different living things. My hope is to find out whether this kind of attention can still be cultivated in younger people, and if they can use it as the basis of a really good life, during the rapid changes sure to come as fossil fuels become more scarce and expensive. There are still some big transitions to get through in order to set this whole thing in motion–moving to the new location, and building the necessary buildings there. If I survive these, you may hear more about this. In the meantime, I always enjoy hearing from people with an honest interest in this approach. And it’s very true what they say: “Be careful what you wish for….”

*Small Farmer’s Journal, Sisters, Oregon 97759, 541-549-2064. Summer and Fall issues 1999.

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