The Best Kept Secret Revisited
The Best Kept Secret, Revisited; or: Beekeeping, Like the Phoenix, Rises From the Ashes…
“With continuous attention, the farm is pleasant, beautiful, amazing and easy to take care of. It is proof against all calamities and disasters. Without continuous attention, the farm is never ending work and difficulty…”
During more or less the last month of 1998, I wrote an essay called The Best Kept Secret, which was published by the Small Farmer’s Journal in the 1999 summer and fall issues. There, I tried to describe the wonderful world I had discovered when I was a teen-ager, and which had almost nothing to do with my upbringing; but which I somehow managed to thoroughly occupy during most of my life. This world is so different from the one that has been created by our industrial, electrocuted modern culture that we don’t even have good language to describe it. The closest one word description that we have is “farming”…
My own experience in farming has been centered around beekeeping; and in the fall of 1998, American beekeeping was about to encounter its most serious challenge, and undergo a complete transformation. Now, in the spring of 2014, both of these processes are still in full swing. The challenge came from a tiny parasitic mite (Varroa jacobsoni) that formerly lived in a normal, balanced parasitic relationship with a tropical asian species of honeybee (Apis cerana). At some point, possibly 100 years ago, these mites began to infest “european” honeybees (Apis mellifera–the ones we use) in parts of China, Russia and Japan. By moving queen bees and honeybee colonies from one end of Russia to the other, and from Japan to South America, beekeepers began inadvertently moving these mites all over the world, and now they infest Apis mellifera colonies on every inhabited continent except Australia.
Varroa mites quickly became the most serious problem beekeepers in Europe and North America had ever encountered. European honeybees and Varroa jacobsoni had no history of co-evolution, and this pest was much more devastating to its host than a parasite can usually afford to be. Varroa mites have the ability to spread rapidly from one colony to another. In the early years of the infestation, over 99% of affected honeybee colonies would perish–whether they lived in a managed apiary, or as a feral colony in a hollow tree–unless a beekeeper took drastic action to somehow kill most of the mites in the colonies at least once a year. Something quite difficult to do without killing the bees at the same time. This situation changed beekeeping overnight. Beekeepers went from being the last farming fraternity who were uniformly opposed to pesticides (especially insecticides, of course)–and had no need for them–to being reluctant, and later enthusiastic pesticide applicators themselves. Beekeeping had finally been forced into the mainstream of American agriculture and now, like many other American “farmers”, commercial beekeepers have abandoned their independence and wait, hat in hand, for the next piece of “expert advice” to tell them which miticide to apply this year. Meanwhile, the wax combs that the bees live on (and which also function as the colony’s “liver” by absorbing pollutants and poisons) are becoming overloaded with toxins and creating another serious stress for the bees to deal with. Other problems which bees and beekeepers have had to deal with at least since World War II–loss of habitat, environmental degradation, crop protection chemicals and a shrinking honeybee genetic pool–are all still with us and accelerating. To sum up we can say that honeybees have never had it so hard…
The Best Kept Secret (TBKS) was written in great haste at the end of 1998, because I knew that very soon I would have to deal with the situation described above. I wanted to record the wonderful, positive things I had learned and experienced–and which I knew could apply in many situations beyond my own–in case my personal story and momentum was swept away by the Varroa mite, and rapidly changing conditions for bees. I knew the next ten years or so would be very difficult–and I was certainly not disappointed…
It is my great pleasure to relate, however, that my sequel is a good-news story. Despite many setbacks and much more difficult conditions for the bees since 1998, my apiary has managed to survive, and even thrive during this difficult period–thanks to the guidance of my mentors and the experience, insights and habits that were builty up during the years I described in The Best Kept Secret. I’ll be the first to admit that there were elements of serendipity that were enormously helpful to me, and which may indeed have protected me from a complete failure. I’ll describe for you the most important one:
There were actually two different, exotic mite pests that came to American honeybee colonies during the late ’80’s and early ’90’s. In my part of the country, the tracheal mite (Acarapis woodi) arrived first, in 1986 or ’87. This microscopic pest lives in the bees’ breathing tubes, and came originally from Europe, via Mexico. It was normally co-evolved with honeybee colonies in Europe for at least 100 years, and perhaps much longer, but honeybees in North America had never been exposed to it, and heavy losses occurred when American bees encountered tracheal mites for the first time. In the days before mites, the normal winter loss of colonies in the northern U.S. was about five percent. When the T-mites first came, American beekeepers often lost 50% or more of their total colony count during the winter. I myself lost 50% in three of the first five winters after that initial exposure. At the time, this seemed like the end of the world but, as I described in TBKS, I already had in place a method of propagating new colonies much faster than we did in the past. And these “nucleus” colonies–which were made up in the midsummer, and overwintered as a very small cluster–were for some, still unknown reason, not much affected by the T-mites over their first winter. This enabled me to replace my winter losses, and continue to expand the apiary size without buying any bees. In any case there was no effective treatment against the tracheal mite, and all beekeepers had to muddle through as best they could. Some commercial beekeepers went out of business, but many began migrating to the southern states to escape the long period of winter confinement, and split colonies during the early southern spring. (Tracheal mites shorten the lifespan of the winter bees–which destroys the colony during the cold weather when no new bees are hatching out.) This set the stage for the massive movement of honeybee colonies throughout the country, and the absorption of most commercial apiaries into the industrial ag system.
In my case it took about five years of rapidly propagating the best survivors, and then testing them against the Vermont winters, for the apiary to stabilize and return to low winter losses. This was an enormous relief, but something else happened here, way beyond my best expectations or hopes: The bees that remained in my equipment at the end of this process were far better than the bees I was so proud of before the mites arrived. They had much bigger winter clusters, and at the same time wintered on less food and still had plenty of reserves in the spring. They were tough as nails, and required very little management or attention. It finally dawned on me that the tracheal mites had selected these bees, with very little attention required on my part. My contribution was to rapidly propagate the best survivors, and then set up the new colonies so that all the healthy ones could easily survive the winter. This was a great example of Sir Albert Howard’s principle that pests and diseases should be viewed as friends and allies, and can point out where our practices are unbalanced or poorly adapted. The combination of breeding and management used together–which proved to be such a powerful tool for dealing with the tracheal mite–later became the basis for dealing with the much more difficult varroa mite as well. (Detailed descriptions of the philosophy and methods I use in the apiary can be found at kirkwebster.com. Most of these are articles published over many years in the beekeeping journals.)
If I hadn’t had this experience with the tracheal mite first, I would never have had the courage to attempt it with the varroa mite. The tracheal mite was a normally co-evolved parasite. This means the parasite lived together with its host, weakened them perhaps, but did not destroy more than a small percentage of the host colonies. Among the greater host population (total number of colonies in this case), there was a large variation in the response to infestation. Some colonies perished, some were weakened, and some nearly unaffected. Even after a heavy winter loss, there were still many healthy colonies remaining, and the most resistant colonies were easy to identify. With a little help from me, the total colony count could recover in one season, and even grow.
The varroa mite however, was a much more difficult problem. After wiping out untold thousands of colonies in Asia, Europe and North America, it was given a new scientific name: Varroa destructor. Completely appropriate. It terrified us because there were apparently no survivors if an infestation was left unchecked. This mite had only recently started living together with our European honeybees, and they hadn’t learned yet how to co-exist. The pest was far more destructive to its host than a parasite can usually afford to be. Almost every single beekeeper in North America who wanted to continue with their trade or hobby had to change overnight from being an anti-pesticide activist, to being a pesticide applicator. I was one of them–I don’t believe there was an alternative at that time. The “wisdom” passed down to us from authorities was that “breeding bees resistant to varroa mites would be like breeding sheep resistant to wolves”.
The enormous good news that I’m able to report now after almost fifteen years is that this last statement has turned out to be completely untrue. Despite denial, ridicule, occasional tepid support, ostracization, and even active interference from “certified” bee authorities, there are now a handful of commercial beekeepers and a small battalion of hobby beekeepers who keep their bees alive from one year to the next, producing honey, pollen, propolis, bee venom and surplus bees; and use no treatments of any kind. In my own case, I started using the Apistan strips that everyone used at the beginning. They worked like a miracle at first; quickly killing all (actually almost all) the mites in the hive without apparently harming the bees. At least it was a synthetic pyrethroid product with very low toxicity to mammals (like us). It was really easy and the beekeeping world heaved a huge sigh of relief–then went right back to beekeeping-as-usual, plus chemical treatments. But I was still lying awake most nights in a cold sweat. This was a train wreck waiting to happen. Mites are notorious for quickly developing resistance to pesticides, and I didn’t expect this mite to be any different. I was determined to find another way of dealing with this problem by the time varroa became resistant to the Apistan strips.
(footnote: It’s hard not to point out here that the useable lifespan of a safe and effective product like Apistan could have been doubled by simply alternating annual treatments of Apistan with formic or oxalic acid. The tactic of applying different materials in alternate years in order to delay the development of pesticide resistance has been well established in crop protection circles forever, and why it was not used in this case, when the whole insect-pollinated food supply hung in the balance, can only be explained by conspiracy theorists and the inmates of mental institutions. This could have freed up a crucial amount of time for developing alternative, better strategies for dealing with the problem. As it turned out, hardly any beekeepers or researchers used what time they had to even try to find alternatives. Apistan was effective for five or six years, and then the industry and regulators moved on to much more dangerous and toxic mite treatments–setting the stage for the honeybee collapse that’s in progress today.)
Meanwhile, some chinks were starting to appear in the varroa’s armor. After initial infestation, and the complete colonization of all honeybee colonies, the parasite’s virulence began to back off a couple of notches. This is what any ecologist would expect to happen in such a situation, as Nature always does her best to move toward some kind of balance. After two or three years, a few colonies started popping up that had survived without any treatments; some were feral colonies in hollow trees or in the walls of houses, and some were “domesticated” bees in abandoned bee yards. The highly aggressive and difficult to manage Africanized bees in Texas and Arizona turned out to have a fair amount of resistance to the varroa mite, with up to half of the colonies surviving the first wave of infestation. So, there was hope that Apis mellifera might be able to co-exist with Varroa destructor, and that such bees could be selected and propagated.
The real breakthrough came when the bees from Russia’s far east, near China and Japan, were imported into the U.S., and later released to American beekeepers. This brilliant, well planned and extremely well executed piece of work was done by the very same USDA (well… same USDA, different people) that I have been criticizing all along. But they hit it right this time. Dr. Tom Rinderer and his colleagues at the USDA Bee Lab in Baton Rouge went to the one place in the world where European honeybees and Varroa destructor had lived together for the longest amount of time–perhaps 100 years. They ascertained that the bees and mites were in fact coexisting, and that beekeeping was thriving there. Big crops of honey were being produced with very few mite treatments. They brought back enough queen bees so that even after going through the strict mandatory quarantine they still had a viable gene pool to work with. After testing to ascertain that the new bees were resisting mites in North America the same way they were in Russia, the Russian bees were released to any interested American beekeeper. But they didn’t stop there–the release was done in such a way that the whole gene pool would be preserved, and so that American beekeepers would get optimum results without troubles due to inbreeding. In complete honesty and without any exaggeration, I can say that this piece of work has been of more practical help to me than all of the bee research done in North America during the last fifteen years, put together. So, even though the USDA has been complicit in many of the small farmers’ most difficult problems, it is still possible for something helpful to emerge there. Unfortunately, the trend is still against us, as we’ll see a little later.
The Russian bees are not immune to the varroa mite–far from it. But they do have several mechanisms and strategies that we know of (and certainly others that we don’t know) that allow them to co-exist, and keep the annual damage at a level that can be repaired by the bees’ natural ability to reproduce. The most important thing is that these bees are still a “wild type”, and capable of further improvement. “Wild Type” means that, though they are distinctive in appearance and behavior, they still have a deep gene pool and a good deal of variability within the whole population (total number of colonies in this case). Russian bees also have many other positive traits that are sought after by beekeepers: They are gentle, and easy to work with; resilient; conservative with their food stores; and very sensitive to changes in their environment. They can resist other bee diseases and–best of all in my location–they have a huge desire to gather nectar, and overwinter well with small clusters.
They do have one major flaw: Their population dynamics in general are very different from the more familiar Italian bee, and in particular they are very determined to swarm in the early summer–whether they appear to be crowded or not. This one characteristic is probably most of the reason why these bees have not been adopted wholesale by the American beekeeping community. So far, most beekeepers are content to use Italian bees, plus chemical treatments. After all, this is what they are advised to do by the beekeeping research and extension communities.
Besides the presence of varroa mites, and the downward spiral they have triggered in the beekeeping community, there is another aspect of beekeeping that has completely changed in the last fifteen years. For the first time in my life, the public in general is very aware of honeybees and their plight. During the first half of my career, most of the general public knew almost nothing about bees of any kind. Now everyone knows something about them, and many people follow the ongoing story in some detail. In fact, if you haven’t heard the latest press release about honeybee decline, you can pretty much just stop someone randomly in the street and find out. Bees have made it into the news and the public consciousness. In some ways this is wonderful, and hugely important. The pollination issue and potential threats to the food supply have applied enormous leverage on people’s understanding of the interconnectedness of Nature and the importance of farmers and beekeepers. It’s like we’ve been promoted from being curiosities to being valuable members of society. In the middle of nowhere, people I’ve never seen before will stop me on the road, just to tell me how glad they are that I’m out there keeping some bees alive. Go into any store or the bank–if they know you keep bees, they want to know all the latest…
But there’s a dark side to all this as well. The mite invasion, and the continued decline of the honeybee has been a huge bonanza for the bee research community. In the days before mites, these people used to dream of someday landing a grant of $50,000–or gosh even $80,000. When I worked on an early LISA (Low Input Sustainable Agriculture) project–the first grants with money specifically set aside for farmer participants–Cornell University fought tooth and nail to take away my little $6,000; and put it in their pockets. (I managed to hang on to it, and used it to make my apiary into a full-time job. But I swore I would never work on an extension or USDA project ever again.) Several years later, Cornell was awarded the first bee research grant over one million dollars. I don’t try to keep track, but each year I hear of another new project with a pricetag of three to several million. The number of bee researchers has not changed all that much during this time, so this has set off a huge feeding frenzy. Now there’s a special interest group of beekeeping “experts”, whose programs get paid the most when bees are the sickest. The advice they are peddling, and the direction they are trying to steer the community seems specifically designed to insure that if any real progress is allowed, it must proceed at a glacial pace, and that the bees’ problems will never go away. Want to know more? All I can say is that I know personally several of these people, and there’s not one of them that I would describe as overly greedy or malicious. The system they work in almost insists that they operate this way…
In the long run it’s always the same: now and then we might get a little help from the USDA or other agency, but to succeed farmers need to create their own systems, their own reality, and do their own research. In my case I tried to do this by taking the Russian bees and applying to them the techniques I had learned from my mentors, my experience and especially from the tracheal mites. My apiary today is not perfect by any means, but I have been able to make a living from bees without using any treatments since 2002. Despite assurances from “authorities” and “experts” that there is now such thing as commercial beekeeping without mite treatments, a few of us have discovered that Sir Albert Howard’s idea that pests and diseases should be viewed as friends and allies, helping us to restore health and balance, is true even in this extreme case. The time- and worry-intensive methods of beekeeping promoted by the scientific beekeeping community–with constant mite treatments and laborious testing for specific traits in colonies that never get a chance to show their real potential–can all be done away with by simply using a stock that has a history of non-treatment and survival; allowing the mites to select the best and strongest colonies; and by rapidly propagating the survivors to replace the initial losses, and then to increase the apiary size. The mites are doing a much better job of testing the bees than any number of lab coats, clip boards and computer programs can do, and after the initial collapse-and-recovery cycle, at a very low cost. Beekeepers who tried to avoid this collapse-and-recovery cycle by continuous treatments are now suffering from contamination of their combs, and experiencing losses the same or worse than untreated apiaries…
That’s the short version of my beekeeping story since 1999. The whole process is described in detail on the website (kirkwebster.com).
In the beekeeping present, the major concerns for me have shifted from the mite threat to the problems of erratic weather, the loss of bee forage, and the degradation and poisoning of the environment. These last two problems are a function of industrial ag’s push to encompass all of North America’s farmland. Now that the major farming areas are thoroughly within their control, even the small, discontinuous fields of New York and New England have become the new frontiers for expansion of industrial methods. Until recently, pesticide problems were very low on my list of beekeeping problems. It’s not true anymore. For decades I read and listened to the heartbreaking stories of beekeepers in the mid-west and elsewhere, who lost hundreds of colonies at a time, or even their whole outfits to pesticide kills. Then come the frustrating follow-up stories of how hard it often is to figure out and/or prove what really happened, and how little liability the manufacturers and applicators take for this damage. I felt lucky to live and work in a relatively clean farming environment, almost entirely devoted to dairy farming. But with the advent of neonicotinoid treatment of corn seed, the whole destructive cycle is beginning here.
The advantage we have in Vermont is a huge general (if sometimes naive) interest in organic farming among the population. Now that organic dairy farming is well established here, there is some serious acreage reflecting organic methods. And some of these farms are extremely successful. I got to watch one of these great stories from my old home in Bridport. My neighbors, John and Beverly Rutter, had been devoted to dairy farming since before their marriage, and had moved from one farm to another as they assiduously applied the advice put forward by the University of Vermont and the USDA–and accumulated debts of almost half a million dollars. In a last effort to save their farm and their livelihood, they switched cold turkey from a confinement to a grazing-based system, and then to a full organic program. As he got the idea, John made many innovations of his own–mostly just “letting the cows be cows”. Even in this cold climate the young and dry stock lived outdoors year-round, and the milkers spent the winter under the simplest kind of pole shed. All year, the farm looked like some sort of buffalo prairie, with cattle spread out grazing all over the place in summer, and in mobs clustered around strategically placed rows of round bales during the winter. In the last fifteen years since beginning these changes, the farm paid of its debts and accumulated huge assets of cattle and equipment on a relatively small land base. My vet friends told me: “We don’t know what’s going on there–they never call us anymore.” John’s premature death was a huge loss to the organic movement in Vermont and elsewhere. Near the end of his life, when he couldn’t work much and appreciated having visitors, he told me that an independent study of dairy economics concluded: “This must be the most profitable dairy farm in Vermont”. John also told me that he and Beverly still hadn’t figured out how best to deal with the “tidal wave of money” that hit them after their full organic program started working.
It’s hard to watch things like this, and know that Vermont and the midwest could be a paradise for both farmers and beekeepers if they would just move the animals back to where their feed is grown and utilize thinking like John’s. But maybe this is the time to get back to the idea and reality of The Best Kept Secret, and how these have changed in the last fifteen years or so…
“The best kept secret”, still seems to me one of the best ways of describing a really successful small farm in North America today. This kind of success is still not part of modern American culture; still unknown and unknowable to most people who must work and live everyday in the predatory and abusive modern American society. But it may not be quite as invisible as it was fifteen years ago–at least where the local food movement has really struck a chord and more people are seeking out and producing food for their neighbors. I still don’t believe, however, that very many of these seekers really understand what they are seeing, or that many producers are necessarily aware of what they are doing. The most serious obstacle to success with a small farm remains the same: embracing the values and habits needed to see and actually utilize the power and benevolence of Nature, while being surrounded by a society that is actively destructive and in conflict with those values and habits.
The basic tenants of my earlier essay still all hang together for me. But some of the amazing and rapid changes that have occurred since our new millennium began have thrown some of them into a new light:
Farming is really the cultivation of better human beings, and Faith was put forth as the most important foundational understanding. Nothing can change that. Humility and Reverence–the awareness of unknown and unknowable powers that we must somehow align ourselves with is still the basis of any real progress.
Time has to be understood and used in a completely different way by farmers than it is by most Americans–and in this area things have changed almost unbelievably in the last ten years…
SFJ Summer 1999;The Best Kept Secret (TBKS), pg 82:
“The most damaging aspect of modern society may be the horrible distortion of the human spirit and the compression of time wrought by electronics and power mechanics.”
This compression of time I referred to fifteen years ago was like a cow being confined in a hoof trimming chute–temporarily depriving it of the ability to move around and develop its normal ability; all in the name of efficiency. The compression of time today is like diesel fuel compressed in the cylinder until it spontaneously explodes and destroys itself… I hope I don’t see people’s brains exploding spontaneously anytime soon, but I do think people’s ability to concentrate has been destroyed the same way that diesel fuel is in the cylinders. Your mind (the best thing you will ever have) was designed to interact with the world around you–to interpret seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting, smelling; to learn, to question, to remember, and to make connections. Its made to experience, to comprehend, to apprehend, to remember and to discern cycles and patterns. Solar cycles, lunar cycles, weather patterns, water cycles, heat cycles, fertility cycles; the life cycles of hundreds of different plants and animals, and also to be somehow aware of cycles we can’t fully know or describe–we need all of this to inform and guide a wise action. The vital quality of mind necessary for living in a harmonious and creative relationship with the totality of life is something I call: “Continuity of Attention”. Being constantly aware of the real world around us, on as many levels as possible, in a relaxed and balanced way, and without being overwhelmed, is the key to having our lifetime farm work and thought build on itself in a positive way, and have the possibility of producing something better for the next generation. The cycles and rhythms we can apparently comprehend come in all different time frames: from seconds to centuries. We need to have a conscious and unconscious grip on them all. That’s how our minds were designed to fit in with Nature’s creative process. We need to consider the stories about cycles and rhythms told to us by the older generation; and we need to prepare the next generation by telling them our stories.
The escalating effects of electronics; the speed and triviality of its communications; the space afforded to it by the Western collective mind; and the displacement of concentration and wisdom frankly makes me fear more for the future of humanity than any of the other grave indicators. All the other indicators could be reversed by healthy minds and steady effort. The digital world is undermining both of these. It’s an insidious process, and many people are not aware of what is happening to them. The qualities required for successful farming have not been recognized as important in our society for a couple of generations. I guess that makes it easy to give them up… The one hopeful sign I see here is that ten years ago when I told people I don’t use the internet or e-mail, they would say: “How can you possibly survive that way?” Now, when they hear the same answer they respond: “Oh, I wish I could do that, too!”
I know there may be quite a few people who will insist that the internet and e-mail are essential to their farm’s success. We’ll just have to see what happens in the long run. This whole trend is moving with incredible speed, and it’s not going to stop any time soon. So the experiment is going to run its course. The situation today is very new, and by tomorrow it will be different again. But every small farm I know of that has been a genuine success, and passed the way of life on to another generation developed its methods and intentions with the pre-internet heart and mind. We’ll see if the same insights can be preserved and passed on as these farmers and their descendants embrace electronic communication.
SFJ Summer 1999; TBKS, pg 83:
“Almost all of the important jobs on the farm require planing, learning, thought and action over a long period–planting, tending and putting up crops; caring for animals and guiding the herd through many generations; putting up buildings or making other improvements. Any one of these projects can easily have the planning stage going on years before any visible progress is made. All farms have several of these enterprises going on simultaneously, each at a different stage of completion. The farmer who really understands how all these endeavors function together and support one another is the true master of his craft and is just as highly skilled and educated as any doctor or head of state. This is the most difficult of all the farming skills, and the hardest to come by–even with excellent examples to observe and follow. It must be one of the areas where some people are born to farming and others are not. But when time is considered in proper relation to Nature’s pace and rhythm, and the life spans of people and farms; many of the difficulties disappear.”
While I’m onto the unpopular subjects that no one talks about, and stirring up controversy: Another serious detriment to the Continuity of Attention, as well as integrity and the ability to put the pieces together into a harmonious whole–is marijuana. Like the overuse of electronics, pot is insidious in that it simultaneously diminishes your ability, while creating a delusional sense of self-importance. Sometimes a fierce interest in one subject or aspect is fostered; but at the same time the back side of the brain, responsible for making connections and organizing, is eaten away. For some reason Vermont is a great place to watch this sad process at work. Marijuana and other drugs set the Vermont commercial beekeeping community back one whole generation at least. And on every street corner is some new prophet, fully self-justified in living, one way or another, off the work and resources of others, and preaching to his flock of five or six, similarly afflicted. The huge population of moderate users are apparently functioning normally–one or two levels below where they would have been without drugs.
There are very few among us who have bodies that can live a long time without being afflicted by gradual decay, weakness and suffering. But there are many minds with the potential to grow and learn; to develop happiness and wisdom right to the end of a long life–if we take care of them. Cultivation of the mind is a really important part of farming, and requires the same qualities of attention, humility, discovery, patience and determination that we try to apply to the farm–the same careful feeding and slow improvement over long periods of time. Energy and insight obtained through the use of drugs really is borrowed from the future, and upsets this long-term process.
I might actually be in favor of legalizing pot–I’m not sure. I’m in favor of whatever will discourage people from using drugs, and stop the horrible violence and suffering in Latin America caused by our drug use. Sometimes I think the simplest and most accurate way to describe American society is to just call it a drug culture. The three most damaging, popular and widely used drugs (here in Vermont at least) are electronics, marijuana, and unearned income. All of them separate you from reality and impair your ability to have a genuinely creative and positive relationship with Nature. Successful farming is still the best antidote; a better way of life constantly making things better for society as a whole–where none of these drugs are necessary or helpful. We’re really struggling now with how to make this less invisible to Americans, and how to get more of them involved with the farmer’s conception of time and attention…
In the realm of Economics, a few really interesting things have happened since 1999. If president Obama’s health care plan survives, it will be a huge positive step for the development of small farms, and indeed all kinds of new businesses. At least the way it stands now, premiums for health insurance are entirely based on adjusted gross income. This means that, for the first time, farmers can make the necessary investments in their farms, live on a small cash income, and still have health care at reasonable cost if they need it for themselves or their families. We’ll see if the quality of health care actually improves, but this new system eliminates a huge amount of risk and worry. In fact the new plan for distributing health insurance may cause new businesses of all kinds to spring up like the grass in April when people realize that they won’t lose everything if a family member has a serious illness.
The economics of commercial beekeeping on a small scale is changing rapidly as well. All the problems honeybees are facing, here and worldwide, have sent the value of bees and bee products trending sharply up. Weather problems, and a huge global expansion of the corn and soybean monster has killed the world’s surplus of honey. In the U.S., commercial beekeepers are focused like zombies on pollinating the California almond crop, and so have further reduced their ability to produce surplus honey and bees for sale. At the same time that U.S. commercial beekeeping is circling down in a death spiral, hobby beekeeping is booming and almost every beekeeping club in the country has at least twice as many members as it did twenty years ago. What this means is that if you are fortunate enough to live in a place with relatively clean and varied sources of pollen and nectar, the potential for a successful family-sized commercial apiary is better now than it has been for many decades.
When I started my commercial apiary in 1985, most beeyards here had twenty or thirty colonies for producing honey, and might yield $8,000 (in today’s dollars) of gross income if the beekeeper bottled and sold the honey him or herself. (Many beekeepers at that time did apple pollination as well with the same colonies, but the management involved usually resulted in a smaller honey crop, and a similar gross income.) Today the honey is harder to produce, but its value is about four times what it was thirty years ago. The really big change is that now the pollen and nectar from one good clover location can be developed into nucleus colonies for sale, and the theoretical maximum income potential for one location is up around $30,000. So you don’t need to have a lot of locations to be a full-time beekeeper today. In a fascinating way, the new beekeeping that’s emerging from the mite and corn disaster resembles in many ways the first commercial apiaries developed by beekeeping pioneers in the horse and buggy days. It is possible now to at least imagine an apiary with just two locations that could support a house and a family… But they would have to be good locations, and these are getting harder and harder to find. And as with any healthy farm, it’s great to take advantage of high prices when they occur, but there must always be an alternate plan for resilience and stability when prices fall once again…
My ideas about the return of animal power to farms has not progressed the way I imagined fifteen years ago. However, my prediction about the chance for radical change in our society has remained exactly the same: until energy becomes a really serious problem, the powers that be will successfully use every kind of leverage and smoke and mirror available to keep things limping along the way they are now. A serious disruption in the supply of either food or fossil energy is the only thing that will force us, as a society, to wake up and organize ourselves on a different basis. My time frame was not accurate because they keep finding more and more fossil energy to exploit. And the lengths that energy companies will go to, seeking out every stray molecule of fossil carbon–no matter how deep in the ground, or how much water or soil or air must be poisoned in order to get it out–is truly terrifying. The insatiable demand of the addict (us) is the only thing that can drive such insanity. Then the next frightening thought is: “When they’ve sucked the last drop of oil and fart of gas out of the ground, will they turn to and consume every tree, stick of wood, ear of corn or blade of grass to make some kind of pseudo-gasoline, so that our last act before we all starve to death is to drive a few miles across the lunar landscape that once was a paradise?”
The hopeful truth here is that we don’t have to wait for fossil energy to run out–its possible to farm now in a way that creates new energy rather than constantly using it up. Almost any farm can get on a trend toward using biological energy instead of fossil energy. And there are already successful farms, both within and outside the Anabaptist communities, that have pursued this to its true end purpose: The union of people, spirit and Nature. The existence and proliferation of these farms are hugely important now–so that there are models and visible alternatives to carbon armageddon when fossil energy really does decline.
There are many who think that a slightly different, but related carbon armageddon is already here, and they may be right. Twenty years ago, global warming was a foggy theory or a crackpot notion in most people’s minds, if it was there at all. My friend and partner-in-crime Bill McKibben, more than any other single person, has brought this issue into the global mind. I like to say that he did for global warming what Garrison Keilor did for the radio. In Bill’s book, Oil and Honey, you can read about the huge difference in lifestyle and complete co-dependance between activists and farmers…
SFJ Summer 1999; TBKS, pg 86:
“The very trees we had been standing under, and thousands of others visible in every direction, were living testimonials to the reliability of sun and water, warmth and cold, over a period of decades and in fact hundreds of years. One glance around should have told us that the promise of seed time and harvest has never been broken at least since the first European settlers arrived here…”
This promise of seed time and harvest has still not been broken here yet, but there was more than one season in the last fifteen when it came close. There are farmers in other parts of the world who have had much more serious difficulty with recent erratic weather then I have. The bottom line, take home message coming from every direction is that weather is becoming more unpredictable and extreme. The planet is warming in general, and that means there’s more total energy in our finite earthly atmospheric system. Most places are getting warmer in general, but that also means that cold air is sometimes pulled or pushed down into places where it didn’t usually go. What all this means for farmers is that they will have to be even more aware, resilient and adaptable than in the past…
SFJ Summer 1999; TBKS, pg 82:
“The characteristics of good farming embodied by the Amish are the very same ones we all must pursue in order to succeed. It is ironic however, that within Amish society it’s the most conforming and home-loving members who can most easily embrace them, but elsewhere in America today it’s only the most determined iconoclasts and mavericks who have taken these same simple guidelines and made a success of farming…”
It’s still fascinating to me that, while successful Amish and “English” farms may have things in common, they reached their success by completely different pathways. The Amish removed themselves from society as a group long ago, and have very old and strong traditions guiding many aspects of their life and Faith. Their farming success is, in many ways built into their traditions, and appears to effortlessly pass from one generation to another. But most of the rest of us (the “English”) had to remove ourselves from society as individuals and learn everything from scratch in a very short time–often inventing ways to get to the next rung because our culture doesn’t climb that farming ladder anymore. The one group is able to farm successfully through strict adherence to tradition and conformity, while the other succeeds through contrariness, innovation and sheer determination. Both methods have strengths and weaknesses. The Amish seem to have a long list of strengths forged together into a strong chain–but in rapidly changing circumstances, they may not be able to adapt fast enough. The contrary innovators may be able to adopt a new, key concept when necessary, but they still need access to traditions in order to learn the basics, and not waste too much time reinventing wheels. I think the message from global warming is that now we need to decide which elements of tradition to combine with new ways of thinking and acting as we face the future.
Writing The Best Kept Secret brought me into direct contact with three Amish communities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York. I feel honored that they would consider my ideas and experience worthwhile, and I deeply regret that I have not had time to accept some of the invitations to visit their communities. But my discussions, correspondence and contacts with them have revealed that they are facing, as a community, some very serious challenges I was unaware of in 1999. It was a surprise to me to learn that the majority of Amish are not farming for a living now. With large families and more difficulty finding new land to colonize, the majority of Amish now support themselves doing construction work and with home-based industries of many kinds. As one of them said to me: “Most of us still live in the country, but we’re losing our farming heritage.”
The other problem is much more serious. Though they don’t go to school after the eighth grade, the Amish have been very open to scientists who want to study their unique and well documented family trees and gene pool. And these studies have revealed that this gene pool is not big enough for them to continue as a healthy population in the long run. The debilitating genetic diseases already established in their families will eventually effect a growing percentage of their population, unless they make more marriages with outsiders. Culturally, this is a very difficult thing for them to do. So, here is another suggestion that there is no one model for a successful small farm in the future–to one extent or another we each have to create our own.
SFJ Summer 1999; TBKS, pg 82:
“Success in farming requires at least some degree of separation from the larger society…”
“The obstacles seem so daunting when viewed from inside the modern industrial way of life. But if you can step outside, a whole new world emerges and St. Thomas’ words [‘The Kingdom of Heaven surrounds you but you see it not…’] come to life in everything around you.”
The most difficult problem is still the same: How to embrace the possibilities for human development achievable through farming while surrounded by a culture that seems determined to destroy those possibilities. The Amish institutionalized solutions to this problem. By preserving the division of labor and traditional roles for men and women, and by rejecting the overuse of technology, they preserved the Continuity of Attention in all family members. This allows each person to do a thorough job with their own responsibilities, and for the parts to add up to a harmonious whole. The point is not that men should do certain jobs and women should do others. The important thing is that each member frees up time for the others so that all the important tasks can be mastered. On farms in the past it was normal for each person to have strong ties to a reasonable number of activities, and those people were accomplished way beyond the small concept of money and what passes for achievement today. In the modern world, weak ties with an infinite number of trivial things is what’s encouraged, and real accomplishment is heading down towards zero. I don’t believe successful farming can withstand this trend or direction, and among “English” farmers a way must be found to reject it…
Here at the end, I’ll revisit one last thing from The Best Kept Secret (SFJ Fall 1999; pg 27):
“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 any more, 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 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 definition of successful beekeeping.”
A shortage of good mentors is still one of the most serious obstacles in a successful farming path for young people; just like it was in 1999. And this is the one and only thing I would like to add to my apiary, with whatever time and energy I have remaining. Now it’s no longer in the planning stage. Two years ago I moved to a new home in New Haven, Vermont, where there’s not only enough room to accommodate two or three apprentices, but also enough land to show the connection between healthy farming and healthy beekeeping. The value of untreated bees and the honey they produce has increased enough that the apiary can support more workers now without expanding.
Despite the two worst summers for bees that I have ever seen, in 2011 and 2013, the expensive and exhausting transition to the new place was made with all the expenses being paid, and without borrowing money. The dangerous hurry to complete the new buildings in one season has given way to the continued slow but steady progress that grew the apiary in the first place, and which is the basis of all genuine successful farms, as far as I can tell. The measure of the apiary’s health is not just the continued life and longevity of the honeybees, but also its ability to economically maintain this gradual improvement through both good and bad weather years. Success with a small farm really is the “Middle Path” of Economics as well as other things. It’s counterintuitive in most of the modern world that the only way to make a living from a healthy farm is to make profit a secondary goal. Here’s the secret which no one motivated by money, accumulation or status will ever understand: The regenerative power of Nature can only be tapped by working for the benefit of other living things first, before yourself. If you can do this in a skillful way, massive new energy from the sun comes into the system. Industrial society tells you to sell that energy to support yourself and the industrial world; thus leading to the scarcity and depletion we see today. But if you invest that energy back into the living world, and live yourself on the by-products of the process, the whole system gains in productivity, resilience, health and beauty. After a time those by-products grow to be larger than the initial energy gain, and can even become overwhelming.
At this point, humanity’s chance of survival in the long run may depend on its ability to embrace this principle–in thousands if variations all over the world. I have a place now for a few people who would like to try it as a way of life with bees. I’m not sure if there are many young people in America today who could or would want to do this. But if there are, and if I can help them, I’m determined to find them. It takes integrity, humility, continuity of attention and what recently has been identified by social science as the best predictor of success in all fields: “grit”. At this point in American society, I think this can only be done by people who really need, for one reason or another, a real alternative to mainstream America.
This new apiary farm was set up so that it doesn’t need apprentices or extra helpers to operate. I need to do much of the work myself anyway to stay healthy, and all of my local part-time helpers would like to work more if they could. This gives me the ability to search for the people who could benefit the most, and then repeat the process in the future with their own students.
Someone who lived and worked here for ten months a year for two years, could learn much of the apiary routine, build equipment for 50-100 colonies of bees with my tools and lumber, and with my help propagate that number of colonies out of my existing bees. This way they learn not only a method of keeping bees, but also–when they leave to start an apiary of their own–they start with bees already adapted to the methods they learned. You don’t need to have huge experience with bees to do this–in fact I’ve had much better luck teaching people who are not already involved in the chemical-industrial beekeeping model. But you have to be hard-working, independent minded, and actively opposed to the larger definition of the drug culture, as described above. This is also intended for people who have a home base or an area they are already familiar with that is suitable for commercial beekeeping. And you must also show that you already have a record of real accomplishment–with bees or something else.
There may not be many young people who could do this anymore, but I know there are some–because I already have four “students” who have adapted my methods to their own situations, and now have rapidly growing apiaries based on untreated bees. None of them wanted, needed or were able to come and actually live here, but they all embody the qualities I listed above, and have confirmed my observation that genuinely capable people already know what to do–they just don’t realize it and all they really need is a little help to acknowledge and align their abilities.
Troy Hall of Plainfield, New Hampshire, (Hall Apiaries) lives near his ancestral home and is now producing bees, queens and honey for sale. Andrew Munkres in Cornwall, Vermont, (Lemon Fair Honeyworks) I have described in a previous article. He was forced to give up his farm in Iowa when he and his wife developed extremely severe cases of Lyme disease. They both loved farming, and were looking for something outdoors they could still do during their recovery in Vermont, and hit upon beekeeping. (Bee venom, by the way, is considered by some to be an antidote to the Lyme parasite.) The one colony I gave him in return for helping in the beeyards has grown to over 200 and he may be able to quit his part-time job soon and focus entirely on bees. Daniel Berry in Amherst, Massachusetts (Invisible Cities Apiaries) has been working at Natural Roots Farm (Conway, Ma.) and Warm Colors Apiary (South Deerfield, Ma.) while building up his own bees and starting a family. And Abe Yoder in Morrisville, N.Y. (Resilience Apiaries–315-684-3422) is trying to become the first full-time Amish beekeeper that we know of. He and a friend rode their bicycles 100 miles to visit here during the summer of 2012. There are some very different backgrounds and personalities here, but any one of them I would have welcomed here to live and work.
When I first started talking to my friends about the idea for this program, some of them said “Why do you need to have your helpers living at your place? Why not just offer the training and let them find a place to live in the community?”
Well, two years is a small enough time to learn the basics of any responsible job. Aligning as many aspects of life as possible around the farm is essential here. This is easy to do in the Amish world, and very difficult outside of it. All non-Amish farmers struggle with it–including myself. By having your dwelling place, meals and leisure time connected to the farm is how you learn to think like an owner instead of an employee. It makes a place for study, reading, writing and association in support of farming and not constantly distracted by the insistent self-destruction of the larger society. By combining the best elements of a school, a family and a monastery within the farm lets you see how a really elegant farm’s labor and management are actually the same thing; and how all the farmer’s activities are related and eventually become self-organized. The degree to which these neglected and embattled understandings are mastered is often the difference between a farm’s eventual success or failure–and it’s not possible to learn them in any other way.
The larger community here in Addison Co., Vermont, is in general quite supportive of farming. Like most places, there are good and bad people here, ready to teach you any lesson you want or need to learn. But the most important lessons come now from Nature, and those who can approach her with attention, humility, energy, integrity and love. This is a place to focus on those things…
If I was, in my wildest dreams, able to make one suggestion that would be adopted by the whole American farming community, it might be this: Let’s use the honeybee as the best and final arbiter of whether an agricultural ecosystem is healthy or not. Some natural ecosystems are very favorable to honeybees–like the forests of Brazil or the southern Appalachians. Others, like the rain forests of Washington and Oregon, are not. But for honeybees to thrive in an ag ecosystem, there need to be a wide variety of plants growing there. Trees, shrubs, forbs; annuals and perennials–they’re all important. Animals are important too. Their grazing habits and digestive systems encourage legumes (a major honeybee food source) and allow fertility to be maintained and built up without chemical fertilizers or pesticides. It’s also good to plow up part of the landscape every year. That gives plants like dandelions and mustard a chance to get started, and ensures that legumes will be part of the rotation. Without pesticides or chemical fertilizers, the air and water are clean. Hey! This is starting to sound like a good place for people to live, too…!
The area of U.S. farmland where honeybees can thrive on their own is shrinking rapidly now. At the end of World War II, Iowa was a paradise for honeybees from one corner to the other, and it was the epicenter of honey production in North America. Today, it’s difficult for bees to even survive in most of Iowa, and the honey production epicenter has moved north and west, across the Canadian border into Saskatchewan. (And the enormous production there is not entirely healthy either–the superabundant canola honey, grown in huge monocultures, is useless to the bees as winter food, and has to be replaced by sugar syrup.) As many of the readers of this magazine know; health, sanity, beauty and people could return to U.S. farm country if we just brought the animals back to where their food is grown, and used honeybees to tell us when health has really been restored. That’s the only thing I try to teach my helpers and “students”: Focus on health and awareness. The rest is just mechanics and stamina…
Places where honeybees can thrive on their own are in fact the healthiest places for people to live as well. There’s potential in these places now for really exciting new apiaries to grow up and start supplying the huge demand for healthy bees that exists in every state and Canadian province. Is it possible we could use this remarkable insect, and the public’s awareness of its plight, to leverage a better future for ourselves and our farms?