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What’s Missing From The Current Discussion And Work Related To Bees That’s Preventing Us From Making Good Progress?

Jan 1, 2009 | 2009 Writings, View All Posts

For several years, back aways now, it was unbearably dreary and frustrating listening to discussions between beekeepers, reading the bee journals, and especially, going to bee meetings. All the conversations revolved around killing mites, fear of not being able to kill mites, and constant calls for “someone” to do “something”. Powerpoint presentations came into their own during this time, getting fancier with each passing month and giving at least the subliminal message to our nation of techno-dependant morons that, though the situation looks dire at the moment, things are actually well in hand and soon to be resolved. Meanwhile, the health and resilience of our bees, as well as the colony count, were steadily declining. Mite control chemicals appeared to prop things up for awhile, but in the end their main contributions were the creation of ever more virulent mites and the slow poisoning of our beehives. Bees and mites were never allowed to live together and co-evolve, and the true purpose and potential of varroa mites was never even considered.

Thankfully, those days are over. Somehow, a few years ago, our community started coming back to life, and now there are all kinds of creative things going on, and many hopeful signs for the future. Granted, American commercial beekeeping still has its head firmly planted in the sand, and has decided to exist by exploiting two of the many unsustainable weaknesses built into our industrial agriculture system: the huge almond monoculture, and continued acceptable prices for diesel fuel. (In the end, almond pollination is going to be the venus fly-trap that finishes off the old commercial bee industry for good.) But this situation is counterbalanced by the ever increasing army of new, young and old hobby beekeepers coming on the scene, unencumbered by memories of “the good old days”, and ready to use their enthusiasm, creative energy, co-operative spirit and money to help build a better future for beekeeping. This is the soil out of which will grow a new beekeeping industry based on a healthier vision of the honeybee colony, agriculture, and our place in the natural world. Even the mite control conversations are more cheerful now, with the emphasis on “softer” treatments, and there are both private and publicly funded breeding programs focusing on mite resistance. Best of all, there are whole meetings now devoted entirely to people who never treat their bees, and have found a variety of ways to make it work in their own situations. None of these schemes are perfect, (and why should we expect them to be?), but many of those involved, who were already keeping bees before the advent of mites, are now enjoying their beekeeping more than ever before.

It puzzles some of us however, that despite all the above-mentioned good news, beekeeping is still in a shaky situation at best, our colony count is still declining, and we’re still described, both inside and outside the industry, in terms of calamity and crisis. Most of us who figured out a way to keep bees without treatments and still make a living from them lost plenty of sleep and probably shortened their life span as part of the process. But looking back, we realize now that most of the stress we experienced came from ignorance and our inability to be flexible in our thinking. We didn’t know what we were doing, and had no good models to follow. Today the process seems relatively simple and straightforward– requiring steady work and attention, just like any worthwhile endeavor, but well within the grasp of the vast majority of beekeepers. Why are we having so much trouble abandoning our self-destructive habits and working in a more creative and positive direction? Is it really a co-incidence that many of the people who actually solved some of the problems confronting our community lived in rented barns in New England, travel trailers in an industrial district of Tucson, or some other situation considered marginal by most of society? Why are the beekeepers in Scandinavia who have not treated their bees for many years and are doing just fine still being marginalized in various ways and continuously encouraged to just “shut up”? After Kirsten Traynor described so well the current state of German beekeeping—how incredibly organized, meticulous and capable they are—you have to ask: Why have they made so little progress with varroa resistance after living with these mites for so long?

I have a list of four things which have been for the most part left out of the current discussions about bees, and which I believe are of enormous importance for the future health of our industry, and for that matter all of agriculture. I’ll go so far as to say that, if these four things are included in our vision of beekeeping in the future, then our community will recover its health, sanity, prosperity and peace of mind; and help to lead agriculture in a similar recovery. If they are neglected, then beekeeping and agriculture will continue in it’s self-destructive course, ending in a rural version of Mutually Assured Destruction—despite the hopeful signs mentioned earlier. I’ll list my four topics first, then come back to each one in more detail and try to show how they are related to each other:

First; The Element of Wildness—we need to learn how to utilize the things we don’t know, can’t know, about Nature, as well as the things we do know (or think we know).

Second; Farmers—People who make a nice life for themselves by working and living closely every day with their own crops and livestock, are almost extinct in N. America—but they are the only ones who can solve our current problems, and the only way to produce good food and keep society stable in an energy-poor future.

Third; Using “Horizontal” breeding methods instead of “Vertical” methods—for bees, crops, and other livestock.

And Fourth; The Element of Mind—we’re stuck in a mindset that’s harmful and destructive to everything we touch—especially ourselves. Yet, this mindset represents only a fraction of what we’re capable of.

If you need something to help you remember these four points, just think of Wild Farmers getting Horizontally Minded. Maybe that will help…

So,—The Element of Wildness. There was a period of time, two or three decades ago, when lots of people seemed to have those big Sierra Club books sitting around in the living room, with pictures of mountains and redwood forests in the cover, and down in the corner the quote from Henry David Thoreau: “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World”. Truer words were never spoken, and now we need this element of wildness to help us end the waste and destruction we have perpetrated upon the world. But we’re stuck with a very limited concept of Wildness. We see it as it was portrayed in those oversized Nature books—as places where primeval forests or other ecosystems are left undisturbed by people; where we can go for short periods of time to camp and be restored by the incredible power, majesty and subtlety of untrammeled Nature. All of which I approve of completely—along with the supreme importance of preserving all such places that still exist. But what we really need now is to bring wildness back to the farms, suburbs, and cities where we spend most of our time, and to cultivate more Wildness in all of these places.

As a first example, let’s use corn—our most important crop. Even in our highly manipulated, subsidized, gas-guzzling and science-dominated corn production, the importance of “Wildness” is clearly shown by the constant need for new varieties to replace the last batch of hybrids or GMOs that are currently breaking down due to pressure from pests and diseases. Where does at least some essential part of the genetic material for these new varieties come from? The most remote valleys and hillsides of Oaxaca, Mexico; sometimes accessible only by mule or on foot; where agriculture is more “primitive”, and varieties have been carefully cultivated and preserved for an uncountable number of generations by indigenous people and subsistence farmers. This pool of “wild” genetic material gets smaller every year, due to the incursion of more and more “modern”, science-created varieties into Oaxaca. Depending on this kind of a system to get our corn varieties has provided some excitement for a few plant explorers; created a small elite class of corn breeders and technicians, along with a temporary supply of corn big enough to feed livestock, people and vehicles; but it’s utterly breathtaking in its stupidity when you consider the way its putting the entire N. American corn crop at risk in the future, and the way it has squandered the original and incomparable gift of corn; given to us as countless stable varieties by indigenous people and American farmers—when there were still American farmers. The same situation exists, as slightly less glaring examples, in many of our other major crops. And all by neglecting the element of Wildness.

Is it that much different with our bees? So far, the only bees that have been able to co-exist with varroa here without treatments, and pass on that ability for many generations, came from more “primitive” places where agriculture is not as “advanced” as ours: far eastern Russia and Africa (via South America). Other lines of bees have been selected based on labor-intensive monitoring of one or a few traits, which resulted in a few colonies with good mite-fighting ability, but so far it has not been possible to propagate them into a large and stable population of colonies that don’t require treatments.

The important point, however, is not that we should always rush off to a primitive place to get our breeding stock, though that may be helpful. The vital thing is to cultivate wildness at home where we live; to acknowledge, enjoy and utilize the mystery and unknowable power of Nature, as well as the few things we think we know about Her. We need to breed bees along these lines in order to create diverse regional populations that are stable, resilient, and easy to care for—as the basis for future pollination when energy is scarce, and crops and livestock (including bees) must all live in the same place year-round. The way to accomplish this is through Horizontal breeding schemes, but first let’s look at the only people who can successfully carry them out:

Farmers. The prospect of having no farmers—or very few farmers—in the future is even more frightening than the prospect of having no oil; though of course these two problems are closely linked to each other. What passes for farming in N. America now is largely a process of converting petroleum energy into food energy. Once the indigenous peoples of N. America had been destroyed or subdued, and their land and resources appropriated, the vital working people who replaced them on the land—farmers—became the next target for exploitation and destruction by a predatory and greedy society. Power mechanics was the means by which so many farmers were forced or persuaded to move to urban areas and sell their labor for wages. This process has continued right up to the present moment, and now, by some estimates, there is only one half of one percent of our population making a living from farming without any other job. We now have so few people raising crops and livestock full-time, (many of them are nearing retirement) and are so dependent on petroleum for the production, processing and transport of food, that it’s possible to envision scenarios where the disruption of the supply of oil, and/or the continued loss of farmers could cause people to be without food in both rural and urban locations, while surrounded by some of the best and most productive farmland in the world.

And we lost so much more than just food security when we decided to create a society without full-time farmers. For one thing we lost a continuous paradise for honeybees—at least a part of which used to stretch from New York and Pennsylvania all the way to the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas—when farms were smaller and almost all of them had crops, livestock, pasture, fencerows and woodlots. A varied landscape with plenty of good food for bees year-round, and much greater possibilities for beauty and human communities than the vast monocrops of corn and soybeans offer today.

The most important thing we lost though was the slowly accumulated experience, wisdom, and reverence of people who worked with living things day after day over many generations. There is no other way to obtain this kind of knowledge—which of necessity includes all the unknown mysteries of Nature, as well as what can be scientifically demonstrated—except by having teachers who lived in this tradition, and by paying attention as you live the same way yourself.

Frankly, we’ve also lost a lot of the honesty, integrity and humility that eventually accrues to anyone who seriously pursues this way of life. We don’t understand the creative act of farming anymore, and as a society it seems normal to us to accomplish things by using up resources and exploiting other people. That’s why we need to expand our conception of what farming is, and to begin again cultivating new farmers on this creative model. Of all the definitions of farming I’ve heard, I still like Masanobu Fukuoka’s (author of The One Straw Revolution, and The Natural Way of Farming) the best: “Farming is really the cultivation of better human beings”.

This lack of understanding of both what farming really is and the importance of focusing on it as we face the future was, I think, responsible for some of the surprising responses I received when the bees began to stabilize without treatments, and I began describing how the apiary was moved in that direction. The responses were extreme on both ends of the spectrum—some people believing that I actually can walk on water; and others so outraged that they resorted to theft, harassment and all sorts of other connivances to try to obtain whatever “secrets” I must be withholding from “everyone”. Both of these reactions are completely unrelated to reality, as any one of my friends, neighbors or regular helpers will gladly tell you. The only “secret” is steady work and attention over a long period of time. I’m just a farmer whose inspiration comes from the world of Nature and the knowledge and wisdom handed down from genuine successful farmers for thousands of years. If there is a secret about farming that’s being withheld from the American people, it’s the wonderful way of life that’s possible when a small farm really succeeds. There is no other place where all the positive aspects of humanity can be more fully developed—where the net result is creative and not dependent on the exploitation of people and Nature.

Our current wasteful, greedy and destructive system of agriculture doesn’t have a billy goat’s chance in hell of producing food for our people 100 years from now. In fact, it remains to be seen whether it will still function ten years from now. In all the discussions and arguments about what we must do to prepare for the future, there is one thing we all must agree on: In N. America at least, and for a long list of good reasons, we need more Farmers…

One of the most important tools used by successful farmers since before the dawn of history was the use of “Horizontal” methods of plant breeding and selection, as opposed to the “Vertical” methods used by most modern plant breeders. Another term used to describe “Horizontal” methods of breeding is “Recurrent Mass Selection”; and you can read all about these things in Raoul Robinson’s books: Return To Resistance and Self-Organizing Agro-Ecosystems, which are available free at if you can’t obtain published copies.

“Recurrent Mass Selection” was the means by which people produced numberless stable varieties of all our crop plants that reproduce by seed. In fact, this was the way they became crop plants and then distinct varieties in the first place. I have to oversimplify a little bit, but think of it this way: When the people who actually grow the crops select a relatively small number of plants to supply the seed from a large number of similar plants (the crop), based on the total performance and adaptability of the seed plants, and then use that seed to produce the next crop—and repeat the process year after year—a stable variety is eventually developed that is slowly but surely developing and improving the characteristics desired by the cultivators. It also will have resilience, vigor, and resistance to pests and diseases that are present in the environment in which the crop is growing. So far so good. But then along came Gregor Mendel, whose work on the inheritance supplied plant breeders and scientists with the basis of “Vertical” plant breeding. At first, it took quite a long time for anyone to develop even a single practical application for Mendel’s work. But eventually plant breeders became fascinated by the process of transferring a single trait (such as genetic resistance to a specific disease) from a non-productive, “wild type” plant into a very productive susceptible variety, by making back crosses over several generations. The growing interest in this process created the intellectual framework that now underlies most of plant breeding, and has led to the development of the most damaging biological technology of all—modern genetic engineering.

There’s mounting evidence however, that following the path of “Vertical” plant breeding was a serious mistake. Many of the varieties created in this way seemed spectacular at first, but pests and diseases mutated quickly and soon were attacking them again—requiring more and more pesticide use in order to obtain a crop at all. The answer was to keep breeding new resistant varieties, but now it’s gotten to the point, in some cases, where pests can adapt faster than new varieties can be created by this method. Chemical companies are always happy to step into the breach here and supply pesticides for controlling pests and diseases when this kind of single-gene resistance fails. Here is a big part of the answer to the questions of why we “need” to use so many agricultural chemicals in the first place, and why the environment for bees is being continually degraded.

Again, I’m oversimplifying so this won’t get too long, and leaving out completely the question of soil fertility and farming methods—which have an enormous effect on pest and disease problems—but I think the basic points are sound: Crop varieties that are developed by “Horizontal” methods—for reasons that are not entirely clear—have resistance to pests and diseases that are based on several factors working together, and have much greater stability, resilience and productivity over the long run, than varieties developed by “Vertical” methods. Horizontal breeding is also best accomplished by farmers themselves, and there’s no need for extra high-tech equipment or overeducated “experts” to make the process work. As is so often the case, we abandoned the simple, effective methods worked out with so much attention and sacrifice by countless generations of our ancestors—along with the wild resilience that their crops possessed—and adopted methods that feed the self-importance of a few individuals, produce only short-term results, and in the end undermine our food ecology, health, and social stability.

We’re making the same mistake with our honeybees. We’re trying to ensure the failure of modern beekeeping by focusing too much on single traits; by ignoring the elements of Wildness; and by constantly treating the bees. The biggest mistake of all is to continue viewing mites and other “pests” as enemies that must be destroyed, instead of allies and teachers that are trying to show us a path to a better future. The more virulent a parasite is, the more powerful a tool it can be for improving stocks and practice in the future. All the boring and soul-destroying work of counting mites on sticky boards, killing brood with liquid nitrogen, watching bees groom each other, and measuring brood hormone levels—all done in thousands of replications—will someday be seen as a colossal waste of time when we finally learn to let the varroa mites do these things for us. My own methods of propagating, selecting and breeding bees, worked out through many years of trial and error, are really just an attempt to establish and utilize Horizontal breeding with honeybees—to create a productive system that preserves and enhances the elements of Wildness. My results are not perfect, but they have enabled me to continue making a living from bees without much stress, and have a positive outlook for the future. I have no doubt that many other beekeepers could easily achieve these same results, and then surpass them.

In so many cases, the only thing preventing us from breaking out of an old destructive pattern and doing something genuinely creative is the condition of our Mind. What kind of a mind is it that accomplishes everything by using things up; where the evidence of “success” almost always involves the destruction of Nature and the diminishment of other people? Whatever else you can say about it, this is the collective mind of our culture. Greed, fear and the illusion of security bind us to our old habits, and those who benefit the most from our predatory system make sure the blinders remain firmly in place. There’s also an endless supply of liquid, botanical, electronic and economic narcotics available to prevent us from experiencing another, more genuine, reality.

If I learned anything from my mentors, it was that participating in the current culture is not necessary for a happy and healthy life; and that most people only use a fraction of their mind’s potential. The heart and mind of real farming requires both of these things: some degree of separation from popular culture, and the use of the mind’s full potential for creativity. It’s becoming impossible to ignore the fact that we can’t live on the Earth for much longer by destroying things and using them up. We have to learn to live in the future by actively creating a better world, beginning with the realm of Biology. This can only be accomplished by focusing on the health and well-being of other living things before ourselves. Farming is the place where a happy and healthy life can be a by-product of this work. We can see the answers all around us if we just learn to look with eyes of generosity instead of the eyes of greed. Every tradition has a commentary on this dilemma, like this one from St. Thomas: “The Kingdom of Heaven surrounds you, but you see it not…”

When the Mind can make this transition, and function from a place of compassion, humility, and generosity; a whole new type of farming (and beekeeping) is born. Farmers can use Horizontal breeding methods to reestablish the intimate relationship between crops, livestock and people; within which the element of Wildness can be preserved and allowed to protect us all. In time the process becomes increasingly “self-organized”, as more things are accomplished with biological energy and Nature’s self-knowledge, instead of with steel, petroleum, and scientific neurosis. Much of the drudgery disappears and is replaced by a steady attention to many details, and when successful, farming can resume its rightful place as the most interesting and satisfying of all occupations. This is a transition we must make in order for people to have decent lives in a fossil-energy-poor future. Frankly, I’m optimistic that this transition will actually take place. Smoke and mirrors may keep things limping along the way they are for awhile longer, but when energy becomes a really serious problem, that crisis will force us to change in a fundamental way. Or consider Winston Churchill’s very astute observation: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing—-after they’ve exhausted every other possibility…”

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