Beekeeping

You might have heard the nightmarish predictions and the difficult to deny facts – a dizzying 50 billion… yes, billion honeybees dead over the last three years… and counting. If you’re not an insect lover, this might not seem troublesome until you think a bit about the bees’ intrinsic link to human survival – without their help of pollination, one third of our food supply would essentially be destroyed.

Bee pinned down. (Image courtesy of Padil)

Blue Banded Bee on a pin. (Image courtesy of Padil)

Bees are integral to the growth of a variety of crops across the globe. According to biologist, science writer and bee advocate Dr. Reese Halter, bees contribute $44 billion to the US economy alone, pollinating crops food products like almonds, apples, avocados, alfalfa and clover for the beef and dairy industries, as well as cotton for our clothes.  Halter has just released a new book – The Incomparable Honeybee & the Economics of Pollination – that documents the plight of the bees. “They are the most important pollinator on Earth,” writes Halter, “Every third bite on our plate comes from the honeybee”.

Bee farm. (Image courtesy of Anarchy Apiaries)

Working on a bee farm. (Image courtesy of Anarchy Apiaries)

As a result of both the dependency and struggle between insect and farmer, the honeybees have become victim to pesticides and industrial farming methods – mono-crop culture rendering their pollen infertile and miticides and chemicals creating a mass demise. In combination with climate change, which has affected the timing of plant-flowering farming, these factors are contributing to what is known as ‘colony collapse disorder’. While scientists are still not quite sure what the definitive cause of the phenomenon is – Halter believes it’s some combination of the above.

So what can you do about the apocalyptic state of the honeybee? Easy – become a beekeeper. While domesticated honeybees might be dying, feral bees’  are fighting for survival, and need safe sanctuary.

Beekeeper. (Image courtesy of Salvador Photo)

A beekeeper tends to his bees. (Image courtesy of Salvador Photo)

Apiculture, as bee-keeping is known, has been in practice for centuries, with pre-historic anthropologic digs uncovering smoking pots and honey extractors amid ancient sites in Greece, Jordan and Egypt. Honey, beeswax and pollinating, these are the triumvirate of contributions the good bees have been granting us since time eternal. This makes the honeybee’s current situation even more heartbreaking.

But there is some good news in all this, as ancient methods of keeping bees are making a decided comeback. Hundreds are donating their time and money to play Florence Nightingale to a species in jeopardy. Recently, New York City, which has long outlawed beekeeping in city limits, lifted its ban and made hundreds of hobby beekeepers, who had been risking $2,000 fines for keeping the bees ‘llegally’ ecstatic. In Los Angeles, various workshops, bloggers, Yahoo-groups and schools are spreading the gospel of urban beekeeping.

Bee larvae nestled in their hives. (Image courtesy of The Honey Gatherers)

Honey bee larvae snug in their hives. (Image courtesy of The Honey Gatherers)

One of the new wave’s loudest advocates is LA’s Kirk Anderson, a 30 year beekeeping vet who espouses no chemical bee-keeping, arguing that the simpler the bee-keeping, the better. “Humans are actually late on the chain compared to the bees,” he says, “bees have had a lot longer to evolve and become perfect little creatures. They need our help right now, mostly just in leaving them well enough alone.”

Anderson is a proponent of a method of beekeeping first introduced by fellow bee-keeper Charles Martin Simon, who avidly encourages what he calls ‘backwards beekeeping‘, which essentially supports the idea of working with nature, not against it, in order to keep natural, chemical free hives. Both Martin and Anderson’s ideas are simple, but they have been huge in helping to inspire a fast-growing number of first-timers. Anderson removes unwanted hives lurking everywhere from garages to backyard bbqs – and relocates them into beekeeper’s backyard hives. He does this all without chemicals and he stresses to his followers – “keep out of the bees way, and they’ll do just fine.”

Bee hunters in Nepal. (Image courtesy of The Honey Gatherers)

Nepalese bee hunter. (Image courtesy of The Honey Gatherers)

“The most important thing is to observe,” explains Anderson, “to watch over the bees and see what they might need. And that watching can be a real pleasure. So many people are out of touch with nature – there are kids out there that don’t know where a potato comes from! We need to connect with nature again and this is one way to do it.”

Aspiring beekeepers can find a myriad of resources online and by going to Kirk’s site and his beekeeping collective to learn more about his methods. For those who don’t have the space or the time to play host to some backyard hives there’s still a lot one can do to lend the bees a hand. Buying organic food and cotton is a huge help to the plight of our honeybee friends, eliminating insecticide and miticide use. Also, planting purple and yellow flowers, two of the honeybee’s favorite colors to pollinate, can attract bees to healthy plants, which equals healthy pollen. In addition, a bowl of water outside keeps the bees hydrated and happy. In the end, even small changes can help the plight of the honeybees. As Anderson says “have a simple goal with chemical free, drug free beekeeping and that goal is to change the world.”

FURTHER READING:

Elizabeth Kolbert. “Stung: Where are all the bees?”, The New Yorker. August 6, 2007.

Adrian Higgins. “Bees are busier than ever as disease besieges colonies”, The Washington Post. March 15, 2010.

Eric Tourneret. “Nepal – The Honey Hunt of the Tiger-Men”, The Honey Gatherers.

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