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An unnatural dilemma

For the past few weeks, I have been gleaning tidbits from both natural beekeepers and the conventional kind. On one day, a speaker explained that Nosema would go away if we just stopped using Fumigilin. The next morning, I took an exam on how to test for Nosema, and how and when to use Fumigilin most effectively.

I like studying both sides of the coin. If I only listen to one side, my information is biased and incomplete. How much harder it is to defend your beliefs if you don’t know how your opponent thinks! Nevertheless, the contrast between the groups is jarring. Each side “knows” they are right; each side is unwilling to bend. The scientific literature points every which way, but each camp has its pet papers lined up, ready to prove a point.

But even after endless reading, listening, studying, and thesis-writing, I still come down somewhere in the middle—closer to the natural side but with a nod of understanding to the conventional side. I sometimes think I should take a radical position and become another bee guru, the “I’m right and you’re wrong” type. But it’s not me. I can’t go there.

More than just bees

The question of right and wrong is not confined to how we keep our bees. The larger question is how do we feed the ever-burgeoning world population. We already have food inequality. We have people who can barely afford food, let alone a cucumber. Conversely, we have those who insist on an organic cucumber. Is it right that those with lesser money have to eat pesticide-laced food? No way will I tackle that question, but it remains, simmering in the background.

Back when I was a student of agriculture, when I was enrolled in courses like “Soil Fertility and Fertilizers” and “Herbicide Science,” I remember hearing about organic food. It was a small movement, just at the edge of my peripheral vision. My classmates and I, all suffering through thousand-page organic chemistry tomes, were nonplussed by the idea. “Of course!” we said. “If it’s food it’s organic (carbon-containing). All food is organic.” We shrugged and went back to killing bugs with chemicals.

It seems funny to me now, as I fill my shopping cart with organic produce, organic milk and cheese. But here’s the lesson: I think that aggressive commercial agriculture has a low probability of stumbling onto the next big thing. But I think the hobbyist, the backyard beekeeper, or the postage stamp gardener has a very good chance of discovering the wave of the future—the thing that saves the planet and the bees.

Different kinds of keepers

So therein is my dilemma: I believe we need the conventional beekeepers to keep the food rolling in, at least for now. Equally important is the small-time “wacko” beekeeper who always has a crazy idea. One of those crazies may save the bees. One may clean up the food supply.

But regardless of the need for natural beekeepers, I believe it is harder to accomplish than many believe. In most urban or suburban areas, beekeeping clubs or suppliers ship in hundreds or even thousands of southern packages every year. It becomes a numbers game. Even if you purchase expensive mite-resistant queens, or produce your own queens from survivor stock, your virgin queens will set out to mate among tens of thousands of drones from those shipped-in packages. What is the chance of your queen mating with drones from another local survivor colony?

If the odds of winning the lottery were the same as getting struck by lightening, people would still buy tickets and hope to win, even when they are dead certain they will never be struck by lightening. But can it happen? Sure. Someone always manages to produce treatment-free bees in the suburbs. Someone always wins the lottery. Someone always gets struck by lightening.

Drowning in drones

So I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to raise treatment-free bees. I’m just saying that if you live in an area with hundreds of packages of imported bees, each of which produces thousands of drones per year, the odds are stacked against you. Realizing that, you can try alternative methods such as instrumental insemination to get the crosses you need. But you have to understand what is going on, and you have to do what is right for you.

What I don’t like to see is people believing they have failed. The natural beekeeping fanatics will say you didn’t do it right, when it may be a problem with your local beekeeping situation. Those who succeed often have hundreds of colonies and can flood their area with mite-resistant drones. Or perhaps they own many acres that are free from annual shipments from the south. Or maybe they live in areas with like-minded individuals who also resist imports. The zealots will tell you otherwise, but be real. If it were easy, the mite problem would be over by now.

The common thread

However, you can become a better beekeeper regardless of your philosophy. The successful commercial keepers and the successful natural keepers have one thing in common: they know their bees. They know the biology of honey bees, their behavior and their needs. They understand pests and how the pests and bees interact. They know honey bee nutrition and the plants that provide it. And they know the strengths and limitations of their beekeeping environment.

So after carefully considering the pros and cons of becoming a bee guru, a one-trick pony of sorts, I’ve decided to stay right where I am. You can keep bees any way you want, and if I can help with a little biology here and there, a little physics or chemistry, that is fine by me. I will never discover the answer to the bee problem, but one of you might. The world is counting on it.


Worried about my bees

Yesterday afternoon I was outside in a short-sleeve tee admiring the sky, a clear ethereal blue above a jagged frame of alder, maple, and fir. As I gazed beyond the pasture, a meteor slashed the blue just above the tree line, ripped an arc through the sky, and vanished in a heartbeat. Is it even possible, I wondered, to see a meteor at 3:15 in the afternoon or was I crazy?

I went online to find an answer, only to learn we were entering the Orionid meteor shower at that very moment. How cool is that? Oh, and I found the answer, “Yes, it is possible to see a meteor in the daytime, but good luck setting up your lawn chair and looking for one.” Serendipity, I guess.

But the reason I was outside is more problematic. It is impossibly warm for October. The alders are still wearing their summer clothes, the aronia leaves refuse to turn, and my bean plants have flowers. The air smells of humus and earthworms, and my bees seem to think it’s August.

My colonies are actively bringing in pollen in shades of white and Day-Glo orange. Sure, pollen is good, and so are all those empty intestines. But nary a bee is bringing in nectar. I see none of those distended, nearly translucent, abdomens that signal a full honey crop. No, these bees are not storing nectar for the winter, they are using it up.

When foraging bees look for nectar and don’t find it, they expend a huge amount of energy. They fly from place to place and often come home with an empty crop. They refuel from the colony’s winter supply, and try again the next day. Each day that flying weather persists, the stores are diminished.

Even more worrisome is the fact that here in western Washington—at least in my area—the honey season was not great. The biggest flow, blackberries, was cut short by a hot and dry summer, and the fall flow didn’t amount to much. I fear many northwest bees will go hungry this winter unless their keepers are alert.

I hate to feed sugar. I believe honey bees should eat honey, and to that end I keep a large reserve for emergency feeding. But there is no way I have enough to feed all my colonies for most of the winter.

Each balmy afternoon, I get a little more worried. I purchased 200 pounds of granulated sugar as an hors d’oeuvre. Tomorrow I will buy more, stack the bags to the ceiling, shoo away the ants. Meanwhile, my bees are out there cavorting with the meteors, sunning themselves on the porch, partaking of the facilities. Silly bees . . . if only they had cable.


Hourglass bees

These bees have white hourglasses stenciled on their thoraces. Public domain photo.

What looks like an hourglass-shaped paint splotch on the thorax of some bees is actually pollen. In the past I often saw these stripes—usually in yellow—and wondered what they were. The bees look like they squeezed through someone’s freshly painted woodenware.

But according to Rosanna Mattingly in her fascinating book, Honey-Maker, the design occurs when pollen-covered bees groom. The honey bee uses her two midlegs to clean pollen from her forelegs and the back of her thorax. However, there’s a place she can’t quite reach, right down the middle of her back.

She swipes each side of her thorax and the pollen is removed in an arc, much like the sweep of a wiper blade on a car. The hourglass design remains after she’s reached as far as she can on each side.