Take the pollinator challenge

We beekeepers are often blind-sided by our love of honey bees. We, and especially the press, tend to equate the word “bee” with “honey bee.”

Last evening, as I watched the much-touted film, More than Honey, I was dismayed to hear that, “Unlike bumble bees and butterflies, bees remain true to one type of flower.” While it is true that honey bees practice floral fidelity, and bumble bees not so much, the statement makes no sense. Are they saying a bumble bee isn’t a bee? Or are they saying, “Unlike bees, bees remain true . . .”

The same movie explained that honey bees were brought to the New World by the settlers because they needed a way to pollinate their fruits and vegetables. What? Indeed, the settlers brought honey bees across the Atlantic on ships and introduced them to the Virginia plantations in 1622. But it was definitely not because they wanted to pollinate their fruits and vegetables. In fact, the discovery that flowers are pollinated by insects was made by a fellow named Arthur Dobbs, who presented his revolutionary discovery to the Royal Society of London in 1750.

Do the math: the settlers brought their honey bees to North America 128 years before anyone had a clue that insects played a part in pollination. And it was many, many years later before the discovery became common knowledge. So why did the settlers bring honey bees to America? For the honey, of course.

Furthermore, the narrative implies that there were no bees in North America. “The colonists wanted to cultivate the prairie and grow fruits and vegetables. To pollinate them, they needed bees.” In reality, there were at least 4000 species of bees in North America and an untold number in South America. The plants on both continents were readily pollinated. Given that the colonists didn’t raise vast monocultures, there were more than enough pollinators to go around.

Yes, honey bees have amazing attributes and there is no substitute for them on Earth. But they are not the only game in town. In fact, there are many plants that are not pollinated by honey bees and must be pollinated by other bees or non-bee pollinators. Why is this so hard to understand?

Last week I read an article that explained how we wouldn’t have chocolate if it weren’t for honey bees. The next day, another publication ran the same article. Now, you don’t have to be a genius to google “chocolate pollination” and discover that chocolate is pollinated by a small fly called a midge. The unusual flower of the plant requires this tiny, tiny insect to get the job done. What kind of journalist can’t spend 30 seconds to look this up?

Then I received an upsetting e-mail. A beekeeper wrote that he refused to speak to a gathering of master gardeners who wanted to learn how to attract wild pollinators. Instead he will speak about how we need a million more beekeepers in this country. Okay, maybe he doesn’t know how to attract pollinators and would rather speak about honey bees—I get that. But the idea that a million more beekeepers will solve our problem is naïve.

Flooding the landscape with honey bees will not negate our pollination problem. In fact, it will only make it worse. A monoculture of anything—a feedlot of pigs, a farm of fish, an Iowa of corn—spreads disease, reduces genetic variability, and requires chemical input. A monoculture of honey bees is the antithesis of sustainable.

The best thing we can do for honey bees, or any other pollinator, is to care for the environment and enhance the living condition of all species. Terminology for the sustainable soup of living things changes over time; it was once called “the balance of nature” then “the web of life” then “the natural community.” But whatever you call it, it goes off-kilter when you selectively cut the species you don’t like and paste the ones you do.

We humans are so smart we designed poisons to kill the species we don’t like. Trouble is, the good bugs went with the bad. So instead of relying on natural pollinators, we inundate the poisoned monoculture crops with inbred, poorly fed, and stressed out honey bees. Then we scratch our heads and wonder why they get sick. Our answer? Raise more and more inbred, poorly fed, and stressed out honey bees and prop them up with a few chemicals. That should work, right?

In addition to honey bees, my mission statement for Honey Bee Suite includes a commitment to “wild bees, other pollinators, and pollination ecology.” It’s all part of the “suite” idea—a closely aligned and interconnected whole. To raise healthy honey bees, we need a healthy environment, one that includes all the pollinators, each of which has an important role in the web of life.

If I could get my readers to do one thing of my choosing, I would ask each one to select a new pollinator every year and study it. Pick one you know nothing about and make it your project. Find out where it lives, what it pollinates, when it’s active. Put a portrait on your desktop. Send me a photo and tell me why you picked it. A new pollinator in your life will make you a better beekeeper, a more astute gardener, a better steward of the land, a more informed citizen. Think of it as a challenge . . . you may even find the little twerp makes you happy.

A small native sweat bee posing as a rabbit. © Rusty Burlew.

Tracking Hive Tracks

Most of my Hive Tracks-related mail comes from Hive Tracks, but this comment from Kiwiland stirred up my old impatience with digital bee-ware.

Hivetracks is a simple and brilliant piece of software. I am from New Zealand and we have just starting to use it as my Son is a beekeeper. I will be putting many Kiwi Beekeepers on to this extremely innovative beekeeping software. As an accountant I know how important the management function of a business is, especially the ability to manage risk. If you loose you little notebook you would be hugely disadvantaged and you cannot back up a notebook. Also Beekeepers notes can be hard to read and for others to follow. The other huge risk if a beekeeper was incapacitated or seriously injured and its the families sole income… well need I say more. With Hivetracks its all there and because it is so easily to follow for . The family or another beekeeper will have constant access to all the important information so the business can go on. I highly highly recommend Hivetrack as an important part of any beekeepers risk management system. Awesome product Hivetracks! Keep up the good work. —Gavin

It seems that Hive Tracks has been significantly improved since I first wrote about it three years ago in February 2011. I looked at it again about two years ago, but I admit that was the last time. The folks at Hive Tracks don’t like what I wrote, but it was an honest opinion at the time, and honest opinions are what I do here.

If someone is interested in hive management software, then by all means he or she should try it. The basic program is still free, and I know that many of the recommendations that beekeepers offered early on have been incorporated. I have nothing against the people or the program—the software is actually kind of cool—but it’s not for me.

The thing to remember is that many beekeepers—myself included—keep bees as a way to connect with nature. Bees offer a distraction from the modern digital world and they help to ground us in reality. Personally, I spend most hours of most days working with bits and bytes, so my apiary is a welcome respite from data strings.

You say Hive Tracks is a “simple and brilliant piece of software.” I have no doubt. If you or your son want to keep bees at a keyboard, then by all means go for it. I adore a great piece of software, and I cannot fault people who enjoy and benefit from innovative programming. I’m just saying that people keep bees for a variety of reasons, they have different goals, and they approach management in creative ways. A beekeeper who does not use software in the apiary is not negligent, and he shouldn’t be made to feel that way.

You say you understand “how important the management function of a business is.” I daresay that most beekeepers are not running a business but keep bees for the pure wonder of it. If I were trying to make money off my bees, I might act differently, but I’m not now—nor will I ever—try to keep bees for profit. That is a completely different type of insanity.

Your other arguments are spurious:

  • You say, “If you lose your little notebook you would be hugely disadvantaged and you cannot back up a notebook.” And if your computer or phone is lost or stolen you can be hugely disadvantaged as well, even with your info saved online. I’m feeling hugely disadvantaged right now because my password won’t let me in. Maybe they’ve had enough of me? In any case, having been a writer for most of my life, I can tell you I have backed up many notebooks on a photocopier.
  • You state that “beekeepers’ notes can be hard to read and for others to follow.” Notes written by physicians are illegible too, but a good many of them still write prescriptions by hand. Somehow we all muddle through.
  • “The other huge risk is if a beekeeper was incapacitated or seriously injured and it’s the family’s sole income.” That is an irrelevant reach. If a family’s sole breadwinner is a carpenter, or an electrician, or a lawyer, or a tailor, or a nurse, how often can another family member just read his or her notes and take over? Get real.
  • “The family or another beekeeper will have constant access to all the important information so the business can go on.” And a paper copy could do the same. But remember, beekeepers are part scientist, part artisan, part whisperer. The successful ones keep bees by feel, not by reading recipes. So if another beekeeper took over the family business, he would start by opening the hives and having a look, regardless of the notes.

I am very happy you enjoy Hive Tracks and I hope others will read your recommendation and try it. In fact, I wish all beekeepers would try it, just so we could move on.


Return of the photo thieves

Not for stealing. © Rusty Burlew

Neither this photo nor any others on this site is for stealing. Over the years, hundreds of people have requested permission to use my photos, and I have given it in virtually every case, except for those who decide stealing is easier than asking. And a beekeeper taking it? Really? Do you think we don’t read each others sites?

Furthermore, just because the photo was stolen before, or just because the copyright owner is not obvious to you, doesn’t make it fair game. Inconvenience does not give you license to take what you want. Have you been living under a rock?

I’m in an extremely benevolent mood today, so I’m not going to post a link to the page where this photo is accumulating Facebook likes for the well-known beekeeper who doesn’t own it. I may feel differently tomorrow, so I highly recommend taking it down right now. And next time, please, just ask.


Learning to fly

“What is the specific gravity of 1:1 syrup? I want to make it right for my bees.”

So what happened? Did your bees lose their little hydrometers? I’m repeating myself here, but sugar syrup is a man-made invention. A long time ago, some human decided that a ratio of one part sugar to one part water resembled nectar. One-to-one syrup—or any other type—does not exist in nature, so close is good enough.

What does exist in nature is nectar. Nectar contains sugars, water, and nutrients in an infinite variety of ratios. No two species of plant have the same ratio of sugar to water, no two flowers on the same plant have the same ratio of sugar to water, no single flower has the same ratio in the morning as in the afternoon. The bees are okay with this. They get it. You don’t.

The thing is, you can’t keep bees based on formulas, nor can you keep bees based on a list of rules. Bees are creatures that don’t come with instructions.

Think of it this way. When you learn to drive a car you are given a book of rules and maybe a course in driver education. You read the book, pass the test. Still, when most people start to drive, they glance back and forth between the road directly in front of them and the speedometer. This doesn’t work very well because everything else is blocked out.

When you drive, things happen that are not in the book. A doe leaps from the foliage followed by two more in spots, a poodle in your path stops to sniff, a football wobbles overhead followed by a kid looking up. Storms make puddles of unknown depth, potholes dent the pavement, boulders crash from road cuts.

When you least expect it, black ice releases your rear tires, or a glossy-nailed girl texts across six lanes. Suddenly, a drunk weaves in front of you, boys with partially-formed frontal lobes race side-by-side, and here in Washington, freeway bridges drop all of a piece into the river below.

You don’t have to drive very long before you learn to adapt, anticipate, adjust. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this. And so it must be with beekeeping: you read the book, take the course, but then you have to use your brain.

I don’t teach beekeeping classes. I don’t teach them because nobody would come. Nobody would come because I would be mean.

That’s right, mean. The first week, when everyone was eager to learn the parts of a hive and how to light a smoker, I would teach bee biology, reproductive cycles, and population dynamics. Next, when they thought they had enough science for a lifetime, we would move on to Varroa mites—yes, mite biology, life cycles, and population dynamics. Treating mites like an afterthought is our first beekeeping mistake.

From there we would move on to—I’m not kidding—botany: plant life cycles, plant reproduction, pollination, and the composition of nectar and pollen. This would be followed by the evolution of plant-pollinator mutualisms. Bees could not exist without flowers, so treating flowers like an afterthought is our second beekeeping mistake.

Once you understand honey bees, Varroa mites, and flowers, all the rest of beekeeping is intuitive. You can figure out the details if you know the principles. In the same way you can intuit driving situations, you can intuit beekeeping situations. Armed with the principles, you don’t need to ask the specific gravity of sugar syrup or when to add a super: you can figure it out all by yourself. You’ve learned how to fly. Now that’s beekeeping.


Are their ethics loose in the package too?

This e-mail came in today. I’m interested to see if you agree with my answer or have a better idea.
I just installed my first package a week ago into a top bar hive. The queen was dead in her cage and I was told this usually means there is a queen in the package loose, so give it 3-5 days and see what happens. The weather immediately took a turn for the worse, with days in the 50s and nights below freezing. At first we saw some bees making flights, but over the past few days, nothing.

Due to the cold weather, I haven’t had a chance to take a look until today, exactly a week from when I installed them. The bees are all clustered on the floor of the hive. The cluster is just about the size of a baseball. They hadn’t discovered the sugar I’d put behind the follower, no comb has been built, and there’s signs of defecation inside the hive (3 or 4 spots of bee poo on one wall).

I moved the sugar in next to them instead of leaving it behind the follower, and lightly dusted the cluster with it so they have at least a little something to eat that they can’t help but find.

My question is, what next? If I need to order another package, it needs to happen asap, likewise if I just need to order a queen. The next several days are supposed to be gloriously warm and sunny, with more moderate night time lows. Do I wait another few days and see what happens? Should I go ahead and order a whole new package? Order just a queen?

The place I got the bees from says they have no idea about bees in top bar hives, so they aren’t any help!



Whoever told you that a dead queen in her cage meant there is a queen loose in the package was either ignorant or lying. And anyway, even in the remote chance there was a loose queen in the package, you paid for the one in the queen cage and she should be alive and healthy.

With the queen dead, and no way of making a queen, the colony is just dying. It is hopeless. At this point, you need a whole new package including the queen. If the queen in the cage was dead and they sent you home without a replacement, they owe you a whole new package, including a live queen, at no extra charge.

In the meantime, put starter strips in your top-bar hive, if you haven’t already. Also, it’s not clear if you gave them solid sugar or syrup, but it should be syrup. Without lots of food they can’t build comb. So make syrup and add an attractant like lemongrass oil or anise oil so they can find it easier.

Next time, attach the queen cage to a middle bar and leave her in it a few day until comb building begins.

Andrea, I’m going to post this on the front page to see what other people think. I hope they agree.

Good luck, and next year get your bees from someone else.