Why is beekeeping so hard?

Beekeeping is tuff. Much harder than I ever thought it would be. I mean, how hard can it be to raise bees that have been raising themselves forever? ——John

When you are feeling overwhelmed by the difficulty of beekeeping, the thing to remember is this: Although bees have been raising themselves forever, they haven’t raised themselves in our present environment.

Evolution is a glacially slow process. As the environment changes, lifeforms slowly evolve to fit the changes. But humans have altered the planet so fast—especially since the close of WWII—that only species with multiple generations per year and extremely flexible genetics have been able to keep up. Cockroaches, mosquitoes, and many single-celled organisms, for example, have managed just fine. Many species have not.

So even if you are a natural beekeeper following biodynamic or organic principles of beekeeping, the environment where the bees are living is not natural. Like it or not, our present conditions are clearly man made.

For example, the air is polluted. It has been found that bees in polluted air have more difficulty finding forage because it interferes with their sense of smell. Some of the air pollutants stick onto raindrops and fall into the world’s water bodies, causing them to be more acidic. The acidity of water changes what will live in it and affects the things that drink it.  We don’t know the details of how it affects all living things, but we know the potential for harm is there. We know there is much we don’t know.

In addition to the air, the soil and water are also tainted with industrial pollutants, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, fertilizers, and nuclear waste. For example, high levels of progestin and estrogen have been found in fresh water supplies. These hormones have been found to persist in spite of water treatment and they interfere with the development of aquatic animals. Although some places are worse than others, the earth is a closed system. Eventually everything spreads everywhere; like oil on water, it gets thinner but it doesn’t go away.

Agrochemicals have allowed us to take something nature hates—the monoculture—and put it everywhere. Farms, which for thousands of years were a tapestry of plants and animals, have been split into various specialties. The corn is grown here, the pigs there, the cows somewhere else. Each of these monocultures requires more and more chemical intervention to keep them alive.

Even honey bees placed in an almond orchard are a monoculture in a monoculture—all the other insects and plants are killed before the honey bees are brought in, which means our bees are competing with each other for resources, and their pests are free to move from bee to bee with nothing to get in their way. And don’t forget: the residual poisons are left for the bees to eat.

We tend to think that other people are responsible for monocultures: it’s them, not us. But the biggest monoculture in the U.S. is lawn grass, and homeowners tend to use higher concentrations of weed killer than farmers–weed killers that wash off the lawns and into the water supplies and fish-bearing streams.

Hardly anyone remembers the majestic beauty of the American elm. The tree was tall and stately. It had few, if any, lower limbs which meant it was perfect for lining streets and parks and ball fields. It was so shady, so magnificent, that it was planted everywhere in the Northeast and Midwest. The towns became tree monocultures. So when Dutch elm disease struck, it ripped up and down those leafy roads and byways and knocked out virtually every tree, state after state, until not an elm was standing.

But monocultures and pollutants are not the only features of the modern Earth. The World Wildlife Fund recently reported that monarch butterflies are covering just 1.65 acres of their wintering grounds in Mexico this year, down from 44.5 acres in 1995. The reason? Habitat fragmentation, urban sprawl, herbicides: cities to big to span, food too hard to find. This egregious loss, like many others, has happened on our watch. If it continues, our grandchildren will read about monarchs they way we read about passenger pigeons, eastern elk, and silver trout.

I could go on, but the point is that it is not always your fault when bees die. You cannot get discouraged. You have to remember that everything is different for them regardless of how natural you attempt to be. The modern Earth is not the planet they evolved on. Your attempts to do things right will always be tempered by environmental conditions that are new and rapidly changing.

Perhaps there will be a breakthrough: A chance mutation? A better breed? A magic bullet for mites? We don’t know what it might be or whence it may come. But every last beekeeper is an important part of the process. So hang in there. Believe in yourself. Keep learning. Who knows? The ultimate answer may come from you.


Top eleven questions of the week

You know I try to answer all my e-mail questions, but sometimes I just can’t think of anything to say—they more or less leave me speechless. Here’s a list of mystifying queries from the past week. If you have a good answer, please let me know . . .

“Do they put honey on the roads in Oregon?”

“Can you smoke bee pheromone?”

“Why is my face so big? It got stung by a bee.”

“Is there a type of mold that can be mistaken for honeycomb?”

“My bees are dead. When can I start them up again?”

“Are tomatoes polluted by honey bees?”

“If honey is bee vomit, why does it smell so good?”

“Why are bees aggressive when I’m cutting down the tree they’re in?”

“Do dead bees eat mice?”

“I put a carpenter bee in my ant farm. Do you think the bee will kill my ants?”

“Can I measure my bees on a pH scale?”


I was so much smarter then

If you are prickly, easily offended, or a second- or third-year beekeeper, please do not read this. Hey, you! Yes, you, the second-year beekeeper out there who is trying to sneak a peek! Please go away!

Wow, that was close. Anyway, for the rest of you, I have completed a one-sided, unscientific, and misguided study on the knowledge base of beekeepers correlated with the length of time they’ve been keeping bees. And this is what I found:

The beekeepers who know the least are the first years. No surprise here. Many don’t know a mite from a mouse—after all, they both live in hives—but that’s okay because they are soaking up knowledge and learning fast. They read, attend classes, ask questions. They are grateful for any help they can get.

The beekeepers who know the most, those who actually know everything there is to know, are the second- and third-years. If there is a question, they have the answer. If you have an opinion, they will let you know what they think of it—and you. They don’t read, because they could write it better. They don’t listen, because they could say it better. Trust me, there is not one thing about bees that they don’t know. If you need a fast answer and confident opinion, they are the people to see. I am happy for them as they revel in their vast knowledge.

Then, long about the fourth year, something happens—their knowledge begins to erode. It’s not that they know less, it’s that they know so much that they begin to realize how much more there is to learn. It dawns on them they’ve seen but the tip of the iceberg. They begin to see issues as complex rather than simple. They begin to see answers as multi-faceted, not smooth and round. The amount they want to learn slowly grows until it becomes infinite.

You’ve heard of the “tree of knowledge?” Well, I think of it like this: The first years are on the ground, right where the tree breaks through the soil. The second- and third-years are on the trunk where everything is smooth, well-defined, and nothing is messy. Those who’ve been at it longer are up in the limbs, branches, and twigs where every question has more than one answer and all the pathways are obscured by leaves.

Knowledgeable beekeepers start sentences with indeterminate words like, “sometimes,” “often,” or “possibly.” They read, go to lectures, search the web, and experiment. Each year that passes, as their knowledge increases in multiples, they feel they know less . . . and they want to know more. They are awed by the bees, mesmerized, humbled. They never have fast answers, only well-considered opinions that are tempered with experience and the realization that there are no easy answers—not about bees.

But, yes, the exception makes the rule. Of course there are second- and third-years who are not know-it-alls and old-timers who are. Furthermore, I don’t really think the progression from knowing nothing, to knowing everything, to knowing just a portion is bad. It’s just the way it is.

I am speaking partially from experience gathered from my website, classes I’ve taught, and lectures I’ve given, and partially from being there. I used to know way more about bees than I do now. Actually, I used to know just about everything. But once I began studying bee nutrition, pathogens, pesticide interactions, reproduction, genetics, health, hygienic behavior, flower selection, pollen composition, communication, social interaction, nest-site selection, and environmental stressors . . . well, let’s just say I know less and less every day.

‘Nuf said. Now back to the books before I lose a few more percentage points.


Where on the tree are you?

A beekeeper’s trip to Corvallis

During the abyss of grade school, through mind-numbing months of long division, spelling, and the names of planets, I scrooched at my desk and stared at a yellowing wall map of the United States. Far to the left, one place captured my imagination and beckoned me to it.

While the scent of brown-bagged peanut butter teased by stomach, the shape of that far-away state fueled my dreams. Perhaps it was the name, or the tales of pioneers, or the stories of a valley so fertile it could grow any crop. It was a mystical, magical, Jack-and-the-beanstalk kind of place.

Oregon. The word was music and I said it aloud. Oregon. So while my friends were off California dreamin’, my imagination was north in that great fertile valley caressed by the Willamette.

From those early fantasies, the dream of Oregon persisted. I ended up living there for a time and graduated from OSU, but my fascination never waned. Work, family, and opportunity eventually led me elsewhere, but my heart still lives in the Willamette Valley.

So last fall when I got an invitation to visit a beekeeper in Eugene, I jumped at the chance. It had been years since I’d been to Oregon and the thought of traveling back through the valley was irresistible. I added the trip to the front end of a busy summer.

Fate has a way of rearranging our plans and, as it turned out, my Eugene contact cancelled. But by then I was determined to visit my favorite place. I hadn’t yet decided how to proceed when I happened to answer a beekeeping question from an “oregonstate.edu” e-mail address. I remembered the name from previous exchanges so, on a whim, I asked if I could stop by for a visit.

The beekeeper, Mark Luterra, not only sent back a welcome but accompanied it with a list of everyone he thought I should visit while in Corvallis. It was a mother lode of names, contact information, websites, and phone numbers. I could not believe my good fortune.

I contacted everyone on the list, and within a few hours I had a five-day schedule of people, places, and events. During my brief stay, I met Karessa Torgerson of Nectar Bee Supply and attended her “Understanding Swarms” class where I met more beekeepers. I was invited to the home of Linda Zielinski, president of the Lynn-Benton Beekeeper’s Association, where we gathered around a cozy outdoor fireplace and “talked bee” over red wine, tasty food, and the fragrant tang of burning wood. During the evening, Karessa and another beekeeper, Greg Long, became interested in hearing about prison beekeeping and are now pursuing plans of their own. And I was honored to meet Amanda, an enchanting teenage beekeeper, who became enthralled with my butterfly net.

I attended a presentation of the pollinator film, Wings of Life, along with the Oregon Master Beekeepers. In succeeding days, I visited more beekeepers and photographed many hives and bees. During a visit to the OSU Honey Bee Lab, I met Ramesh Sagili, Assistant Professor of Horticulture, and Carolyn Breece, Research Assistant. Carolyn walked me through the process of testing for Nosema ceranae and Ramesh showed me samples of Apocephalus borealis adults and larvae. Matt Stratton, a student technician, showed me a hypopharyngeal gland recently removed from a honey bee and explained how it would be examined for its protein content.

Later Carolyn escorted me through the Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture where Michael Burgett, Emeritus Professor of Entomology, showed me each of the honey bee hives in his eclectic collection, as well as the many types of native bee housing he has created. From there Carolyn took me to the OSU Experimental Farm where I got to see the 150 pounds of newly installed bees and the honey bee flight cages—enclosures for studying honey bees where they can fly but be restricted to certain diets.

When I wasn’t with beekeepers, I had time to visit the campus, walk by the places I used to live, and drive out to the cropped fields to photograph both honey bees and native bees in action. On one afternoon I drove around to all the places where native bee housing is being established in the community, and on another day I checked out the bees at the Starker Arts Garden for Education.

During my many visits with beekeepers, I learned some creative techniques, saw innovative pieces of equipment, heard fresh takes on beekeeping philosophy, and learned new things about both honey bees and native bees. Everyone I met was cordial, generous, and bubbling with bee enthusiasm. It was a dream trip in a dream place—the valley did not disappoint!

I have already written about a few of the things I learned while in Corvallis and I have dozens of discoveries left to share. But today, I wanted to say a public thank you to the beekeepers and bee researchers I met in Corvallis. Their kindness, knowledge, and willingness to teach were truly extraordinary.


A bee watering device at the Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture.
A bee watering device at the Oak Creek Center for Urban Horticulture.