For me, Christmas is a time of reflection. Since beginning this website on December 25, 2009, I’ve spent the anniversary dates reviewing the past and eyeing the future. Looking back, I see nine years of explaining the technicalities of making sugar syrup. Who knew writing could be so much fun!
This year’s retrospective began early when someone wrote to say they were reading straight through all my posts. Although I hear this quite frequently, I always wonder how that looks to someone else. I assume I look like a flake because I’ve changed so much since the early days. Having flip-flopped on some issues and vacillated on others, I must seem freakishly hare-brained to someone reviewing it all at once.
Changes in attitude
Many of my changes in attitude came from helping beekeepers over the years, sharing their triumphs and reliving their failures. I began to see patterns that led to success and others that led to almost inevitable collapse.
Then, too, I’ve watched the typical evolution of countless newbees. The doe-eyed beginners, the know-it-all second-years, and the “I wish I knew something—anything would help” third-years.
The real winner in all this, of course, was me. I’ve learned from each and every one of you. Some of you became friends, others were a royal pain. But regardless of the outcome, I learned something. Life is funny like that.
Recent shifts in philosophy
The things that captured my recent attention were not the day-to-day how-to-keep-bees questions. Instead, I’ve become interested in the larger picture of life on Earth—particularly bee life. And here, like a slippery fish on a wet deck, I have done the most flipping and flopping.
The most heartfelt changes didn’t happen all at once but evolved slowly in bits and pieces. For example, I used to believe that people should keep bees in any style they preferred, and how they proceeded was their business alone. But now I believe the decision to keep bees comes with responsibility.
Minding the consequences
I now believe beekeepers should tend their bees in a way that mitigates negative impacts on other beekeepers, on native pollinators, and on the environment. What changed my mind was seeing native bees with chalkbrood, deformed wing virus, Nosema, and novel parasites—things that used to be rare. It isn’t right to spread pestilence into the wild, and beekeepers, of all people, should be mindful of their impact on invertebrates.
Here, I use the word “beekeeper” in its larger sense. Spillover of diseases and parasites comes not only from honey bee colonies but from managed bees of all sorts, including leafcutters, bumble bees, and mason bees. Wherever we have raised large populations of bees in small areas, we have also propagated their pests and pathogens. When the host dies or becomes scarce, the pests can sometimes shape-shift and latch onto a new species, just as varroa mites jumped ship from Apis cerana to Apis mellifera.
I want healthy bees, you want healthy bees, and the guy across town wants healthy bees. But we can’t get there with reckless management, pretending our individual actions don’t matter. They do matter. The planet needs all bees—honey bees, native bees, and the panoply of other pollinators. We cannot afford to be careless with their lives.
I’ve also become intrigued with Thomas Seeley’s work with bee colonies living in the wild and his outline of Darwinian beekeeping. He has found many patterns among the wild bee populations that thrive without treatment. Those colonies are small, far apart, and build nests that meet their needs—not a beekeeper’s. Those bees are allowed to swarm, live high off the ground, and use as much propolis as they like. In short, they live as nature intended.
As of now, I don’t see how this could easily translate into commercial operations. But the vast majority of beekeepers are not commercial. Most are hobbyists who could begin to incorporate bee-friendly practices. It would mean less honey for the beekeeper, but more health and vitality for the bees. How can we not want that?
A third philosophical change relates to new beekeepers. I believe that we, as mentors, should speak frankly to potential newbees about the practice of beekeeping. Although we shouldn’t discourage potential beekeepers, I think it’s important to explain the realities before they make the leap for all the wrong reasons. So what are the wrong reasons? Well, I’ve flipped on that too.
All the right reasons
If a person wants to produce his own honey or beeswax, learn about honey bees, or pollinate his garden, I think he’s probably a good fit. But if the prospective beekeeper wants to “save the bees,” prevent extinction of the species, or counter the effects of CCD, he’s lost and doesn’t understand the problems.
We know the cost of excess colonies. With each additional colony, we get more pathways of disease transmission, greater populations of pests and pathogens, and increased competition for floral resources. If Thomas Seeley is right, the worst thing we can possibly do for bee health is increase the density of colonies. Overcrowding not only forces colonies to compete with each other, but forces colonies to compete with wild pollinators. In the end, they all become stressed and susceptible to disease.
So when a person tells me he wants to start a colony in order to save the bees, I try to explain why another colony will not save any bees. I explain how it might even have the opposite effect. I suggest he plant flowers instead, or perhaps assist with a community hive, or work with a mentor first. As a lover of bees, I think it’s my responsibility to explain how bees interact with other pollinators. But mind! No pressure, no judgement, just facts. The final decision belongs to him.
Reviewing and reassessing
A fourth flip-flop is related to why pollinators are in so much trouble. Although the answer is complex with many moving parts, I am convinced the primary cause of pollinator decline is not pesticides, not lack of flowers, not global warming, and not diseases or parasites. Nope. My choice for this award is habitat fragmentation.
So what’s that, you ask? Very simply, instead of insects having large areas in which to forage, breed, and nest, small populations are cut off from each other by some barrier. Barriers can be anything that prevents them from freely intermixing. It can be a freeway, a parking lot, a factory, or a housing development. In fact, any place devoid of flowers can act as a barrier because the pollinators won’t go there. And remember, unlike honey bees, most bees can fly only short distances—a couple hundred yards, give or take.
These small populations inbreed because they have no choice. Inbreeding quickly amplifies genetic weakness by increasing the incidence of “bad” alleles in a population. It’s the same system that once gave European royal families hemophilia, or that gives some dog breeds weak joints or premature blindness. To prevent genetic diseases from showing up, you want the largest, most random breeding population possible. Any animal faced with a small gene pool and little diversity will soon go extinct. Natural history is replete with unfortunate examples.
We have a country—more like an entire world—that is cut up in little pieces due to cities, roads, buildings, pavement, agricultural fields, grazed land, shopping malls, and stadiums. Nothing is natural, and wide-open spaces are neither wide nor open. Some organizations, particularly in Europe, are working to counteract this problem by providing wildlife corridors where animals can roam in a more natural way, and where local populations can mix with distant ones. I often wonder how we beekeepers can help.
On to the future
Looking ahead to my next year of working with bees, I want to incorporate at least some of these ideas. None are fully formed, but they represent shifts in my thinking and areas that need more study.
One thing that hasn’t changed in my nine years of writing a bee blog is simple: I believe beekeeping should be fun and enlightening. Bees can fill us with wonder and happiness. And certainly, keeping bees in a way that enhances the lives of all pollinators should not be any less satisfying. In fact, it could multiply the joy.
Speaking of joy, I want to take this last year-end opportunity to thank all the people whose contributions helped make Honey Bee Suite “A Better Place to Bee” in 2018. Like Santa, I made a list and checked it twice, and my deepest appreciation goes out to every one of you.
Join me now as we look to the future and search for new and creative ways to help the bees we love.
Peace on Earth,
Honey Bee Suite