June 12, 2014

5 Ways to Really Give Bees a Chance. ~ Marcee Murray King

Photo: Marcee Murray King (feel free to use again! I provided it! no link.)

If I see one more post on Facebook about having to stop the use of pesticides to save the honeybees—and save the world—I think I will scream.

It isn’t just the pesticides, fungicides and herbicides on the farmers’ fields killing bees.

The beekeepers are also largely to blame.

Yes, I know honeybees are dying at a rapid pace. Yes, I know pesticides and herbicides and all sorts of things are contributing to this. And yes, I know, honeybees do help with pollination. This all is true.

Honeybees are dying at alarming rates, but it isn’t just from the chemicals they are picking up in the fields. It is also the result of the factory farming/monoculture beekeeping practices—called “modern” beekeeping—we see in use today.

What if all the honeybees died in the United States? What then?

Did you know that in the United States honeybees aren’t even a native species? Hmmm…how were plants pollinated here before honeybees arrived?

That role would be would have been filled by our native pollinators.

World wide, there are over 200,000 different species of animals that act as pollinators. Having the honey bees vanish permanently wouldn’t mean the end of pollination, but would possibly be the end of some very poor agricultural practices in use already.

Here are some facts you may not know about modern beekeeping and some solutions:

1. Most honeybees are, essentially, factory-farmed insects.

They are raised in boxes that are filled with recycled “foundation” comb—comb that is factory-made using wax cappings from other bee colonies.

To the modern beekeeper, this means the bees have less energy “wasted” on creating wax and more energy goes into honey production. Bees aren’t allowed to build their own homes anymore, and this is truly a part of their life-cycle. Worse still, the foundation comb provided for the bees is loaded with toxins, as it is a mix of wax from many different hives raised in a multitude of ways.

Bees can be raised in different hive systems, such as the top bar hives I use. These systems seem to support the natural life-cycle of the honeybees better, allowing them to make their own comb.

2. Bees are unnaturally shipped around the country in semi trucks.

Bees, in their boxes, are shipped thousands of miles across the country just to pollinate large agri-businesses, such as, the almond groves in California.

These groves are incredibly artificial environments where tons of chemicals are dumped on the ground just to prevent grass from growing. Most importantly, bees have a very delicate immune system, and truly need to settle into one geographical region to build their colony in communion with the immediate environment. Bottom line: bees aren’t meant to be moved around the country in trucks—it ruins their vitality.

Eat locally. Eat organically. Don’t buy food, such as nuts and apples, raised by trucked bees. Don’t buy honey from beekeepers that do this to their bees…in fact, only buy local honey.

3. Bees are routinely medicated by the beekeepers.

Antibiotics and other chemical treatments are frequently used in hives to “prevent” and “treat” diseases and infestations. Most times bees are more susceptible to the things they are being treated for, such as varroa mites, because of how they have been raised. We are weakening the bees by exposing them to these chemicals right in their own homes.

Beekeepers must start using natural methods for raising their bees. We can’t medicate our bees in this way and then complain about the chemicals the farmers are using in raising our food. We can’t expect healthy bees from such practices, and we can’t expect them, with a weakened system, to be able to withstand the toxins in the world around them.

4. Honeybees have a junk food diet.

Yes, that is right. Beekeepers routinely take too much honey off of the hives for profit in the fall and then feed their bees sugar water and corn syrup instead.

There is no excuse for this, except for a few very rare (emergency) exceptions. I still have always managed to feed them honey I have from the previous years, bought honey if I was out or fed maple sap in the early spring, which they love. Corn syrup and sugar weaken the bees. Imagine how healthy we would be if we ate this all day long.

5. Honeybees aren’t allowed to make their own queens, nor are they allowed to swarm.

Both of these are a part of their natural life-cycle. Bees in a colony grow a new queen when they think they should and the old queen moves on with part of the colony, leaving the new queen and part of the workers behind.

In modern beekeeping practices, queen cells are actively sought out and destroyed by beekeepers in order to prevent a swarming of the bees. If they don’t swarm, the colony stays larger and the beekeeper can steal more honey. An illogical exception to this is when the beekeeper for some reason decides he wants to replace a queen. When this happens, the beekeeper usually buys a replacement from an outside source or sometimes deliberately raises one. The purchased ones are raised in a “lab” situation and usually come artificially inseminated.

If one is diligent, one can often prevent swarming by adding on more frames for bees to work on or splitting the hive (which is a good way to increase your number of bee colonies). Honestly, I just let my bees do what they wish. If they feel it is time to raise a new queen, then I don’t fight them…I trust in their knowledge of what they need. If they want to swarm, I let them. Sometimes I am able to catch the swarm and start a new hive, sometimes nature gets the blessing of a wild colony. This seems the healthier for the colony, long-term, than killing all the queen cells as they are built.

How do I know these things? I have been kept by bees for 15 years, and worked as an apprentice beekeeper  for two years before I started. I have read books, attended some meetings, but mostly developed my own ideas through contemplation and observation—ideas that natural beekeepers and scientists around the world are now (loudly) supporting.

A honey thief at times, I mostly love to let the honeybees be, listening and noticing. I have neglected my bees seriously some years, lavished attention on them during others. Unlike many beekeepers, while getting some honey is a benefit, that isn’t my main reason to have bees. I really think it more important to view my role as a steward of the bees. I am here to help facilitate a natural life for bees.

I would say that after 17 years at this I am still a complete amateur, compared to most. Yet even with my amateur status, I know that proper honeybee rearing starts at home and with how the bees are kept by us. We need to get our own beekeeping practices in order first. Only then can we truly assess the damage being done by the farming practices around us.




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Editor: Travis May

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Lory Jan 10, 2015 1:51am

Thank you so much for the insight. I honestly have never owned bees but plan to some day. I had no idea about basically any of this.

Stacy Jun 21, 2014 10:56am

Finally, someone who has noticed the same things I have. Trying to keep bee in some urban areas is problematic. People need to be better educated about differences between wasps & bees. Not everything that flies are "bees". I caught a swarm at a plant & the workmen almost fainted when I put my whole hand into the swarm. Put its hard to express the feeling of feeling all that energy & fuzzy little bodies on you skin. What a rush!!

bill Jun 16, 2014 6:44am

Thank you for the thoughtful, useful article. The pieces, however, does perpetuate a few common misunderstandings. Everything the writer said about commercial honey producers and industrial pollinators is true. However, it's also true that we would be hard pressed to find feral bees these days. Beekeepers of all types are possibly the only force keeping bees alive today and may be bees' best hope for survival — provided that we get our processes in balance with nature again (speaking as a small-time beekeeper myself).

A note about foundation comb: It's not literally "factory made," as the writer suggests. It may be more accurate to say it's factory produced because it's made from natural beeswax (as the writer noted), and it forms only the septum of the comb, meaning that the bees do, in fact, build out the bulk of the comb themselves, and they rebuild it many times over when given "wet" comb from which honey has been removed or when comb is damaged. The need does exist for commercial producers of foundation to analyze the wax they're using to ensure that it is not filled with chemical collected over time. Fortunately, most foundation is made from cappings, which is the newest, and relatively cleanest, wax there is, in terms of chemical content.

Queening hives with queens raised from other genetic strains is nothing to fear. Biologists tell us that genetic diversity benefits all species' immunities and adaptability. An example of this principle in reverse is the inherent biological weakness of monoculture farming, which the writer correctly points to as a problem but fails to connect to bees.

One reason that honey producers work to prevent swarming is the loss of the bees, as this writer certainly understands. And the writer's own techniques for working with swarms is sound and commendable, and many backyard beekeepers allow their colonies to requeen themselves naturally. It may also be worth mentioning that many beekeepers also work hard and at great personal expense to raise "hygienic" bees and "survivor stock" — i.e., bees raised naturally with no human intervention or chemical treatments in order to promote natural genetic adaptations through multiple generations of survivors.

Finally I would encourage people interested in saving bees to become backyard beekeepers themselves, to learn and practice sensible, natural techniques, and do all you can to give bees a chance to adapt naturally to their changing environment while mitigating the environmental harm being done to bees.

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Marcee Murray King

Marcee Murray King, M.A., a renaissance woman, has many superhero powers…though these can often be her kryptonite as well. When she isn’t trying to save the world—or at least just make it a better place—she hides away on her lovely 25 acres in Southwest Wisconsin.