From Snow to Saguaros
By Claire Anderson
It was a misty morning and Karen, Corwin and I were all bundled up inthe car chitchatting about honeybees, life and random ideas on ourway to DIA. Corwin and I were heading to Tucson, AZ for the organicbeekeeping conference. As we cruised through DIA and security with a number of rather odd objects packed among our clothes - including 18top bars - my mind was reeling on fast-forward mode thinking about the upcoming conference. I’ve only ever had conversations about natural beekeeping with people who have top bar hives in the Boulder area and here we were, heading to Arizona to meet a whole variety ofbeekeepers who all practice or are interested in an input and chemical-free approach to working with honeybees.
The landscape was absolutely stunning as we flew over snowy mountain ranges, vast deserts and a large empty space that looked as if had once been an immense lake that had long since dried up. As we began our descent, I looked down and saw a huge valley below filled with house upon house each with their own round swimming pool. There were palm trees and large resorts and as we got off the plane the first thing I spotted was a cactus that towered over me as I looked up in awe at this massive bundle of prickles. We had arrived in Tucson!
As I waited for the duffel bag with about 20 hive tools and a disassembled Golden Mean Hive in it, Corwin went to get the rental car. Just as I grabbed our bag from the conveyor belt, Corwin came back full of excitement having just met bee guardian Sam Comfort who was also heading to the conference. “He is this big guy wearing a black sleeveless shirt with tattoos of comb all over his arm” Corwin exclaimed.
We drove through Tucson and up toward Oracle in our little buzz mobile (a little yellow car) and saw the most amazing landscapes with huge cliffs that jutted in the distance, yucca plants that were 5 feet tall and prickly pear cactus plants using the local oak trees for support. We were hoping to eat at a little natural food store in Oracle but to our disappointment it had long since gone out of business so we grabbed a bite to eat at the local Mexican restaurant and headed to the conference.
As we arrived at the YMCA camp, I was jittery with anticipation. There were groups of people all around talking about bees and comparing notes about their methods of working with the honeybees. Everyone here seems so different then most beekeepers I’ve met; they all have such unique personalities! Being organic beekeepers, we all agree about the importance of honeybees and working with them in a chemical-free way. But wow, even with the common ground we share, what an eclectic and diverse group of people are all gathered here on a mission for the honeybees!
After settling in, we ate dinner and then gathered for introductions and to watch a film about the interconnectedness of all life. It was interesting to hear peoples’ stories and their reasons for coming to the conference. Everyone had taken such different paths to come here and the stories were quite varied. There were sting therapy practitioners, commercial beekeepers and a few top-bar and hobby beekeepers from all over the United States and Canada - all working with bees in a totally chemical-free way.
Something that really struck me as we all started talking about bees was how everyone, no matter what type of hives they used, had a slightly different way of doing things and we all were in the innovation and design mode of how we could be doing things in a better way. How cool is it for people to keep refining their ideas to create the perfect environment for both themselves and the bees?! So many people these days seem to stick for years and years with the first thing that works until they realize too late that they’ve walked into a brick wall. It is wonderful to meet so many people who are always on the lookout for how they could be doing something better even when their current model has seemed to work for years and years.
Times change and I think it is important for us to have the flexibility to move with that change and find something that works both for us and the environment around us. It is like climbing a ladder or something. One thing works for a while and we stick with it, then another idea comes along and we take that next step, and the next one, working with what works in the moment and then moving on and evolving from each moment to the next. There doesn’t seem to be any one way to do anything and the more we all try things in new ways, the more knowledge, open-mindedness and ability to learn from one another will flow through.
We all met bright and early in the conference room after breakfast in anticipation of a full day of presentations ahead.
The first presenter was Scott McPherson, a man with top bar as well as warre hives (a small Langstroth type of hive that is designed to mimic a hollow tree). Scott started beekeeping using the only model he knew which involved taking out a loan from the bank for equipment and starting with 300 top bar hives. His mission was to prove that it was possible work with bees in a large scale usuing natural methods. Unluckally, at that time Iowa was in the midst of terrible drought and after three years of sucsessive drought that lead to decrease in water supply as well as nector and pollen flow, he ended up with only about 50 hives a year later. Now he is slowly building up his colonies and has just over 75 hives which he works with in a natural, input-free and organic manner.
Scott’s presentation, “The Art of Increase” was mainly about splitting the strong hives as a way to increase bee population, which in effect would increase pollination and honey production.
I really liked Scott as a person and he seems to be really knowlagable about honeybees and different techniques to working with hives; I just didn’t especially agree with the idea that it is important to “split” hives when they are strong and vibrant because I think that it is important for them to do most of their managing themselves. Who knows better about a honeybee then a honeybee? Thinking about my exuberant hive in North Boulder, I wouldn’t even dream of one day walking in and splitting them into two different hives. It just wouldn’t feel right. They’ve worked so hard and would probably be feeling pretty sure of themselves when all of a sudden they find out that this big creature convered in white comes in and takes out part of the intricate web that makes up their hive and family. It is one thing if they choose to swarm, but for me (or any beekeeper) to walk in and think I know better then the bees themselves would feel a bit silly to me and definitely be against their natural way of being that has thrived for millions of years.
I want my bees to be strong and vibrant and I believe one of the important ways for them to feel empowered, vibrant and healthy is working with them as a living system that has knowledge and abilities very different from our own. I think it is important to watch, listen and learn from them optimizing their space, harvesting the excess honey and then helping them in ways I can when I notice they need a leg up.
Although I couldn’t fully agree with the topic being presented, there were a few ponts of Scott’s talk that I found really interesting. The first was about leaving honey stores for the bees to overwinter. He mentioned to leave more then enough honey for the bees for winter because of an autumn lull in nectar flow that can occur. Scott said he usually leaves almost all of the honey for the bees with the intention of harvesting the excess overwintered honey in the spring when things are beginning to bloom and when he sees the majority of bees coming back to the hive with abdomens full of nectar. He said that this method of harvesting works well because it eliminates the guessing game many beekeepers play of how much honey to leave in the hive for the winter. The excess honey won’t disappear if the bees don’t need it and with top bar hives it is just as easy to harvest in the spring using the crush and strain method. In Langstroth hives, if the overwintered honey has crystalized and is harder to spin out of the comb he said that it is possible to uncap the combs and then put them back in the hive where the bees will recap it which brings it back to the liquid texture.
I also enjoyed what he had to say about how bees naturally use the oldest combs in the hive for storing honey and how ironic it is that commercial beekeepers use the oldest combs for the brood nest. It makes so much sense for the bees to use the newest and cleanest combs in the most delicate and precious part of the hive - raising the young bees that will become their future. Scott mentioned that when using the whare hives, he puts a super on the bottom for the bees to draw out new comb for the brood nest and that he raises the oldest combs to the top in this same manner. I am not quite sure how to incorporate this into the top bar hives but it does make a lot of sense to figure out a system that keeps it possible for the bees to make fresh comb for the brood. It seems like that could also really help keep diseases from festering in the hives.
“Listen to the bees, let them guide you” ~ Brother Adam
The next presenter was Sam Comfort, founder of Anarchy Apiaries in New York. I really enjoyed Sam’s presentation about his journey through a “bee hell” of managing 1,500 hives for commercial beekeepers and later finding his way to a more natural top bar approach where he started his own business on the east coast teaching classes, helping beginning beekeepers with their hives and managing his own 15 hive apiary.
Sam seems to be totally in line with what Backyard Hive is doing and what I think of as the ideal way of working with honeybees. A model that treats each hive as unique while helping the bees in the most beneficial ways, supporting their ability to care for themselves while still harvesting enough honey to share with family and friends and appreciating the abundance the honeybees bring to the land around them.
I loved what Sam had to say about queens too. He talked about how the colonies that queen themselves are filled with love for this most sacred bee through and through. The queen is cared for with utter tenderness from an egg and she is cared and doted upon from the moment she hatches out of her cell. The bees know that a strong queen is fundamental to their well-being and treat her as such. One of the problems with packaged bees and artificial queens is that they spend their first few weeks of life in a cage about the size of a peanut and are put in a hive with about 20,000 worker bees who are only keeping from killing her because of her cage that serves as both her imprisonment and protection. After a few days in the hive, she is expected to be psycologically okay, to start laying eggs and to love the bees who once tried to kill her. How terribly wrong is this system?! It is set up for failure! The honeybees want to be loved just as much as any living creature and how trying it must be on an entire hive to start in a new place with such disorder and imbalance. It makes perfect sense to me for the bees to raise their own queen as they see fit. It would be unthinkable for a human to be told to accept another as it’s mother when the true mother has been locked up and shipped off to another state. As Scott put it, the same love just isn’t quite present then when it comes from that person who know deep down to be your mother (whether biological or adopted).
Sam also talked about how commercial beekeepers are not the enemy; rather, that they are trapped into the system out of need to feed their families and make payroll. I think this is an important point. Commercial beekeeping is just a system that has become very dysfunctional and unworkable for every party involved (except perhaps the drug producers). As Sam said, “Honeybees don’t follow rules and can’t be forced for profit”. He also brought up the issue of very few young beekeepers and how many kids these days are growing up on video games and afraid of dirt, insects, and the outdoors. That kids are growing up with a lack of connection to the entire natural world and cycles of life. I feel like maybe this lack of connection with the rhythms of life is making people afraid of change. Perhaps it is fear of the unknown that keeps commercial beekeepers using chemicals instead of trying alternatives.
One last point of Sams’ talk that I found quite shocking was about his experience adding chemicals to hives while working for commercial beekeepers. Sam told of a story about opening hives filled with dead bees overrun with thousands of verroa mites crawling everywhere, even over the strip of a deadly chemical called formic acid that was meant to kill them. The pests and diseases that we kill with chemicals always seem to build up resistance to the chemicals, while leaving the creatures we try to protect in harms way. What if instead of focusing on killing the “enemy” we focused on helping the friend. I feel like the best way we can support the honeybees is to help them to help themselves by supporting their whole being and helping them build up their immune systems so they have the knowledge to stay wild and healthy with the tools and strength to fight their own battles.
Sam also mentioned how he insulates his hives with trash bags filled with leaves. It makes a lot of sense because leaves are a natural substance and easy to come by.
Shortly after Sams’ presentation, Corwin and I had a conversation about how the traditional model of beekeeping has been “beekeepers as pollinators and honey producers” with hundreds of hives to manage and transport from mono-crop to mono-crop and that this new model, such as the backyard hive model, seems to be working really well with beekeepers becoming bee guardians, teachers, mentors and community members. People who have their own hives inspire neighbors and friends to have their own hives and as this local hobby model for working with bees spreads, every community and farm will have their own population of pollinators, honey producers and wonderful little honeybees.
The one problem (and benefit) of this is that then our whole model of farming would be forced to change. We could no longer support the large almond crops in Florida or any of the mono-crops that exist all over the world. Farms would be forced to grow a variety of crops and everything would evolve back into the state of interconnectedness between animals and insects as well as fruits and vegetables. Many beekeepers talk about how profitability is key and that we must first focus on pollination and honey production before we raise enough money to support education. It seems like that whole system is upside down for our current times. Backyard Hive as well as other small scale apiaries and top bar beekeepers are proving that education can sustain itself and be just as profitable (if not more so) then the large scale honeybee operations.
“The keeping of bees is like the direction of sunbeams” ~ Henry David Thoreau
Soon we were gathered once again for a presentation by Dean Stigltz who is an input-free natural beekeeper and honey packer using Langstroth hives in Massachusetts. Dean works with honeybees from a place of doing it for his livelihood and is determined to prove that organic beekeeping can be just as profitable (if not more so) then using chemicals and pesticides. He hopes that chemical-free beekeeping will inspire even commercial beekeepers to change their ways. Dean made a good point that honeybees communicate through smell, movement and feeling and that chemicals, aromatherapy and even essental oils make it difficult for them to communicate.
One thing that Dean really stresses is that not all honey is equal and that when bees are fed corn syrup or sugar water it will not only compromise the bees’ imune system and ability to raise brood with proper nutrition, but will also make a poorer quality of honey then that of bees who forage for their own food, raise their young with the most nutrient rich substances around and use the surplus to eat during the winter months. Dean made a good point that honey, pollon, royal jelly and beeswax are impossible for humans to replicate. Similar to milk; we just can’t synthetically recreate milk that has anywhere near the same quality or level of nutrients as the real thing. Commercial beekeepers argue that the chemicals, corn syrup and sugar water they feed in the brood nest will never get into the honey. But as Michael Bush puts it, “inputs into the brood nest is like a no peeing section of a swimming pool”.
Dean made a good point that the honeybees who are raised for packages are bred solely for the purpose of creating more bees. Therefore they aren’t necessarily going to be able to thrive in our local environments. He then showed a slide about managed vs. wild honeybee colonies and explained how natural predators give bees the survival instinct not through fear but through need to carry on their genetics.
In my opinion, backyard and top-bar bee guardianship and beekeeping is a middle ground between a “managed” hive and a “wild” one. As a natural beekeeper / bee guardian I don’t feel the pressure to support my livelihood. Therefore neither do my bees. I just take extra honey when I am positive the bees don’t need it (which actually turns out to be a lot). They still have the advantage of a honey surplus to overwinter and swarm in the spring and as a no input bee guardian, the pressures of natural selection still apply. I do my best to support the bees by other means when they need an extra hand and crowding doesn’t occur because they are free and able to manage themselves as they see fit. It seems to be the best of both worlds!
“It’s the microbes that will have the last word” Louis Pasteur 1857
After a quick lunch, we gathered once again for a presentation by Ramona Herboldsheimer about microbes in the beehive. She discussed how important microbes are in a hive (microbes clean out systems of all sorts and we’d die without the microbes living in our own bodies) and how the imbalance of microbes cause disease and imbalance in a hive. She explained it like this: If a colony of bees is a superorganism, then that colony plus all of the microbes in it are a super, super organism.
It was amazing some of the things honeybees do naturally to take care of their hives. Apparently, when a healthy hive spots chalkbrood they have a way of heating the affected area by activating their flight muscles to raise the temperature of the hive just high enough to kill the chalkbrood yet keep it safe for the rest of the brood and then they lower the temperature just when the chalkbrood get cleared out.
Ramona discussed a pollen-like product called “bee bread” and explained that most of the nutrition in a hive comes from bee bread. Without this precious substance they can’t feed the next generation. She also talked about how the microbial cultures constantly change and evolve and that they vary from hive to hive and apiary to apiary. She mentioned too that migratory beekeeping can really interfere with the microbial cultures in the hives.
This makes a lot of sense to me because different places have totally different environments, microbes, pests and diseases. It seems like for a hive to build up the strength to work harmoniously within one ecosystem takes a lot of effort and as commercial beekeepers move their hives from ecosystem to ecosystem pollinating different crops along the way, we’re expecting the impossible of the bees.
It is one thing for humans to adjust to being in a new place every three weeks or so. We eat basically the same food and enjoy similar comforts as we do at home. But we expect honeybees to be able to quickly recover from the trauma and stress of being moved (rather roughly) across the country and then work with a whole new set of pesticides, insects and a totally new microbial environment both in and outside of the hive. They are forced to orient themselves in a totally new landscape as well, adjust to a different climate and on top of all that, we expect them to be ready to move again after just a few short weeks as the pollon and nectar source dries up in each particular area.
It’s so preposterous for us to put them through this year after year and it is really quite a gift that they’re finally telling us that “No, this doesn’t work and you’re going to have to change how you work with us because it is as much your well-being as ours that is at stake here”.
I feel like a hive is sort of like a plant or a tree; as it lives in a particular place, it grows roots into the landscape and local ecosystem. These roots keep the hive in balance by storing information about the area around them and they work together with the local flowers year after year dancing together with the seasons. The swarms are like the seeds taking root to keep the cycle strong. The honeybees seem to be as much a part of our environments as the soil that creates a certain variety of plants that grow. Imagine if a gardener woke up every few weeks to a different soil structure and was expected to create an oasis in just 3 weeks.
After a few more presentations, I was getting pretty overloaded with thoughts, ideas and information swarming around my mind. Later that evening, Corwin, Sam, Scott and I had a great conversation about honeybees and hive experiences then after a quick dinner and a short hike along the Arizona trail I headed to bed so I’d be well rested to get up bright and early for our last day here in Arizona.
I woke up at 7:00 am, headed to breakfast and ended up sitting with Dee Lusby and some other beekeeping folk where I witnessed a very lively conversation about the terrors of Bayer and all the other chemical companies. It’s amazing that Dee’s family has been working with honeybees in a totally chemical-free way for generations. Honeybees have existed for so many millions of years more then the chemicals created to protect them. It is quite inspiring that Dee’s family never succumbed to the pressures of treating their hives with chemicals.
Concepts in Bee Guardianship:
The next presenter was Corwin. Corwin’s presentation was a very provocative, fun and lively story about his journey with the bees. He talked about how he stumbled across honeybees in a rather unique way and how that led him to start BackYardHive and this growing community of bee guardians. I especially enjoyed the story of how he became interested in bees through a shoulder injury where after being told he needed surgery, he climbed trees to find wild hives and stung himself in the shoulder which ended up helping him heal and becoming an alternative to surgery. He then went on to explain how working with bees in this way led him to realize just how amazing these little creatures are and he began to think about how he could do something to really help the honeybees - and the planet - in a direct way where the positive impact is present right then and there in the local ecosystem.
Corwin then went on to talk about designing the original BackYard Hive and shared a story that one day he was out of hives but needed to hive a swarm of bees that day, so he threw together a hive out of scraps of wood he had laying around that weren’t anywhere near the “right” dimensions for a hive. Yet in working with this hive, he noticed just how much the bees were flourishing and how skillfully they used the deeper yet shorter space. He also noticed how easy and fun it was for him to work in this hive and so, just as many “mistakes” turn into brilliant ideas, this one turned into the beginnings of the Golden Mean Hive which is a wonderfully built hive based on the dimensions of pi and the golden mean ratio.
I’ve used this hive for my bees for the past 2 years and they seem to love it nearly as much as I do! The bars are the perfect size for harvesting as well as inspecting, they have more surface area then most top-bar hives so the bees aren’t forced to move form comb to comb all of the time, the brood nest is far enough away from the honey stores so as not to get all mixed up yet both honey and brood are close enough together so as to keep things cozy and connected. Corwin explains a hive as if it is one incredible being and with this design, this being is able to communicate easily and articulately with all the different parts, keeping the hive together as a strong and vital energy force.
Corwin then talked about the BackYardHive business model of creating a network of backyard, natural bee guardians who support their bees with enthusiasm and help our local environment flourish in a pesticide and chemical-free way. Being part of this community in Boulder, it amazes me what an incredible group of people are getting inspired by bees and caring for their bees as if they are part of the family. This concern about the honeybees’ well being spreads to include all honeybees affected by malnourishment and chemicals throughout the world and it becomes an awareness about the fundamental importance these little critters have on our entire ecosystem and what joy they bring to our daily lives.
Corwin also told an interesting story about how when he first started beekeeping, he went to a candle store and bought the rolling wax used for candles as foundation wax for his hive. Later, when he went in to inspect his hives, to his utter bewilderment he found first a beautiful red comb then a green one and so on throughout the entire hive! “I was astounded!” he said “and really curious what plants’ nectar could have created such a vibrant color”. Later he realized that the bees must have chewed up and distributed the wax foundation (coming from a candle store near christmas) throughout the hive.
Next, I gave a little presentation of a slideshow I created when I was 16 years old about my first year working with honeybees. It was really fun to present my own little slideshow and to to glow with both sheepishness and delight as everyone applauded. I must say it was rather fun for people to enjoy what I have to say and appreciate the experiences that I’ve had.
It was really inspiring to see how excited people got about what BackYardHive is up to. After Corwin’s presentation, people came up in droves wanting to learn more about this type of top-bar bee guardianship as well as hoping to become educational supporters in other parts of the country! I think people were also really impressed with the hives that BackYardHive uses and how well-made they are and easy to work with.
Both Corwin and I were ecstatic as we left the conference in a buzz and headed back to Tuscon for our 2:40 pm flight home. It was quite a fun experience in Oracle, Arizona and who knows, maybe one day I’ll be back to give a whole presentation about my work with the honeybees!