The Seasonal Beekeeper

A friend of mine recently described his beekeeping status like this: “I’m a seasonal beekeeper. I buy bees every year, keep them for the summer season, until they leave or die in the fall and winter. Then I start again the next spring.” One of our area hive inspectors, who knows a thing or two about beekeeping, has already lost all of his colonies this winter. A natural beekeeper I know who adheres to all the latest trends in chemical-free beekeeping lost 40 of his 48 hives in 2017. And according to the state apiarist, up to 80 percent of Tennessee’s honeybee colonies died in the 2016-2017 period.

As Mr. Salatin would say, “Folks, this ain’t normal.”

East Tennessee has a temperate climate and is not home to vast commodity crop fields and their corresponding high pesticide loads. It has a diverse, pollinator-friendly range of flowering flora. Yet, the best we are offering is just not enough. Bees are, well, dropping like flies. 

The new reality is that what has worked for hundreds and thousands of years is now in free fall. Blame it on neonicotinoids and our polluting ways, blame it on climate change, blame it on Trump — but a fundamental of human agriculture is in collapse. How far down will things spiral? That is impossible to say.

Bees, native and managed, pollinate about 75 percent of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables we Americans rely on to sustain our population. Cross-pollination supports at least 30 percent of the world’s crops and 90 percent of wild plants. Yet in rural China, abuse of pesticides has decimated bee populations to the point that humans now have to pollinate by hand the enormous pear crop. No, it is not normal, and it is not sustainable.

Here at Winged Elm Farm, we love keeping bees. We love working with and for them, harvesting their honey, and hearing their reassuring hum everywhere in our soundscape. We look forward, when the temperature on a sunny day hits 50 degrees, to homing in on the distinctive buzzing of one of our girls. When we lose a colony of bees, it is almost as painful as losing a favored ewe. Losing all of the hives is akin to losing our whole flock. Devastating.

Yes, there are plenty of things all of us can do to help the bees.

  • Plant rich and varied sources of nectar and pollen.
  • Ditch the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.
  • Create and preserve habitats for non–honeybee pollinators.

But I’m still not sanguine about turning things around. The technophiles blather blandly about a 10 billion–strong human population and bee drones to feed it, and the talking heads at the UN say we need to double our housing stock to accommodate the growth. Our species has already put the climate at risk, likely fueling a sixth mass extinction, so excuse me, my friends, if I don’t believe more of the same is the answer.

Recently I stumbled across someone who offered up this advice to save the bees: Everyone should put sugar water out on their porch to feed them. Which is akin to a plan to fight world hunger by putting a Dunkin’ Donuts on every corner of every village and town. It misses both the point and the scope of the problem. Meanwhile, the political realm offers the usual partisan solution of either redoubling our faith in the god of market forces or bolstering our inventory of band-aids to mask the problem.

That neither is adequate to tackling the crisis at hand is an understatement. Yet the last major political leader to warn us of the costs of our profligate ways was sent packing back to his peanut farm.


Reading this weekend: Assault in Norway, Thomas Gallagher. And We Die Alone, David Howarth. Two fantastic and inspiring books of true-life heroes.

17 thoughts on “The Seasonal Beekeeper

  1. I’m guessing it’s a bit too early to say for sure whether your colonies will pass through this winter. And with the stats you’re citing the quote from Joel seems appropriate.

    Ever the optimist, I’m more inclined to see whether the almond growers in California are able to round up (and rent) enough bees to pollinate their crop. I know, commercial disdain and neo-capitalist drivel… but there is SO much money in them almonds… if the end is truly nigh the almond folk will serve as the canaries in this coal mine. Interesting that our Georgia peanut farmer gets a mention in the same space as the California almond farmer. Are we going nuts?

    Do you pay attention to honey prices? I have to confess I don’t. Again, commercial and capitalist, but little else seems to gain any traction. If honey (as golden as it is) were worth two to three times as much there would be more movement to find solutions.

    Maybe we need to let Mr Trump in on a biological secret – that almost all them little bees are girls. He should start a bee beauty pageant. If he doesn’t behave himself around the contestants, he’ll get stung. Sweet.

    • Good old J.C., forgot the critical lesson, never speak truth to the voter. It only works in the movies.

      To date we have lost one hive out of five for the winter. So that puts us at an acceptable 20% loss. But the next six weeks are the starvation time for hives around here (and, in Ohio). Honey stores begin to run low and too few sources of pollen and nectar are available.

    • Ever ponder whether overwintering a hive inside the high tunnel could be accomplished? I don’t imagine this would be as simple as putting a box inside… but there could be a two fold advantage to trying it. Say the overwinter loss is 50% outdoors, and 10% or less in a greenhouse… Does the value of the difference justify the effort (is the juice worth the squeeze?). And as a side benefit – one could see increased pollination among the plants in the house… cucumbers need to be pollinated I believe… and I think tomatoes do better when cross pollinated. Might be worth a peek around the web – or you could try it yourself. You have all the necessary inputs already to hand. Dr. Miller, bee scientist.

        • I’m missing where he suggested that the cold was killing the bees. No matter… here are a couple links that take only a few minutes and might spur some thought.

          First is a blog post by a local (their 3.5 acre farmet is about six miles from the research farm as the crow flies. So it seems to work in Central Ohio at least.

          The second is a YouTube video, which if you take a peek will also load up a couple other ‘bees in the GH’ vids.

          Pollen from the plants (tomatoes at least) is one food source – but apparently not enough nectar, so in one video they mention a syrup feeder… the feeder takes advantage of the warmer interior by not freezing.

          Diversity of pollen sources is suggested somewhere. Hmmm, I wonder how that might be accomplished?

          • Interesting. We don’t really use our hoop house, except as an extender of the seasons. So, over the winter we use it for brassicas and greens. Not worried about their pollination. Once the peas and cukes begin to flower in March and April, the bees are out most days and find their way in without problems. So, seems like an awful lot of work she goes to moving hives about.

          • Absolutely… moving hives is a big ask. And without a pollen source it really takes any incentive away. Hunker down.

  2. It really is alarming that we are losing our bee population. If hives run out of honey in the late winter perhaps we need to take less honey from the hives???? I wonder if growing early blooming plants in a high tunnel might help the bees obtain pollen earlier in the spring? I don’t know anything that blooms in late winter though.
    I’ve noticed in my own garden that bees really prefer to visit certain herb plants. Hyssop is one their favorite. Even when I started seeing fewer bees in my garden I noticed that they still covered the hyssop plants.
    It isn’t surprising that pollen is becoming lower in nutrition. I think part of this might be due to the decline in soil quality as well as changing atmospheric gases. Also, people are hybridizing plants such as goldenrod to make their blooms more showy. This might be having an influence on nutrition content as well.
    As for solutions…last year I planted a large area with native plants including goldenrod and other fall blooming species that are native to Indiana. I stopped using herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides years ago and I encourage diversity in my lawn, dandelions, clover, and plantains. The bees love the clover. I let my lawn grow long between mowing which helps preserve the blooms on the clover. We have plenty of water sources nearby but bees still seem to like visiting the bird bath too. I don’t know if our efforts will make a difference or not, but I still prefer to try doing something rather than just giving up.

    • Nicely put, Jody. There is so much we can do as individuals. But, and this is a big but, we can’t recreate a whole ecosystem. Particularly when our way of life is at war with any attempt to do otherwise. But, still you and I both try. Sigh.

Any thoughts or questions?