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.

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

Listening to Bees

A frame of capped honey

The smallest livestock on our farm are also the most fascinating to observe, from their daily diligence and complexity of social organization to the extraordinary “waggle dance” they use to communicate the location of nectar and new homes. Today, as we prepare to harvest the last of this year’s honey, I’m reminded that the bees have a lot to teach us. We only have to listen.

  • Work together today to provide for tomorrow. Winter is coming and those food stores don’t harvest themselves.
  • Expect your responsibilities to grow as you mature. Clean your room as a kid; be prepared to run the farm as an adult.
  • Be vigilant. A weak line of defense invites invasion, disease, and death.
  • Communicate. Use your best waggle dance to share critical information with those you care about.
  • Socialize. Nothing beats hanging out on the porch with your neighbors at the end of a busy summer’s day.
  • Don’t sting unless it’s absolutely necessary. Fight when the future depends on it, then fight with selfless fury.
  • Remember that you’re a member of the community. No matter how self-sufficient you imagine yourself, you can’t make all of the honey.
  • Don’t move into a mansion when a cottage will do. Live within your means, and learn to recognize, and heed, when enough is enough. A too-big house is harder to heat and cool, harder to clean, and much harder to protect.
  • Build a strong foundation. Be it bridges or buildings or banking systems, a shaky infrastructure puts the whole community at peril.
  • Render unto Caesar. Be prepared to yield an appropriate honey tax. And, be prepared for a revolution if the powers demand too much.

And one final lesson:

The canary in the coal mine. Tennessee bee losses last year were estimated to be as high as 80 percent, attributable only in part to the extreme drought. This catastrophic statistic is set against the background of increasing colony losses across the globe in recent decades. If we listen, the message these tiny, exquisite social creatures are sending us will be clear: the mine has become dangerous. And the fault — and the solution — lies at yours and my collective doorstep.