Traditional vs Commercial Beekeeping – What’s the Difference?
What do Paper-making, home-cooking, letter writing and truth telling all have in common? Give up?
They’re all dying arts.
Notice I said dying, not completely dead. Unlike Chivalry and decorum in US presidential politics which are truly DOA, some arts while dying, still cling to vestiges of their former glory.
To this list, we must sadly add the dying art of Artisanal (traditional) beekeeping, which has far reaching implications not only the art and culture of beekeeping, but for human agriculture and survival as well.
You may have heard that at least one out of every three bites of food we take, including many of the tastiest fruits and vegetable available to us simply would not exist without the world’s best pollinator, the honeybee. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you can probably safely up this ratio to about ½ of what you eat being dependent on honeybees.
With so much riding on the pollination work done by honeybees, then how is it possible that traditional, natural methods for beekeeping have become a dying art? Easy. It has followed another dying art, Family Farming into the uncharted waters of large-scale commercial agriculture that has become the rule and not the exception today.
You may have heard about “Bees dying”, or “Colony Collapse Disorder” that began to make big headlines and waves circa 2005-2006 as up to 40% of Bees around the world began to mysteriously die off each winter, numbers unprecedented in human history.
It’s true – in 2006 this global phenomenon of massive overwinter (and then year round) honeybee losses became a reality, and it continues right up until today in 2016, where the latest available data between April 2015 – April 2016 indicates that losses in the United States, the worlds biggest market, were at 44% for the year, summer and winter. What was once more a wintering phenomenon thought to be due to the extra stress of cold and wintering, has expanded to include year-round losses. (https://beeinformed.org/2016/05/10/nations-beekeepers-lost-44-percent-of-bees-in-2015-16/)
What isn’t true, what is patently obvious, especially if you are beekeepers like us, is they “mystery”, the “why”. The simple fact is that traditional, sustainable methodologies designed to keep bees healthy and happy have been jettisoned for commercial conditions focused on pollination for profit, bees have held out as long as they possibly could in such awful conditions, and finally, have started to die en-masse.
Traditionally, a Family farm would include enough hives to pollinate all crops and orchards. In a traditional farming situation, human beekeepers would simply “help” honeybees (who die at a rate of 5 out of 6 in the wild without human assistance – there are no “wild” honeybees. Feral bees still are not wild) by providing housing and in bad years, feed in the form of pollen & syrup. The rest was up to the bees, who were only too happy to keep up their end of the bargain by pollinating everything they could get their proboscis’s on for miles around. Everybody prospered, and everyone was happy.
Enter the modern era where farming has moved on from its subsistence roots, to farming as a business, where farmers have been encouraged to “go big or stay home” and employ the massive scale agricultural practices we now understand are unsustainable – Enormous and endless fields of pesticide laden, GMO crops & orchards that are large artificial forests and fields, all bearing a single variety of crop. This situation is SO unnatural, that the bees have to be tricked into pollinating them in the first place.
The best example is the California almond industry. To support this billion dollar industry, bees are trucked from all over the US and Canada to California for the spring Almond bloom.
Traditionally, bees were kept stationary and not subjected to the rigors of the road, a place where many are weakened and die. But to add to the problem, bees are forced to compete with each other to pollinate artificial forests of almond trees for the simple reason that a bee’s normal foraging pattern is to visit a flowering plant or tree, and to hop from blossom to blossom until they are laden with nectar and pollen, and then set off like little drunken sailors, fat and unsteady on a meandering trip back to the hive to unload their loot.
In this process, they may or may not visit other trees, flowers or shrubs and in so doing, transfer the sticky pollen from their feet and bodies to other flowers, pollinating them.
However, in almond, and other orchards and single variety crops, this isn’t possible. In an almond grove 2/3’s of the trees are all the same species of highly productive tree. Almond farmers plant other less productive trees only as they are needed for cross-polination. This creates a real problem for bees and their natural foraging patterns, as it’s not enough for them to load up on one tree and head back to the hive. They must be forced from the tree so they visit other trees in the orchard so pollination can occur.
Unfortunately, the only way to do this have SO many bees flood the orchard that they have to fiercely compete to even land on a blossom. With this level of competition, bees are forced to hop from tree-to tree looking for an opening, thus forcing pollination from the stressed out bees.
Add to the mix of year-round travel this unnatural crowding, and garnish the whole scenario with modern “non-lethal” pesticides, and you have the perfect scenario for opportunistic disease to spread among bees. Even though each pesticide used is proven not to kill bees outright, it’s now evident that the combination of these pesticides which remain untested, mess up the honeybees sensitive navigation system enough that at a certain critical level, these stressed out & pesticide laden bees eventually reach the breaking point and entire colonies can leave the hive and die before they find their way back home.
The greatest evidence that the problem is systemic and due to the unnatural pollination process, is the fact that when bees are removed from this environment and returned to a sustainable and natural farming situation, they thrive once again and losses return to the normal and acceptable range of 15-20% over winter.
One other area that is often overlooked in comparing the process of Artisanal beekeeping to modern commercial beekeeping, is the actual treatment and handling of bees.
Let’s face it, when you’re handling even a couple of strong hives of 60,000 bees or more, there are going to be some unfortunate times where
our adorable little friends get squished or suffer directly at the hands of beekeepers. I’ve never met a beekeeper who enjoys this, or who doesn’t’ take every possible precaution to avoid directly harming these little creatures we are trying to help, so they can help themselves and in the process, us. I still grimace and get a sick feeling when in spite of my best efforts, one of my little buddies gives off a “crunch” sound when I move hives.
However, it’s impossible, simply impossible to be a commercial beekeeper handling 1000’s of hives to not become immune to the suffering of 10’s of thousands of bees lost in the shuffle and movement of massive numbers of hives. I’ve seen commercial beekeeping videos where the beekeepers are literally shin-to-knee deep in dead bees that have been squished or torn to bits by the necessity to move 100’s of hives in a day. It’s simply not possible to apply the same safeguards and care to avoid directly harming bees in large number.
Given these factors, is it any wonder that bees have reserved the right to eventually roll-over and die rather than be subject to these abuses?
The solution is not a simple one. Beekeeping is an art, yes, but it’s also a LOT of hard work and it requires dedicated people who love what they do. In the past, small scale agriculture worked with bees and beekeepers hand-in hand and everybody, including bees, benefited from the deal. It was one of humanities most successful ongoing collaborations that worked well for 1000’s of years. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case and until there is a conscious return to sustainable, local farming and beekeeping, the problem doesn’t look as though it will correct itself anytime soon.