I admit it, I'm a nut, a bit backwards. For example when everyone was getting computers I bought a letterpress. Modern perfumers chase the latest in synthetic aroma chemicals and isolates, me I sniff my plants, make tinctures and chase really expensive natural raw materials.
The other day at a local city meeting one of the council members asked me why our bee club, The Backwards Beekeepers, is called Backwards. I answered "Because we do things backwards compared with other bee keepers." A better answer would have been to reference the grandfather of beekeeping backwards, Charles Martin Simon. Here is his top ten list for beekeeping with consciousness...
Principle #1: Work with Nature, not against Her.
Principle #2: Profit doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot if you’re dead.
Our forefathers postulated that bigger bees would make more honey. The bigger the bee, the more nectar and pollen she can carry. The bigger the cell, the more it can hold. And so forth. So they devised a larger worker cell size, and it became the standard.
Principle #3: Dead bees make no honey.
Anatomically bigger bees are metabolically slower bees, more prone to disease and predation. And the diseases did come. The industry standard is a sickly bee.
My encounters with feral bees have instilled in me a greater respect for bees and contempt for the way we usually deal with them.
I knew I was finished with beekeeping as we know it the day I read the publication of the great scientific discovery of the “housekeeping gene” in relation to survivability in regard to Varroa. That was exactly where my suspension of disbelief finally snapped, and I realized our industry is directed by madmen. They have been driven mad by the fear of death and simultaneously compelled irresistibly toward it. Death of our beloved bees. Death of our beloved industry. Death of ourselves.
The Asian bee, the historic host for the mite, the bee that has coexisted with it successfully for a million years, does not usually inhabit enclosures. It hangs out in the open. This leads to the conclusion that when the mite drops off, it falls into the void, which is a good place for it. The immature Asian bee spends less time in the cell, which gives the mite less time to do it’s dirty work. Those are the keys, not the “housekeeping gene , never mind what the “scientists” have to say. But I am not meaning to imply that this “gene” does not exist. I’m questioning its interpretation. Just as I question the interpretation of the “bee dance”. The traditional interpretation of the bee dance is destroyed categorically by the observation of one single factor: The human observer observes from above. The bee dances face to face on a lateral plane. What the bee perceives and what the human perceives are two entirely different things. I grant that the dance occurs. I do not grant that it communicates anything at all. It is a sharing of excitement. The knowledge of where the nectar or whatever is is deeper than that. The colony is a manifestation of generations integrated with the patterns of the environment. There is a great mind at play that humans are generally incapable of comprehending.
Another significant factor in the retardation of Apis melliflera is the chronic abuse perpetrated by the teachings of the art. Colonies left to their own devices have an entirely different consciousness than domesticated varieties. Domestic bees are constantly messed with. A colony is a unified Mind. When it is opened and manipulated, the thought process is jumbled. When it is smoked, it must turn its attention to other things. Stress is good. Stress is bad. It depends on the kind. Exercise is stress. Getting beat up is stress. One event can build self-esteem; the other can destroy it. But the effects are reversible, based on other conditions, the most significant of which being how the subject interprets the experience. There are many variables.
The skill with which one messes with a hive has a great deal to do with the effect the messing is going to have on the future. The master manipulator will do it so that the bees will never even notice anything happening. Indeed, they will proceed with their process as though nothing was happening at all. The quality, quantity, and kind of mentality of the manipulator have everything to do with this. Some beekeepers make bees nervous just by showing up in the proximity of a hive. Woe be unto those keepers and their bees if they light the smokers and crack the hive lids. Beekeeping should be licensed, and I should be the licensing entity. There would be very few beekeepers. Again I need to point out: This is not arrogance, it is humility. For I truly have your best interests and the best interests of the bees at heart.
Principle #4: Don’t fight it.
When I think of all the years I’ve spent fighting ants and all the techniques I’ve employed, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Right now I’ve got naked honey comb and open bowls of honey in my kitchen, and plenty of ants too, but they’re leaving the honey alone. How come? Because I don’t fight them. I feed them. There is a bowl of honey on the counter established for them, where they can come and get all they want. At first they were hitting it heavily, then they lost interest. Apparently, if they can’t have it, they want it. If they can have all they want, they don’t want it.
Principle #5: Beekeeping is not about honey.
Principle #6: It’s not about money.
Principle #7: It’s about survival.
Well, actually, it’s not about survival, since nobody survives. It’s about the quality of life while you’re alive. Do your best to make the bees’ life the best it can be and it will be the best it can be for you. Stop thinking “maximum production”. Substantially less than most is way better than nothing at all. Learn how to leave the bees alone. Benign neglect is the way. Provide them with appropriate cavities. Standard beehives, if they’re right, are acceptable habitations for bees, but don’t use foundation.
In addition to the size consideration, foundation is contaminated. Only the oldest, most used wax gets rendered into foundation. Old wax absorbs and retains contaminants such as pesticide. Go ahead, use frames. Frames do make it easier to perform manipulations. But actually, just the top bars are enough, at least for brood chambers. Further up the hive, you might want complete frames for the definition of the bottom bars, to maintain the space between the top of the frame below and the bottom of the frame above.
I have 15 hives as of this writing (December 2000), after years of having none at this time of year. How did I do It? I don’t know, and that’s the answer. As the years have progressed, I have tried more and more to keep them as close to wild as possible, to not mess with them. I do harvest some honey, pollen, and propolis, but I do it with a leave-alone attitude. I am hoping for their well being. Beyond that I am asking nothing from them, expecting nothing. If they are prospering I add supers. If they make extra honey, I take some. When my combs are crooked and stuck across several frames, I use bee escapes to clear the supers before removing.
I crush the combs and strain them through a system of perforated plastic buckets. I keep quite a few cut combs around to eat au naturel. The wilder, more funky combs may very well be the best.
I’ve been reluctant in recent years to invest money in equipment, because of the Varroa situation. Consequently, I’m using old equipment a normal beekeeper would have thrown out a long time ago – In fact quite a bit of it has been thrown out by normal beekeepers – and I’m liking it better and better the worse it gets.
I’m thinking about running hives without bottoms and up on stands this season, at least during the warm months, and considering designing a bottom board to catch and destroy mites.
Principle #8: Forget everything you ever learned and start observing what is really going on.
In regard to this last principle. One of the first injunctions I received starting out was to keep accurate records. But I realized that accurate records would be obfuscations at best. When you refer to a notebook describing the events of a hive to date, you will not see the hive as it actually is. The level of information that can be cataloged is not vital, has nothing to do with what’s going on with the hive in question, and prevents you from seeing what is.
Furthermore, I have observed that the harder you fight to keep your bees alive, the faster they die. Cut them loose, give them freedom, the freedom to die as well as the freedom to live, and they live better.
Principle #9: Leave your bees alone.
Principle #10: Leave me alone.
Photo of honey bees on matilija poppy ©RoxanaVilla