“My grandfather was a beekeeper,” says Keith Duarte, owner of Damn Good Honey Farm in Kerhonkson with his wife Jennifer. “He died when I was young, and it just always stuck in my mind as something I wanted to do. And when I started, I found it really hard to find practical advice and resources. That’s the impetus behind our business, to get as many people into successful beekeeping as we can.”
It’s a worthy goal. Ancients considered the honey bee absolute proof of the existence of the Mother Goddess. Cave paintings and sculptures dating back as far as 15,000 years celebrate bees as an aspect of divinity.
Early naturalists may not have had the same vocabulary with which to explain that bees communicate with “waggle dances” or that the relationship between individual members of the hive-mind mimic that between neurons in the human brain—but simple observation led them to be understandably amazed. Ancient Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Romans all learned to domesticate the honey bee, and prized them not just for the nutritional and antiseptic qualities of their honey but for the wonders of their wax, used both to form candles and to mummify corpses. Romans believed bees and their blessings to be a gift from bliss-oriented Bacchus.
A thriving colony of queen, 600 to 1,000 drones, and 50 to 60,000 workers is a fine-tuned community in which each bee leads a life of service to the whole; taking care of one another and making more bees. The queen is the only fertile female; given that she can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day in the peak of the season, having tens of thousands of helpers with the rest of life’s daily chores only makes sense. Young female worker bees nurse the babies, choosing the rare future queens to be raised on royal jelly in larger cells, and older workers go out scouting and harvesting.
The males live for one purpose, to impregnate a virgin queen and die. When an excess of virgin queens assembles in one hive, the queens often fight to the death until only one remains. It takes less than a month for a larvae the size of a rice grain to develop into a full-fledged honey bee, capable of flapping its wings 11,000 times a second and seeing an ultraviolet spectrum of color that humans cannot —a creature perfectly designed for harvesting pollen and nectar and capable of processing them into honey and wax with which to build themselves the perfect home.
Under favorable conditions, bees are capable of carrying on with all this in close proximity to humans and without seeming to mind in the least if we invade and scoop out quantities of the sweetness they create from nectar in a process that is part regurgitation and part tongue kiss. Ethical beekeepers take care to harvest only surplus honey, leaving plenty for the hive to sustain itself with over winter.
Things get sticky, so to speak, when bees are treated as a commodity. Bees are big business. Honey bees contributed an estimated $19 billion to the agricultural productivity of the United States via pollination in 2010, and produced about $317 million worth of honey in 2013—and that’s when you calculate the cost of honey at $2.12 per pound.
Humans have been harvesting and eating honey for thousands of years, and only in the last few hundred have we figured out how to do so without completely destroying the hive, as movable-comb hives allowed beekeepers to remove the surplus. But bees, although not overly hostile to being kept (there is a lively and longstanding debate about whether bees learn to recognize their keepers or not) aren’t truly domestic. Beekeeping is understood by its wise practitioners as bee management, rather than bee ownership.
And bee management that is aimed solely at maximizing profit can be lethal. Commercial beekeepers may keep thousands of hives, disrupting their natural cycles by shipping them all over the country as migrant agricultural labor (California’s almond harvest alone requires the services of at least 75 percent of the commercial beehives in the US for two months each year), feeding high fructose corn syrup in place of nutritionally complex honey, and failing to apply the meticulous standards of attention and inspection each hive requires to thrive.
Bees are self-sufficient when they’re allowed to be, but are susceptible to a number of ills. Varroa mite infestations and a bacterial disease called American Foulbrood are only two of a list of conditions that can kill a hive; contagion is a common problem when all those bees are gathered together for major orchard pollination jobs. Add to those the effects of chemical pesticides and the disappearance of habitat caused by urbanization and and monoculture plantings of corn and soy. It’s easy to see why honey bees have had a rough couple of decades.
Around the middle of the last decade, beekeepers and scientists noted an alarming increase in colony collapse disorder (CCD), in which the vast majority of a hive’s workers simply vanish, leaving the queen and a few infants to perish without them. No one is entirely sure what the cause of CCD might be, but although it has slowed since 2010, beekeepers continue to report unsustainably large losses year after year from various causes, and “feral” bee populations have dropped off alarmingly as well. One class of pesticides in particular, neonicotinoids, has come under particular scrutiny for disrupting bees’ navigational abilities and has been banned in the European union.
Doubt and dispute still reign over the question of exactly what is jeopardizing honey bees, but there is no doubt or dispute about their importance. Although other species do pollinate crops, honey bees are the only pollinators humans have learned to manage. The commonly quoted statistic is that about a third of the food humans eat would cease to exist without their help.
Humans, therefore, have stepped up to try to understand what the pollinators need and provide it for them. Best management practices guidelines have been developed and advocated by beekeepers’ associations across the continent, including measures such as minimizing bee exposure to pesticides, disease control, and allowing bees access to a varied diet. In our state, NYBeeWellness.org studies and advocates for honey bee health. Thirty states have developed or are developing Managed Pollinator Protection Plans.
At the federal level, President Obama established a Pollinator Health Task Force to be managed jointly by the EPA and USDA in 2014. The strategy they have implemented is intended to restore honey bee and butterfly health, regulating the use of toxic pesticides during the bees’ residence on orchards they’re pollinating and restoring seven million acres of diverse habitat. Both agencies announced new steps they were taking in 2015; the USDA has found that the farmers and ranchers it works with have stepped up to protect not seven million but fifteen million acres of habitats, and the EPA has announced a ban on new neonicotinoid approvals until the data it has can be further analyzed, along with proposing to develop a list of other bee-friendly regulations.
Along with the government, many smaller organizations and individual humans have taken action on behalf of the bees. Urban beekeeping has grown increasingly popular, as bee enthusiasts have noticed that urban bees thrive away from monoculture farming and the attendant pesticides.
Don’t swat them; if a bee won’t let you be, try stepping from the shade into the sun or vice versa to discourage it. And should your property acquire a wild swarm, call a beekeeper instead of an exterminator; beekeepers can capture them alive and will be happy to re-home them.
You can also take it a step further, and establish a hive or two in your backyard. Besides marketing honey and beeswax products, Damn Good Honey offers beekeeping classes and hive management services, although Duarte says bees are not terribly labor-intensive.
“You learn about your bees and how they interact with your location, and after that you mostly just keep an eye on them,” Duarte says. “Their activity tells you if they’re doing well. Right now, I’m basically doing maintenance checks every two or three weeks.”
There are a number of things non-beekeeping individuals can do to help. Buy only local honey, which benefits both your local beekeeper and your health. Plant a variety of bee-friendly, wide-blooming flowers such as sunflowers.
“People ask me what I think the problem is with the bees, and I tell them the bees don’t have the problem, we do,” Duarte says. “After we’re gone, they’ll re-populate.”
It’s obvious, though, that if we wish to postpone that departure, we’ll keep figuring out how to serve the divine honey bee’s needs.