Written by Grai St. Clair Rice
Imagine opening a hive of honeybees, as if gently opening a beating heart full of sweetness and life. All your senses focus on the now of hearing, feeling, seeing, smelling and awe for this gift of nature. Tending honeybees in a gentle, educated manner takes us out of the rush of our busy lives and into a state of focusing on nurturing.
There is a long history of human civilization with honeybees. Stretching from early honey hunters, to the dawn of agriculture in Babylon and Egypt, to evocative religious symbolism across many cultures, and now to our contemporary dependance on honeybees for commercial pollination.
Today, the vast movement of migratory beekeepers trucking billions of honeybees around the country to meet an intense demand for pollination is completely unnatural. Massive tracts of agricultural lands are in mono-crop production mode with honeybees as the abused lifeline.
When honeybee colony losses hit mainstream media a decade ago, it was the economic impact of rising food prices that set the alarms off and brought concern for honeybee health into the public eye. Subsequent funding for research has developed new in-depth knowledge about the remarkable honeybee, although agribusiness practices of pesticide and fungicide use is unlikely to change easily. Commercial hive management has improved to some degree since then, although massive colony losses are still reported, especially after the almond pollination that takes place every February in California. News of these losses rarely make it to mainstream media anymore, as if it is all taken in stride.
The true value of the public consciousness that has emerged is a burgeoning trend in backyard beekeeping. People are drawn to honeybees for a myriad of reasons, including being engaged in a greater sense of responsibility and connection to nature. The true joy is the experience of beekeeping itself.
A moveable-frame hive was patented by Rev. Lorenzo Langstroth in 1852. This style of hive has become the standard in the United States. It allows for the removal and inspection of frames from within a hive, both for tending honeybee health and for harvesting their extra honey for human consumption.
Looking into the body of the hive transformed the experience of beekeeping into one that allows our intimate care to inform our knowledge of the rhythm and lifecycles of the colony. It turns out that these tiny insects can feed our bodies, our souls, our imaginations, and an altruistic appreciation of community.
When our beekeeping students ask me how much work it takes to be a beekeeper, I respond: “If it feels like work, you shouldn’t do it.” The rewards far exceed the tasks required.
Beekeeping is not brain surgery, however the golden days of beekeeping are behind us and tending hives requires more vigilance than in the past. The reality is that diseases and pests spread rapidly with migratory beekeeping, and loss of available forage has had a negative impact on honeybee nutrition. The need to monitor and inspect honeybee health is an integral part of individual hive management, and properly educated beekeepers are vital to the overall health of honeybees.
In February 2015, a new style of hive was introduced through a crowd-sourced Indiegogo campaign. The Flow-Hive campaign quickly reached over $4 Million, and had people from every walk of life talking about this intriguing hive. The premise is that honey can be dispensed from the hive by turning a crank on the outside, which separates honeycomb on the inside, so that honey flows into jars without disturbing the bees. Hmmm…
The popularity of this hive has been met with deep concerns within the beekeeping community. On an instinctual, holistic level, it is heart wrenching to see a hive of honeybees turned into a dispenser of honey. Their lives and value are far greater than this arrangement merits. On a practical level, if bee-hivers don’t have enough education or interest to properly tend their honeybees, then eventual hive deaths can threaten the larger community of honeybees and beekeepers with potentially deadly, unchecked bee diseases.
A deep connection to nature and landscape had a powerful impact on the founding of our country, as discussed in the 2011 book Founding Gardeners by Andrea Wulf. Our first four presidents drew inspiration from the American landscape and the gardens they tended, which is reflected in their visions for a democratic society. The act of beekeeping takes us a step further towards embracing these ideals and the values we hold dear, and gives us pause to consider what will become of the White House beehives.
Photo: Grai St. Clair Rice / HoneybeeLives
Grai St. Clair Rice teaches beekeeping with HoneybeeLives in New Paltz and Brooklyn.