Smitten with bees
Local beekeeper and Chico Green School practical-crafts teacher Keith Gelber on biodynamic beekeeping and colony collapse disorder
Keith Gelber remembers vividly his first encounter with honey bees.
It was in spring 2005, and Gelber was attending a workshop on honey bees conducted by renowned honey-bee expert Gunther Hauk, as part of his Waldorf teacher training at the Sunbridge Institute in Rockland County, N.Y.
Gelber—now 29 and relocated to Chico, where he recently was hired as practical-crafts and community-service teacher at Chico Green School—had volunteered to hold a wooden-box-on-a-stick over his head beneath an apple tree housing a large swarm of bees. A strong whack on the branch from Hauk knocked the bees down into the box.
As it turned out, the swarm was too large to fit.
“Everywhere I looked, there was just a curtain of bees around me,” recalled Gelber. “All of a sudden, I started to get stung. And from that moment on, I was absolutely in love.”
Gelber became a beekeeper shortly after this seminal incident, though he prefers to call himself a “steward” of bees.
“I don’t ‘keep’ them,” offered Gelber. “I just give them a clean place to live.”
Gelber is not a commercial beekeeper and does not use the conventional practices of most commercial beekeepers in caring for his hives, which he keeps on a property near his home in Paradise; rather, he engages in what is known as “biodynamic beekeeping.”
Biodynamic beekeeping—as advocated by the ecological association Demeter-International, as well as by Hauk, with whom Gelber remains in professional contact—“allow[s] bees to develop in accordance with their true nature,” according to the U.K.’s Biodynamic Association (www.biodynamic.org.uk). In other words, a biodynamic beekeeper enables his or her bees to live in as close to their natural state as possible by doing such things as allowing the bees to build their own honeycomb (instead of supplying pre-made wax “foundation sheets”) and allowing the bees to swarm as part of a natural rhythm that facilitates the exit of a hive’s old queen bee and the emergence of a virgin queen.
Along these lines, a biodynamic beekeeper does not selectively breed queen bees by artificial insemination, as is done in commercial beekeeping—the queen is allowed to fly free to mate in flight with a number of drone bees.
Biodynamic beekeepers also use only nontoxic, organic substances in their beekeeping; no antibiotics or pesticides are allowed. Formic acid or oxalic acid—both organic substances—are typically used by biodynamic beekeepers to treat for parasitic mites, such as the varroa mite, a suspect in colony collapse disorder (CCD), the massive, ongoing die-off of bees that has been disastrous for commercial beekeepers worldwide. Since October 2006, CCD has caused some beekeepers to lose from 30 percent to 90 percent of their hives annually, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture.
Biodynamic beekeeping, it could be argued, is to standard commercial beekeeping what small-scale organic farming and raising of farm animals is to big-ag and factory farming.
“In biodynamic beekeeping, we wish to strengthen the natural vitality of the hive,” Gelber said, before bringing up the issue of CCD.
“Bees are in dire straits, in a way,” Gelber said of the ongoing problem of CCD. “As Gunther [Hauk] says, they’re like patients in the emergency room—and we don’t demand patients in an E.R. to perform [i.e., pollinate].” Gelber takes issue with a beekeeping industry that every February trucks boxes of bees from the East Coast to the West to do the work of pollinating massive mono-crop orchards of trees, such as almond, apple or cherry.
“[One and a half] million honey-bee hives are trucked from all over the country to pollinate the thousands of acres of almonds” in California alone, according to a recent article in Oregon State University’s online research magazine, Terra (http://oregonstate.edu/terra).
“So they all come to California, and their immune systems are beaten down from the trip, and from being woken up [in February] when they are normally still dormant,” said Gelber, “and then they’re fed chemicals and improper things, such as high-fructose corn syrup or sugar water.”
Forcing already weakened bees to rely on the pollen of only one kind of plant—say, almond trees—for a whole month wreaks havoc, said Gelber, on a species that needs a varied daily diet of pollen from different kinds of plants in order to thrive and survive.
“Bees are gleaners,” he said. “They normally collect pollen from all over.”
According to Terra, “Bees need 10 amino acids in their diet for full development, and since their only protein source is pollen, collecting a variety of pollens is crucial to proper nutrition.”
Gelber is also troubled by the widespread use of neonicotinoid insecticides, such as clothianidin, in agricultural operations where bees are used as pollinators. Clothianidin is banned in some European countries and was the subject of an Environmental Protection Agency memo leaked late last year (http://tinyurl.com/epaleak) that raised questions about the pesticide’s safety for bees that come into contact with it.
“Clothianidin’s major risk concern is to nontarget insects (that is, honey bees),” said the memo. “Acute toxicity studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis.”
In Germany, where clothianidin is now banned, government researchers found in 2008 that the pesticide was directly responsible for the en-masse deaths of two-thirds of the honey bees that had been working as pollinators in corn and rapeseed fields in the state of Baden-Württemberg.
Gelber is doing his part to help the bees that he takes care of.
“I plant specifically for the bees—hyssop, anise hyssop, mother’s wort, echinacea, lemon balm, any kind of mint or lavender,” he said. “If I feed them [anything additional], I feed a special tea mixture that incorporates their own honey.”
Also, he takes only surplus honey from the bees; the rest he leaves them for nourishment: “If they have an immense surplus in spring, that’s when I’ll take some.”
“People need to do things to help the bees,” Gelber said. “Planting bee-friendly plants and not arbitrarily spraying pesticides around your house is a place to start. If you happen to have a swarm, call me and I’ll come and catch it and give it a good, healthy home.”