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Bee Merry! It’s Christmas!

For me, Christmas is a time of reflection. Since beginning this website on December 25, 2009, I’ve spent the anniversary dates reviewing the past and eyeing the future. Looking back, I see nine years of explaining the technicalities of making sugar syrup. Who knew writing could be so much fun!

This year’s retrospective began early when someone wrote to say they were reading straight through all my posts. Although I hear this quite frequently, I always wonder how that looks to someone else. I assume I look like a flake because I’ve changed so much since the early days. Having flip-flopped on some issues and vacillated on others, I must seem freakishly hare-brained to someone reviewing it all at once.

Changes in attitude

Many of my changes in attitude came from helping beekeepers over the years, sharing their triumphs and reliving their failures. I began to see patterns that led to success and others that led to almost inevitable collapse.

Then, too, I’ve watched the typical evolution of countless newbees. The doe-eyed beginners, the know-it-all second-years, and the “I wish I knew something—anything would help” third-years.

The real winner in all this, of course, was me. I’ve learned from each and every one of you. Some of you became friends, others were a royal pain. But regardless of the outcome, I learned something. Life is funny like that.

Recent shifts in philosophy

The things that captured my recent attention were not the day-to-day how-to-keep-bees questions. Instead, I’ve become interested in the larger picture of life on Earth—particularly bee life. And here, like a slippery fish on a wet deck, I have done the most flipping and flopping.

The most heartfelt changes didn’t happen all at once but evolved slowly in bits and pieces. For example, I used to believe that people should keep bees in any style they preferred, and how they proceeded was their business alone. But now I believe the decision to keep bees comes with responsibility.

Minding the consequences

I now believe beekeepers should tend their bees in a way that mitigates negative impacts on other beekeepers, on native pollinators, and on the environment. What changed my mind was seeing native bees with chalkbrood, deformed wing virus, Nosema, and novel parasites—things that used to be rare. It isn’t right to spread pestilence into the wild, and beekeepers, of all people, should be mindful of their impact on invertebrates.

Here, I use the word “beekeeper” in its larger sense. Spillover of diseases and parasites comes not only from honey bee colonies but from managed bees of all sorts, including leafcutters, bumble bees, and mason bees. Wherever we have raised large populations of bees in small areas, we have also propagated their pests and pathogens. When the host dies or becomes scarce, the pests can sometimes shape-shift and latch onto a new species, just as varroa mites jumped ship from Apis cerana to Apis mellifera.

I want healthy bees, you want healthy bees, and the guy across town wants healthy bees. But we can’t get there with reckless management, pretending our individual actions don’t matter. They do matter. The planet needs all bees—honey bees, native bees, and the panoply of other pollinators. We cannot afford to be careless with their lives.

Darwinian beekeeping

I’ve also become intrigued with Thomas Seeley’s work with bee colonies living in the wild and his outline of Darwinian beekeeping. He has found many patterns among the wild bee populations that thrive without treatment. Those colonies are small, far apart, and build nests that meet their needs—not a beekeeper’s. Those bees are allowed to swarm, live high off the ground, and use as much propolis as they like. In short, they live as nature intended.

As of now, I don’t see how this could easily translate into commercial operations. But the vast majority of beekeepers are not commercial. Most are hobbyists who could begin to incorporate bee-friendly practices. It would mean less honey for the beekeeper, but more health and vitality for the bees. How can we not want that?

A third philosophical change relates to new beekeepers. I believe that we, as mentors, should speak frankly to potential newbees about the practice of beekeeping. Although we shouldn’t discourage potential beekeepers, I think it’s important to explain the realities before they make the leap for all the wrong reasons. So what are the wrong reasons? Well, I’ve flipped on that too.

All the right reasons

If a person wants to produce his own honey or beeswax, learn about honey bees, or pollinate his garden, I think he’s probably a good fit. But if the prospective beekeeper wants to “save the bees,” prevent extinction of the species, or counter the effects of CCD, he’s lost and doesn’t understand the problems.

We know the cost of excess colonies. With each additional colony, we get more pathways of disease transmission, greater populations of pests and pathogens, and increased competition for floral resources. If Thomas Seeley is right, the worst thing we can possibly do for bee health is increase the density of colonies. Overcrowding not only forces colonies to compete with each other, but forces colonies to compete with wild pollinators. In the end, they all become stressed and susceptible to disease.

So when a person tells me he wants to start a colony in order to save the bees, I try to explain why another colony will not save any bees. I explain how it might even have the opposite effect. I suggest he plant flowers instead, or perhaps assist with a community hive, or work with a mentor first. As a lover of bees, I think it’s my responsibility to explain how bees interact with other pollinators. But mind! No pressure, no judgement, just facts. The final decision belongs to him.

Reviewing and reassessing

A fourth flip-flop is related to why pollinators are in so much trouble. Although the answer is complex with many moving parts, I am convinced the primary cause of pollinator decline is not pesticides, not lack of flowers, not global warming, and not diseases or parasites. Nope. My choice for this award is habitat fragmentation.

So what’s that, you ask? Very simply, instead of insects having large areas in which to forage, breed, and nest, small populations are cut off from each other by some barrier. Barriers can be anything that prevents them from freely intermixing. It can be a freeway, a parking lot, a factory, or a housing development. In fact, any place devoid of flowers can act as a barrier because the pollinators won’t go there. And remember, unlike honey bees, most bees can fly only short distances—a couple hundred yards, give or take.

These small populations inbreed because they have no choice. Inbreeding quickly amplifies genetic weakness by increasing the incidence of “bad” alleles in a population. It’s the same system that once gave European royal families hemophilia, or that gives some dog breeds weak joints or premature blindness. To prevent genetic diseases from showing up, you want the largest, most random breeding population possible. Any animal faced with a small gene pool and little diversity will soon go extinct. Natural history is replete with unfortunate examples.

We have a country—more like an entire world—that is cut up in little pieces due to cities, roads, buildings, pavement, agricultural fields, grazed land, shopping malls, and stadiums. Nothing is natural, and wide-open spaces are neither wide nor open. Some organizations, particularly in Europe, are working to counteract this problem by providing wildlife corridors where animals can roam in a more natural way, and where local populations can mix with distant ones. I often wonder how we beekeepers can help.

On to the future

Looking ahead to my next year of working with bees, I want to incorporate at least some of these ideas. None are fully formed, but they represent shifts in my thinking and areas that need more study.

One thing that hasn’t changed in my nine years of writing a bee blog is simple: I believe beekeeping should be fun and enlightening. Bees can fill us with wonder and happiness. And certainly, keeping bees in a way that enhances the lives of all pollinators should not be any less satisfying. In fact, it could multiply the joy.

Speaking of joy, I want to take this last year-end opportunity to thank all the people whose contributions helped make Honey Bee Suite “A Better Place to Bee” in 2018. Like Santa, I made a list and checked it twice, and my deepest appreciation goes out to every one of you.

Join me now as we look to the future and search for new and creative ways to help the bees we love.

Peace on Earth,

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Healthy bees. A winter wonderland for us can be hard on our colonies.
Best wishes for the holidays from HoneyBeeSuite. © Rusty Burlew.

Comments

Granny Roberta in nw CT
Reply

I’m one of the ones who read through all of your posts in order. It’s okay; you didn’t come off as flakey, freakish or hare-brained. Mostly you came across as someone with the patience of a saint, although that may have been more from reading your answers to the commentariat than from the posts themselves.

Also, possibly you come across as someone who’s getting a bit depressed about the future of the planet. Or am I just projecting my own feelings on you?

Happy New Year and Best Wishes.

Mandeep Rathee
Reply

Lovely blog…. Bee merry christmas

Rob Jenson (in Maryland)
Reply

It is interesting that you started this site on Christmas Day. Is there a story there?

You make some thought-provoking points in this post, as you do in most of them.

I don’t think that it is “flaky” to change your views or flip-flop over time. Our comprehension of the world around us grows with time and experience. If we are paying attention, the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know. That may be why second-year beeks come across as “know-it-alls” and third-year beeks start acquire some of the humility and respect for the complexity of nature, and the fact that it really is not as simple as some people make it sound. The wisest words that can come from anyone’s lips are … “I don’t know.”

If I had one “Christmas Wish” … it would be that more beeks be gifted with some basic analytical reasoning skills, and some comprehension of the difference between scientific reearch and evidence and personal subjective experience. When another beek says to me “I have never met anyone in my local bee club who has ever seen a case of AFB, so I don’t think that is what killed my bees …” I cringe. I am also glad that his bees are not near his … but there are plenty of people whose reasoning works that way. Even some revered old-timers, some anointed with Master Beekeeper certifications, who casually read some of the scientific research of the past fifteen years and claim that their personal experience as beekeepers for decades is correct and the science is nonsense because it contradicts their personal model.

But, “I am but an egg.” [Almost through my second year and going into my third :)]

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year Rusty, to you, your family and all your readers.

Kathy Shea Mormino
Reply

Thank you for the gift of your guidance the past year and a half of my beekeeping journey.

Merry Christmas!

Kathy

Borst Peter
Reply

> He has found many patterns among the wild bee populations that thrive without treatment.

I know Tom Seeley, he lives near me. I understand the principles espoused. I have 12 hives at my house and I usually get about a ton of honey, sometimes (this year) less, but the potential is there. If I didn’t super them, and let them swarm, what would I get? A few hundred pounds of honey maybe. I would get to watch the swarms come out and fly into the woods, knowing that by Tom’s reckoning, 3/4 of them will die the first winter. The hives would go from a fascinating hobby that pays its way, to expensive lawn ornaments that occasionally annoy everybody in the vicinity.

peterlborst1@icloud.com

William F Abell Jr
Reply

Merry Christmas and Happy Bee New Year Rusty. Thanks for your writing here and in ABJ. Enjoy it very much.
Bee happy,
Bill

Ray
Reply

Peace to you and yours Rusty, Merry Christmas!

Debbie
Reply

Rusty, If you didn’t change and grow, then you would not be useful to anyone ….. I am one who has read most, if not all, of what you have written, and I noticed the changes in your thinking from year to year, but that is what bee keeping is, changing with the knowledge you obtain year after year, your trials, your tribulations, and success. Without this website, a lot of us would be ‘lost’. One can find the answer to any bee keeping problem here. In one place. You are a gem, and I appreciate all you do to help. Wishing you a Merry Christmas. And.. your ABJ article had me in tears this month (January). I notice the ABJ is also moving in a ‘new’ direction. Wishing you all the best in the New Year.

Archie McLellan
Reply

What a wonderful and complete summary of the information and messages I’ve been hearing in dribs and drabs over the last year or so! Thank you for it and for all your writing. Every best wish for a joyful and restful time over Christmas, and a happy and fulfilling year to come.

Vince Busche
Reply

Love the blog. I like taking pictures of all kinds of bees for it is a learning experience.
Looking forward to your many articles. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Brian P. Dennis.
Reply

I wish you and yours a very happy Christmas!

Tom
Reply

Merry Christmas to you and your forum followers. I recently found your blog and have enjoyed your writing for the last few months. You are doing a great service to the beekeeping community. I am located in Monroe, WA not too far from you, so your thoughts about seasonal colony management are particularly relevant to me. I sold honey at the local summer farmers’ market for several years and at that time managed about 20+ colonies. My current apiary numbers 4, which I maintain mostly out of interest and to provide an ongoing education in beekeeping. Thanks again for all you do, Rusty!

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Dear beloved Rusty. Do you think people love you because you are always RIGHT? Good grief no! We read you and need you because you know how to be flamingly indignant, piercingly observant, and even uproariously wrong. One oft-repeated saying in my household is “Frequently wrong, but never in doubt.” Some people confuse polite with limp. I am profoundly grateful that you do not. I am also grateful that you seem pretty good with living that other maxim to “Be wrong quickly”.

Besides, I don’t see huge fundamental changes. How could we know what is “too many” beekeepers until after we reach that limit? Our world is both fragile and resilient, but the evidence of both is at times very ambiguous. You continue to respect the science of evidence. You continue to believe in the importance of both self-discipline and in following your nose, and all the contradictions that come with that. You continue to respect yourselves and most others, including when it is all absurd. And when it is absurd, you do well in sharing that with others, sometimes riling us up, sometimes putting us on the floor with laughter.

On top of all this, I gotta say that I have profound respect for a fish that is flip-flopping, because it is in a profound battle for its life, and that next flop might land it back in the water. Al long as you have flop left in you, you go girl.

Merry Christmas to you and yours,
GB

Rusty
Reply

Thanks, Glen. I think.

Aylett Apiaries
Reply

Merry Christmas Rusty. Thanks for all you do. May you and the bees have a great new year!

Nancy Ogg
Reply

Awesome, Rusty! Timely and very well-put.
When someone mentions wanting to save the bees, I tell them
1. to buy honey from a local beekeeper (and I post a link!)
2. to stay in or buy an existing home instead moving to yet another new subdivision
3. to sow white clover in their lawns.
Some, like the rich young man in the Gospel, “go away saddened.”
The alternative is to have them show up at Bee Club in November asking if anyone wants to come over and “see if their hive is all right for winter.”
Thanks for all the time devoted to research and writing for our bees’ benefit and ours.
Nan
Shady Grove Farm
Corinth, Kentucky

“The miracle is not walking on water. The miracle is walking on the green Earth”
– Thich Nhat Hanh

Nina
Reply

Beautiful article. Thank you so much for all the hard work you do spreading the knowledge of beekeeping.

Cathy Wilde
Reply

Thank you once again for a brilliant, insightful post, and thank you for all the posts leading up to it! After 3 years of “beekeeping,” I too have found myself telling so many “save the bees!” well-wishers to plant bee-food and foster clean water sources instead. As a lifelong animal rescuer/fosterer/adopter, I have to say that watching people dive into beekeeping and the resulting growth in the bee industry sometimes feels scarily familiar; all too close to the impulses that lead to puppy mills. I TOTALLY understand if you don’t want to post this comment, but I do thank you for all your work. You’ve certainly helped me in my beekeeping efforts!

Anna S.
Reply

As usual, very insightful article. I think the way you do it is the best way to approach beekeeping, and, in fact, is what makes one successful in any endeavor or profession. You always think about what is going on, why things happen they way they do, and what you can do to make it better for the bees (without making your life harder.) I have learned a few things from you and have changed some of my beekeeping approaches. Thank you, and since it’s too late to wish you ‘Merry Christmas’, I wish you and your family, (and your bees) the best for the new year 2019!

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Anna, and a happy New Year to you and your family as well.

K Harmon
Reply

“Looking ahead to my next year of working with bees, I want to incorporate at least some of these ideas. None are fully formed, but they represent shifts in my thinking and areas that need more study.”

I am looking forward to your continually evolving thoughts, Rusty—especially regarding habitat continuity and corridors for insects. Without healthy ranges for these foundation species, whole ecosystems will founder, an alarming prospect. If only we could get prospective beeks to understand that ALL insects need “saving,” not just the sweet honey bee…

Happy new year to you and all of the arthropoda you sustain!

Rusty
Reply

Thank you, Kitty. You’ve been on my mind lately, so it’s good to hear from you.

Happy New Year to you, too.

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