Just a quick note, because I can’t spare more time. However, I’m trying to keep my writing hand in the game a little more these days. Another thing — among the less-interesting-but-marginally-more-lucrative endeavors — that’s been occupying my time is the construction of a bee hive. It’s not the familiar box-like structure that we all see in farm fields, but rather, one built according to a different philosophy.
I’m eager to see what happens when the hive finally makes it outdoors. I hope to lure wild occupants, rather than an artificially produced colony mailed from some far-off locale. Call it hubris, but nearly everything about my nascent beekeeping endeavor defies conventional wisdom.
Conventional wisdom dictates that beekeepers use hives developed in the 1850s by the good Rev. Langstroth. His name has lent itself to these hives, so you’ll occasionally hear people who spend time with bugs talking about “Langstroth hive bodies.” They’re really nothing more than wooden boxes, but the Reverend understood something very important. Bees like to hang comb from carefully spaced structures. Left to their own devices, they’ll build comb in the void of a wall in an old cabin, or in a tree hollow. That makes it considerably more difficult for us to rob. But the Rev. Langstroth sought to do something unheard of, and he succeeded. He brought the ethic of the Industrial Age into a colony of insects. He understood that bees are tidy insects, and left to their own, in a perfectly proportioned environment, the eggs and larvae go near the center, where temperatures are most constant (hives remain at 96 degrees F) and honey goes at the top and outer edges.
So Langstroth set about organizing life for the bees. First, he organized hives around wooden frames, spaced the right distance apart for bees to do their work most efficiently. Then, he set them to work by adding thin sheets of beeswax to slots in each frame. Since the sheets were already embossed with hexagons, they provided a pretty strong hint in the direction of “get to work.”
And get to work they did. The Langstroth hive is more likely to produce more honey in more varied environments than any other. Moreover, there quickly developed ways to manage the bees so that honey went into the boxes that were easiest to gain access to, while the colony itself remained in other boxes.
As industrialized agriculture grew, so did the beekeeping industry, and those working with bees began to derive additional income from pollination services. Eventually, it became common practice to truck hives of bees all over the country to pollinate different crops, many of which would fail to produce reliably without them.
Each spring, most of the bees in the nation vacation briefly in the Central Valley, where their hives buzz loudly in almond orchards. The result is that almond yields can increase as much as forty-fold. After about four weeks, the hives are loaded onto trucks and transported back to spots around the country for the next crop.
By manipulating their environment, Langstroth and the beekeepers who followed created an efficient mechanism for producing honey. And that all worked very well for more than a century.
But then something went terribly wrong.
There are many recent accounts in local papers about a mysterious affliction called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Hives that appear to be thriving are found empty and dead just a few weeks or days later. Most mysteriously, the expected piles of bee corpses are absent. They appear to leave home to die. Theories about what causes it quickly began to develop.
An Asian mite that sucks the lifeblood from larvae and the bees themselves — varroa — gets some of the rap. It arrived in North America about when CCD did. Others blame modern pesticides, and/or a few diseases that have long afflicted bees. But no single cause could be directly linked to CCD.
But there’s increasingly compelling evidence to suggest that something larger is linked to CCD, a whole suite of stressors and challenges to bee health. To combat varroa, the common practice is to use pesticide treatments or essential oils. The practice is so prevalent that tests reveal more than 99 percent of the beeswax available contains traces of commercial toxins. Do these practices weaken the immunity of the bees themselves? More and more people think so. For every other parasite or ailment, there’s another treatment, another expense and another crisis.
Then there’s the practice of moving bees for commercial pollination. Bees fed on almond blossoms for a month may be abruptly dropped in a field of squash, or red clover, or orange trees. The sudden changes in environment may result in additional stress that wasn’t noticed until so many other things began colluding against the health of bees.
But CCD isn’t the hopeless challenge it was once thought to be. Some beekeepers were seeing the loss of one-third of their hives each year, and some still are.
But others are accepting the realities that existed long before the Rev. Langstroth came along. That is that bees are colonies of insects, and some will thrive while others wither. Look! It’s natural selection right in front of us! More of them eschew commercial comb foundation — almost certainly harboring pesticides — for hives that let bees draw their own clean comb. The result is lower production, but the outcome where consumers are fully informed can be higher prices. Others concentrate on establishing colonies drawn from swarms of wild bees that have proven adapted to local conditions, rather than buying packages of bees through the mail.
Most hopefully, there are people everywhere who are putting hives on rooftops in urban areas, at the corners of their own vegetable beds, and in other out-of-the-way places. There’s a growing realization that we are in partnership, and that hives are not the exclusive province of people who make them their business. Every week, more people seek to act as stewards to bees because of their intrinsic worth, and if at the end of the year there’s enough honey to share, so much the better.
It’s not the last chapter of The Honeybee Story. On the contrary, it’s the first chapter of understanding them more deeply, and to working with them, rather than yoking them to a model we created for them 160 years ago.