Beekeeping, Small Farming, and the Environment

Bee HiveLessons from the hive about pesticides, organic practice, and sustainability.

We’ve been reading environmental activist and author Bill McKibben’s new book Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (here’s an excerpt) and finding it entirely fascinating. It’s the story of McKibben’s life in 2011, the year he and his organization 350.0rg spent time protesting the XL Pipeline that would carry tar sands from Canada to the refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

You don’t have to be a strong opponent of the pipeline or even actively engaged in fighting global warming (or even worried) to enjoy this book. True to its subtitle, it tells how McKibben, an environmentally supportive author from Vermont, became educated in the ways of politics and activism during a year that preceded a national election even as the country experienced a crippling, almost nation-wide drought and record shattering heat.

The other part of the book, and perhaps its most intriguing, is about bees. McKibben joined forces with a nearby Vermont bee keeper, Kirk Webster, and he spends his off-time with Webster working hives and learning the craft. Webster, like all bee keepers, is facing the consequence of colony collapse disorder. But unlike many of the big commercial bee running outfits — those that haul their hives to the almond fields of California and elsewhere around the country — Webster is examining his hives and watching his bees behavior for clues on how he can help them survive.

Webster’s big problem is a common one among bee keepers, the varroa destructor or varroa mites. These little killers, introduced to this country from Asia years ago, feed on bee larvae inside the hive and can destroy it entirely within weeks. The reaction among the American bee keeping community, of course, was to counter the mites with chemicals.

Webster discovered that the treatment was often as harmful as the mites. And the treatments weren’t always that effective. At some point, he made a revealing connection. “The more I thought about it, though, the more I sensed it was risky either way. If I kept treating my hives, it would leave me dependent the way every other part of our farming economy has gotten dependent on chemicals. And that’s a nightmare.”

So Webster stopped using chemicals and started concentrating on breeding queens and developing resistance in his hive. Of course, other pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, are a big factor behind colony collapse. One of the more frustrating passages in the book is when McKibben and Webster are forced to seal and move their hives right in the middle of honey producing season because of spraying for Lyme disease-bearing ticks (which are spreading north because of global warming). Anyway — spoiler alert — Webster ended up reducing his over-winter hive losses considerably by not using chemicals. Organic growers, take note.

There’s a great section in the book where McKibben talks about — what else to call it? — bee trivia: “honey hunting” for bee colonies was one of the first pastimes of American settlers; the Romans would lobs pots containing bee hives onto enemy ships to drive the sailors to jump overboard; bees wax was used to waterproof bullet casing and slick the wings of American planes in World War II to save fuel. Bees spend the first three weeks of their lives as carpenters, guards and nurses, and the last three as foragers. Each bee will travel some 500 miles over the course of its life. Honeybees pollinate 100,000 different kinds of plants. And that’s just a bit of what we learn.

But the most important lessons are ones meaningful for organic gardeners and farmers. If we’re to counteract the loss of soil due to erosion, chemical-poisoning, and the mono-culture production of genetically modified crops, we’re going to need small farms and gardens that practice a different, sustainable kind of agriculture. McKibben’s book, especially the chapter “The Wisdom of the Hive,” makes all kinds of great connections between individual efforts and inclusive, global solutions. There’s no question that we’re facing all kinds of troublesome, even cataclysmic changes, and not just in our climate. McKibben’s book suggests a solution. For starters, small farms use far less petroleum products, especially fuel, to accomplish the same, sometimes even more productive ends. To survive, to flourish, we must diversify, and encourage small growing operations that encourage natural, not chemical, solutions. We can learn from the bees.

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