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The Beekeeper Buzzes

Believe it or not, this is my Earth Day post. And shockingly enough, my timing is on for once- it's the 10th Annual Celebration of National Honey Week too! And mindfulness of nature shouldn't be relegated to a day anyway.

Recommended listening as you read this post: Paul Simon, The Boy in the Bubble

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been on my mind since I heard this NPR story back in March about how nut growers were getting their beehives stolen.
One of the current perversions we're experiencing in environmentalism is an emphasis on stories that can be tied to an economic negative- like this one about the almond growers. We are in "environmental adolescence," a phase of cultural immaturity where saving the planet and its species is considred very sexy if we can manage to equate "environmental responsibility" with capitalistic opportunity. Hey why not go for it, there's money to be made? Perhaps true in some circumstances but effective mass change is going to need to be a hell of a lot more coordinated than everyone in it for their own individual buck along the chain of change.

I asked my friend Jeff, who is quite passionate about his beekeeping what he thought of CCD and if it was being perpetrated by all the technology (laptops, phones and such) putting out radio frequencies. He manages a colony on land run by his employer. If I should ever happen to get stressed out at work, I would go out and check on the bees. He finds being with them very calming and says "they're very gentle- they never try to sting me unless I carelessly get one caught under my finger. There are up to 50,000 bees in a healthy hive so its tough to work the hive and miss every single one of them with every single motion."

Here's what he said: [Jeff wanted it noted that his facts may be outdated and he doesn't want some poor high school kid to get an "F" on their paper from quoting this blog- so if you're reading for facts, do consult the Honey Association (UK-based organization) or the National Honey Board (U.S) who can better give accurate statistics about bees and what they can actually accomplish in their lifetimes--though we can safely agree on the fact that they are short].

With regard to colony collapse disorder- I'm not too excited or worried. I lost two swarms this past year but it was most likely not CCD. The first was captured late in October which is too late in the season to build enough stores to make it through the winter. They froze one night when it hit 19 degrees in February.

The other swarm was only a segment of a much larger swarm that had filled an old hollow tree with hundreds of pounds of honey. A storm snapped off the top of the tree leaving the mega hive exposed and vulnerable. I went and started collecting the bees but we could not capture all of them quickly enough for the homeowner. They lost patience and ended up poisoning the remaining bees in the tree and then cutting down the tree. I wasn't happy about it but after the dog had gotten stung a couple of times, I certainly understand that she made the most convenient choice for her in this fast world of cell phones and megabytes per second.

From my own limited experience, the other perils of nature (weather and competition with other species) are still at work moreso than CCD. I have read that some professionals are losing large numbers of hives to CCD, but it still is only maybe 30% of the total. If it was truly serious, there would be reports of 80 or 90% losses.
The almond trees need help pollinating to make them a commercially viable and efficiently raised crop. However, they can also be pollinated by other wild insects and will survive without bees. It's really about profitability, volume and ultimate cost to the consumer.

I think I read that one bee can create 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime and pollinate no more than 120 flowers. Multiply that by a minimum 30,000 bees in a hive with a turnover (lifespan) of 4 weeks and one can see how a hive can really rapidly have an impact on pollination.

Do I want to pay $28 for a pound of almonds if it really will come to that? No, not really, but I can choose to go without almonds until this most likely natural cycle of bee populations works itself out. The same thing happened maybe 20-30 years ago and it was discovered that the tracheal mite was wiping out vast quantities of bees.

You have to remember that CCD is being presented as a tragedy for the almond farmers- but step back and think about it: what happens everytime man has unnaturally concentrated large numbers of a species? It usually ends up in some upset to the local ecosystem. For example, too many bees in the almond orchard attracts things that benefit from bees. Microorganisms or parasites like tracheal mites are one thing that we have both a historical perspective on as well as the chemicals to treat. The guy that started me in to bee keeping gave me the advice to skip all chemical treatments for my bees. Create a good healthy hive by putting it in a place with a natural amount of competition and a greater chance against viruses and parasites that might come hive hopping.

I'm betting moving large numbers of hives to the almond orchards of California or the blueberry fields of Maine are creating more havoc than cell phones for bees. I'm doing my part to educate people that bees really are friends of humans and they really don't want to sting us. I've invited everyone that wants to go and will take them one by one to open the hive and have a look.
CCD is getting a lot of press right now and I think the two leading universities studying the issue are UC-Davis and Penn State. I think cell phone waves havebeen all but ruled out by Penn State. It could just be the natural rise and fallpopulation cycle that ALL wild animals experience. I'm hopeful that this is the case but rather than just hoping, I also take the action to be an active apiarist.
If I get enough interest, I would love to get more people keeping bees. The more bee keepers, the greater number of hives and the greater chance that some of these species makes it through the CCD ordeal. I really think every one should keep a beehive.

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