WE DEPEND ON the honeybee. Without it, life as we know it could never exist. The honeybee qualifies as one of nature’s most essential insects. Beyond creating honey, wax and propolis, this species pollinates more than three-quarters of our agricultural food—in essence giving life to plants and, ultimately, to humans. “Every third bite of our food is a result of the honeybee,” says Chris Harp, a natural bee doctor based in New York. “They are the basis of our food chain and give life to things that are so vital.”
Worldwide honeybees share an intimate connection. Highly organized and socially complex, they perform enormous, instinctual feats to protect the future of their hive and the generations of bees to come.
Every February, the queen bee lays her eggs within the hive. Over the following months, the hive grows in numbers and the bees diligently build up the combs with all the nutrients, in the form of honey and pollen reserves, that they will need to survive during the rainy and less prolific seasons. Once this tremendous task is near completion, the tireless worker bees create the cells in which the queen lays her eggs that will give way to a new queen.
At this point the most selfless act occurs. Just as the hive is in its healthiest state, the “old” queen bee along with about half of her worker bees and a few of her drones, whose job it is to mate with the queen, leave their hive behind to create a new hive. In this unique process known as swarming, the queen leads the bees, typically numbering 10,000 to 30,000, out of the hive. They fly up to 25 feet in the air and form a swarm, as a group of scouts go out to find a new home where the bees will carry on life in a healthy, self-sustainable way. The bees’ original home is also renewed as the new queen begins the cycle of building up the hive with fresh energy.
Banishing the bees:
Despite its natural survival skills, the self-supporting honeybee has begun to die off in droves—a painful reality that has been predicted as cause for concern over the last century. As the honeybee suffers from what has been called “colony collapse disorder,” we humans are being forced to take a closer look at our environment and the true nature of our environmental stewardship. Gunther Hauk, president of the board of the Spikenard Farm biodynamic® agricultural center and bee sanctuary, estimates that over the last year the U.S. has lost nearly half of its honeybee population. While bees in Europe and elsewhere have also suffered, the losses have not been as drastic.
Such statistics are especially alarming considering the honeybee’s significance to humans and all of nature. “No other pollinator, including other types of bees, can pollinate in as great of numbers,” declares Hauk. Beyond its pollination work, the honeybee does something much more basic: it works to invigorate all plant life. “The [honeybee’s] poison, made up of formic acid, one of the building blocks of life, goes into nature in homeopathic form,” explains Hauk. “Through pollination, it spreads its formic acid. While other animals such as ants spread formic acid as well, the sheer number of honeybees and the amount of plants they pollinate makes the honeybee extremely important to this process in nature.”
The honeybee’s population crash and its causes have been widely hypothesized. Many blame viruses, bacteria and bugs such as varroa mites, tracheal mites, foulbrood and the hive beetle. However, such “natural” attacks cannot be the sole cause. When humans or any animals are overcome with disease, it is a sign that our systems are weakened and unable to fight back, resulting in “collapse.”
Hauk, whose dedicated beekeeping work began more than 30 years ago in Germany, has never experienced a dramatic loss of bees, colony collapse or foulbrood, a bacteria known to affect honeybees. Even more significantly, all of this success has been achieved without chemicals. He employs the natural methods of beekeeping that have largely been lost to the concept of supersized bees, hives and honey. Bees, just like humans, cows and chickens, should be raised naturally and freely.
Harp, the bee doctor, believes that while thousands of factors currently affect the bees, the two main culprits of the current catastrophe are malnutrition and stress caused by human manipulation of the bees’ natural processes. “Our common practice in this country is mono-cropping,” explains Harp, referring to a single type of plant being grown on a farm. “Over the past 100 years we’ve built a professional pollination industry in which the bees are trucked across the country from one mono-culture to the next. We are programming their natural GPS system rather than allowing them to naturally seek out the diversity of plants they need to pollinate for their health. As a result, they are becoming very weak.”
He compares this starved treatment to a pregnant woman subsiding on rice cakes and water, resulting in a malnourished mother whose child will grow up without the necessary nutrients and vitamins. The weakening of the bees is furthered as beekeepers strive to energize them with corn syrup, often genetically modified, rather than allowing the bees to survive off their natural pollen reserves. “This corn syrup does not provide them with the adequate nutrients like pollen does,” says Harp. “As a result, the bees are susceptible to parasites and bacteria.”
Back to basics:
Witnessing a honeybee at work makes it clear that the bee naturally knows best how to survive and thrive. Of course, altering current beekeeping practices is not as simple. According to Hauk, “Individual ‘islands’ [sanctuaries] need to be created where the bee is raised in the right, natural way.”
For more than 80 years, biodynamic® farming, which goes beyond organic to encompass all forms of life, has managed to resist modern-day manipulation. It instead utilizes nature’s natural ways to enhance the soil, land and all of life.
Demeter, the international biodynamic® certifying agency, requires that any beekeeper using the official Demeter label follow set guidelines that adhere to the natural laws of nature. First and foremost, biodynamic® farmers and beekeepers must not use any synthetic fertilizers or toxins on their land and must ensure that environmental pollutants will not contaminate the hives. The bees’ hives must be built of all-natural materials such as wood, straw or clay. Additionally, queen bees that have been artificially created in a laboratory, along with the systematic replacement of the queen bee with a new, younger bee—both standard industrialized beekeeping methods—are banned. Honey and blossom pollen, the natural food of bees, is kept in the hives as food stock before being removed by humans for consumption. Therefore, feeding bees with sugar or corn syrup is not permitted.
The sustainable practice of biodynamics® is more than healthy—it’s abuzz with life. “The bees on an organic and biodynamic® farm are much more vibrant and far less susceptible to viruses and parasites,” says Harp. “The bottom line is that when you give the bees love and attention, they give it back. They are more at peace and able to serve others as we serve them in this natural, healthy environment.”
“We are in a time of tremendous transition,” states Hauk. “And we are awakened to the necessity of having to take care of nature, including animals.” Indeed, we have the honeybee to thank for highlighting the environmental state of our present and future and, specifically, the challenges we face through conventional agriculture practices. As when treating an illness, we must care for the whole system and not just a part.