Tag Archives: beehive

Honoring the Predators: A Story of Reconnection

My last beekeeping post told a the tale of my two bee colonies destroyed by colony collapse disorder. I had hoped to have better news to share about my beekeeping endeavors this year. And things started well enough: a friend removed some bees from a house that was to be torn down and gave them to me; I moved my hive to a new location and setup the hive in a friend’s yard, and then I was able to setup an empty hive with the hopes of catching a second swarm. But, unfortunately, this tale has a different end, and a different lesson. The bees were doing great, I had just added honey supers a few weeks ago, and I was expecting a ton of honey from such a strong colony and then–the bear came. I have read about bears taking out beehives, but I have never talked with anyone that had this happen. My friend had never seen a bear, and there were no reports of them in the area, but clearly, one was nearby! The bear ripped open the hive, and, in the middle of a rainstorm, flung the colony all over the place as he had his meal. Bears go for honey, but especially, for the brood: the bees’ young larvae and pupae are very protein rich. And so, this was the scene that greeted my friend when she woke up, and the scene that greeted me when I arrived to see what could be salvaged.

Destroyed Beehives

Destroyed Beehives

Two of us worked for most of the day to salvage what we could. The bees that remained were soaking and, since it was only about 50 that day, very cold. The equipment was soaked, and I had no idea if the queen had survived. I thought it likely the bear would return, so I spoke to various friends in a desperate effort to move the hives before dark. I wasn’t able to secure a location, and since it is illegal to have bees inside of town limits, we instead drove many pieces of rebar around the hive, wired it up, strapped it shut, and hoped for the best. I wish now I had just stuck them on my porch for a day or two until I could figure out where to move them and risked the citation. Unfortunately, the bear came back, and while we made it harder for him to get inside, he still did, demolishing what was left of the hive.

 

The end of this tale is a bit better–although there weren’t many bees left after the second bear visit, we salvaged what was left: the queen and about 5000 of her workers. We borrowed a travel box from a friend, and we saved every bee we could, gently helping them into the hive box. A fellow beekeeping friend has a number of hives, so he had brood and resources to help them get back to health. They are now back on their way to a strong colony again, and they are protected from bears. All the beekeepers in the  area are on alert now about bears, thanks to my hive. This whole event has given me much to think about and meditate upon, and a variety of lessons  to consider–and today, the lesson is honoring the predators.

 

It’s ironic that this the lesson I am exploring, because the the hives were torn apart on the early morning hours of May 2nd. The day before was May 1st – Beltane. I met with a new friend, a woman who had dedicated her life to the work of the goddesses, and we got together to do a Beltane ceremony. As part of our first ceremony, each of us brought some things from our respective traditions to share with each other. One of the things she brought were offerings, including an offering honoring the predators. She made her offering and spoke beautifully about the predators, their role, the goddesses connected to them. In my mind, I was certainly not honoring the predators. All of my experiences with predators as a homesteader were negative: the hawk that swooped down to kill many of my dear chickens, including taking a peep right from in front of me. The dead chicken bodies I found as the hawk flew off after eating a meal. I remember the evidence of the badger that ripped my coop open one night and drug off my beloved rooster (an event I still haven’t written about), the snakes by the pond swallowing frogs whole, their peeping and screeching noises going on for over an hour till the snake finally finished its meal.

 

As my friend spoke so beautifully about the predators, I was instead filled with these images of predators and how I spent so much of my own time over the last few years keeping them away from things I loved. And then, that next morning–the largest predator of all in this area–the bear–came and feasted upon my beehive.

 

I have reminisced in the weeks that have passed since the hive was eaten that I really do have a problem honoring the predators–and that’s a problem with me, not a problem with the predators. And the predators, in their own way, will make themselves known and continue to show up in my life until I am able to honor them. And so, to help myself come to terms with the loss, I thought I’d write about the predators and, finally, begin to do the work of honoring them.

 

Cultural Problems with Predators

We learn about predators in school in really scientific ways: predators sit at the top of the food chain; they are carnivorous, eating only the flesh of other creatures; they may be solitary or run in packs. We learn about predators from the local news: a hiker was mauled by a bear, a swimmer was eaten by a shark, a pack of coyotes killed a number of neighborhood dogs. We learn about human predators, who we view as the worst kind of people: those who stalk, kill, harm and maim others. This, term perhaps shows us the cultural view of the predator, that we take this term and we attach it to heinous actions that are in no way comparable to a bear or a fox taking a meal. I think I was viewing the predators that had eaten the bees, the chickens, and so forth in the same way: you, predator, have taken something I value, you have taken a life. You have done me wrong and have done wrong to others.  But this is not the lesson of the predator, not the lesson at all.

 

Nature’s Wisdom

Sometimes, those of us, especially those in nature-based spiritual paths, want to see nature as all roses, all pretty trees, all little birds signing. But roses have thorns, the trees compete for light, and the birds sometimes knock each other’s eggs out of nests. Like everything else, they are working to survive by any means possible. A forest is full of both competition for resources and cooperation. I’m reminded here of the lesson of the many medicinal mushrooms of the woods (and you can read some of this in Tradd Cotter’s book; he gave a fascinating talk on this subject last year at the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA.) The medicinal qualities–particularly the anti-cancer, anti-microbial qualities–of mushrooms like birch polypore, turkey tail, or reishi are based on their growth in natural environments, where mushrooms have to compete to survive. Tradd gave an example in his talk of a petri dish that he was working on that had birch polypore in it–he had dropped something nasty into it (e-coli, I think) and was amazed to see how the birch polypore exuded an anti-fungal agent to combat it, and surround it, and eventually subdue it using what was essentially chemical warfare. That same chemical constituent, when taken within, helps us fight a number of diseases. If the mushrooms are grown in a lab or in a controlled setting, their medicinal value drops significantly–because they don’t have the natural competition of all of the other bacteria and others in the fungal kingdom. These mushrooms aren’t predators in the traditional (animalistic) sense, but they certainly  have similar qualities and offer similar lessons.

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Tradd Cotter teaching us about mushrooms

Predator Patterns and Restoration Agriculture

The truth is, predators are a key part of nature, and without them, we lose a greater part of the whole and the entire ecosystem suffers. Recently, farmers and activists in permaculture design and in sustainable agriculture have been reintroducing predator-driven graze patterns to help regenerate agricultural lands. These patterns, set by millions of years of evolution, are now mimicked by humans on farms to move herd animals through various terrain. This work is perhaps best illustrated by the work of Joel Salatin at Polyface farm (see Polyfaces) and Mark Sheppard at New Forest Farm (see his book Restoration Agriculture or the film Inhabit). The principle of understanding why traditional graze patterns is simple: if you’ve ever visited a chicken run or petting zoo, you see what happens when animals are fenced in the same area for a long period of time. They first eat their favorite food, then nibble down to the less desirable greenery, and finally, eat whatever is left, leaving bare soil.  This is what happens in a stationary system, rather than one driven by predators.

 

Rather than fencing animals in the same spot, folks like Salatin and Sheppard carefully rotate their herd animals  among large tracts of land in traditional grazing patterns. Mark Sheppard has his system so effectively designed that every different animal (cows, pigs, geese, chickens) move through a patch and quickly out of it in only a few days time. As the herds are rotated, each animal gets it’s own best “first bite.” This technique encourages the grass to stay alive, and to shed carbon (as the grass is bitten down, it sheds roots to accommodate it’s smaller size, and that sinks carbon into the topsoil, enriching it). This, friends, is why prior to the settling of the USA by Europeans, the prairies had soil horizons that were 12 feet deep of rich topsoil: it was millennia of herds moving quickly through areas, driven by predators. Predators, then, are responsible for herd movements that can literally sequester carbon and stop climate change. Farmers interested in regenerative agriculture are using these same methods to sequester tens of thousands of pounds of carbon each year.  Salatin has compelling evidence tha  if every US farmer who raises any grazing animal used these techniques, we could sink all of the carbon the USA has ever emitted in less than 10 years.

 

This is the power of the predator, and this one of many reasons that they are deserving of our respect.

 

There are other examples of this as well. I’m sure that many of you saw the video about Yellowstone Park, where it was shown that the re-introduction of wolves changed the whole ecosystem because of the movement of herds.  The wolves were able, as the video suggests, change the movement of herds, which changed rivers, and helped regenerate the entire ecosystem. (There are some new articles that suggest that this video exaggerates the claims a bit, but I am still inclined to believe that a whole ecosystem, with it’s predators intact, is a more robust and healthy ecosystem). Without predators as a part of the ecosystem, all suffer.

 

Predators and Inner Lessons

The outer lessons, above, are clearer the more I write and think about them, but I would also like to spend a few moments on the inner lessons that the predators offer. I, like many, saw predators as a nuisance, as something to keep away, as something you don’t want to see flying above the skies or slinking through the grass.  But predators have another message–they are awareness medicine.

 

The hawks flying overhead made me better protect my chickens, and sent me a powerful message about defenses, about being vigilant, and about not letting my guard down. If my chickens were the tastiest plump morsels around (and they are, they are made of chicken), then I had to change my own relationship with the predators and protect my chickens better. If I lose a chicken to a hawk, this is not the fault of the predator, this is my own lack of vigilance.

 

The badger who broke into my coop, and dragged my beloved rooster off never to be seen again, sent me the message that I was to return to PA to my beloved mountains, a message I have since enacted in my life. The magic of my homestead worked because of my rooster, Anasazi, and without him, I knew it wasn’t going to work in the same way. That powerful message was the last thing I needed to truly move forward in my life.

 

And the bear, who easily took out the beehive during the first evening, and even more skillfully worked his way through wire, rebar, straps, and more, teaches me the lesson that the predators need to be honored. To be respected. They are there, they are present, and there is no getting around their message.  They are there whether or not we want them to be. And it is me, not them, who needs to change my own thoughts and actions .

 

The lessons of the predator are many: power, strength, vigilance, loss, opportunity, precision, healing, defenses, paying attention, cultivating awareness and openness to your surroundings. Friends, readers, what are your experiences with the predators? Do you have any additional lessons to share?

The Silence of the Hive

A full hive with bees working

A full hive with bees working

What you quickly learn as a beekeeper is that the sound of the hive matters.  When you first get into a hive, if the hive is in good health and has all of its needs met, the hive is generally pretty quiet (I talk about the hive as a single organism, because that’s really what bees are: a single super organism.)  Sometimes, a hive is louder when you arrive–the bees are fanning the hive with their wings to keep it cool, or they are beating their wings to generate heat in the winter to keep it warm (you don’t open the hive under 50 degrees). But in the absence of extreme hot or cold, a happy and healthy hive emits only a very soft sound, discernible only up close when you open it. Beehives always have some buzzing in them–the bees move around, beat their wings, and go about tending their young and storing away pollen and honey. You can sense the happiness and contentment of the bees in a quiet hive a going about their work. As you begin doing whatever it is you need to do and disrupt the bees, like pulling out frames or moving around hive boxes, they escalate to a louder buzzing sound, where the hive is on alert. The louder the buzzing, generally, the less happy of a hive you have on your hands. They get extremely loud and start flying at you and trying to sting when they think their hive is in danger–this is usually after you do something stupid, like kill bees, bang on the hive box, drop something, etc.. I used to think that this loud buzzing was the worst sound you could hear. Now, I realize there is a much worse sound you can hear–and that is the sound of silence.

 

This past weekend was supposed to be an exciting time for me as a beekeeper–my two hives each had 30 or so pounds of excess honey in the honey supers from the last big nectar flow of the season, and it was time to go harvest. The honey this time of year is the stuff of legends, the nectar of the gods, the honey that can drive away seasonal allergies and warm the soul for the many long months of winter. Its made of plants that heal–goldenrod and aster.  Its dark and rich, extremely flavorful, and highly medicinal. I had been looking forward to this weekend for many months, excited that we had such a good harvest in the second year of beekeeping. It was especially gratifying after getting through the regulatory red tape of moving my hives from Michigan to Pennsylvania this summer and finding a new home for the hives.

 

This is what you expect to see....

This is what you expect to see….

My father joined me to help harvest the honey, and we laughed and smiled as we put on our suits, prepared our tools, and got ready to do the harvest. When we opened the first hive, I noted that the bees weren’t on the honey super–this isn’t necessarily abnormal; the colony is quickly shrinking in size as the weather cools and you don’t always find a lot of bees up in the honey super. But something felt just wrong. We were able to pull off the frames one by one, not even needing the escape board I had planned on using.  Then it struck me–there was no buzzing; the hive was silent. As I leaned into the hive and looked down through all the frames and into the brood box where the bees should still be, I could see straight to the bottom. No bees. I realized that the absence of sound was one of the worst kinds of sounds a beekeeper can hear–the silence of a dead or abandoned hive.

 

Six months ago on this blog, I wrote about the sound of silence and the music of the world–how one researcher found that as species died off and dwindled, as less and less habitats remained, a silence was coming over the world in ways not previously recorded or experienced. This, of course, is decades after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, who documented the effects of pesticide use on bird populations–and who created a national conversation on conservation. And, as I stood there looking at my empty, dead hive, pulling frame after frame, the full weight of the silence was upon me.

 

There are lots of ways that hives can die these days, but the name for what I found in my hive this past weekend is one you’ll probably recognize: colony collapse disorder (CCD). This is when the workers in a healthy hive up and abandon it leaving their young, their queen, and all of their food behind. Its not that the whole hive moves on, but rather, just the workforce of the hive disappears. Its kind of like if every healthy adult who keeps your town functioning were to walk out of town permanently and head who knows where without any food, water, even a change of clothes, leaving their children, elders, and pets behind, and just disappear, never to be seen again. The worker bees have no chance of survival without the honey (especially as it gets colder and colder), the safety of their hive, and the queen for reproduction–especially this late in a season. Even if they somehow made it to spring, without a queen, the bees cannot reproduce and the colony would die. In a careful inspection of the dead hive, I found bees that had just hatched, half out their cells, dead. Many others never had a chance to hatch and died before they were even born. We’ve had some very cold nights, and I’m guessing they froze to death. Without any adult worker bees tending them or keeping them warm, they had no chance. It was awful.

 

Its not just the loss of the hive, a dear friend and companion on my journey, that is so painful. Its the representation of what this loss means. Its seeing the headlines about bee declines and deaths and thinking that you can somehow do better, that your organic beekeeping and the love you pour into your hives will make your bees immune to what’s going on. That CCD will never happen to your hives. That your practices, and faith, and love, can create a protective bubble to keep the harsh reality of what we are doing to this planet out.  I am again reminded of what declines in bee, bird, and other wildlife populations mean for the health of our lands. I’ve been speaking so much of regeneration on this blog in recent months, and the loss of my hive really has weighed on me the importance of this ongoing conversation.

 

In the last 10 years, there’s been a lot of press coverage about Colony Collapse Disorder–what it is, why it happens, what causes it. The truth is, scientists are still figuring it out, but it seems to focus on three areas: pesticides, disease/mites, and the loss of of foraging areas. But it doesn’t take a scientist to recognize the massive changes happening in our lands: all ones needs to do is open his or her eyes and see through the bee’s perspective. Bees need the same things the rest of us do: healthy living spaces free of poison, health and disease free living, no toxins, and adequate food supplies. Those are increasingly under threat, and unfortunately, the situation is not improving at present time.

 

Less than 1/2 mile from the hives, I noted someone in the yard with his small pack sprayer of chemicals, hitting the dandelions and other plants he didn’t want growing there.  After leaving the hives very saddened, I noted on the same road a “lawn care professional” whom I might more aptly name a “poisoner” spraying an entire lawn down with his toxic brew. Some countries in Europe have outright banned the offending pesticides to help bee populations recover, but in the great US of A, the opposite seems to happen. Instead, we get the “Best Recommendations for the Public” from the USDA in the form of the following:

“The best action the public can take to improve honey bee survival is not to use pesticides indiscriminately. In particular, the public should avoid applying pesticides during mid-day hours, when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar and pollen on flowering plants.”

Indiscriminate use of pesticides? Being mindful of pesticides? Are you serious? The first step to addressing a problem is recognizing that we have one, and clearly, as a culture we still aren’t at that point. We have extensive amounts of greenwashing on the part of actual chemical companies and a government entity that panders to them. I think, personally, its time we really start getting louder about these chemicals and frame them for what they are and do: the systematic poisoning of our lands. Seeing that guy spraying the lawn as I was leaving my dead hive was just too much for me.

 

Lawn: be gone!

Lawn: be gone!

Of course, the other big issue with CCD is that the lawn itself is a food desert to bees and many other beneficial insects and wildlife, food desert. We have many, many kinds of food deserts in the USA today: places where people can’t get access to fresh food, and places where wildlife or insects also lack access. Part of the decline in bee populations is due to the lack of food availability for the bees: those chemically-ridden, manicured lawns provide no food or forage for wildlife, and they poison all who are near them. Less food means less abundance and a harder life for the bees and for everything else–the loss of food and habitat, of course, is driving the growing silence in the world. I’m not sure if this was an issue for my hive as they definitely seemed well fed this summer, but its a contributing factor in bee health more generally.

 

When I got into beekeeping, I did so because I wanted to help understand the bees, help tend them and bring them to the landscape; I wanted to help the land heal. And this weekend, I learned a very important lesson about beekeeping–it doesn’t matter how organic and clean your practices are in the hive.  If the people around you are spraying, even out to two miles, it will make it into your hive. And it will make it into your body, and into your children, and your pets, and your trees, your organic vegetable garden, and everything else. I’m not the first person I know to lose a colony of bees to this stuff, and I certainly won’t be the last. The bees are like our canary in the coalmine–the land isn’t safe and the bees die. My question is: how long are we going to turn our heads and close our doors when our neighbors, governments, friends, family, or farmers are literally poisoning the land we hold sacred? When the canary is clearly suffering or already dead?  That’s the question I think that we all have before us.

 

Regenerative and sustainable living isn’t all whimsical and happy. We don’t homestead, harvest herbs, and tend the land just because it allows us to sit with fluffy bunnies, milk happy goats chewing on burdock, and drink oodles of lemon balm tea sweetened with raw organic honey. Maybe there’s that image out there–that of idyllic farm life, perfect and content. That if we can simply build enough of an oasis for ourselves and our families, for our gardens and our animals, that everything that is out there won’t get in. The reality is far from it. We do this because the alternative, for us, and for the life on this planet is, death. Its silence. The emptiness of a beehive, the quiet of the birds that once lived and are no more, the shrinking patches of forest–this is why we do this work. We do this because we have to do something, and doing something, however small, is better than sitting around with our faces in our phones pretending nothing is happening. There are days when, as joyful as this path may be, the reality of the challenges we face in the world come right in our faces in a way that we can’t ignore.  This past Saturday, for me, was one of those days.