Rob and Chelsea McFarland first started caring for bees, then founded the nonprofit HoneyLove, to meet a need often heard today - we've got to save the bees. For more than two decades, honeybee colonies have steadily declined around the world. Bees and other pollinators are one of the most critical components of our food supply - if they disappear, so do we. You can make a difference by becoming a natural, treatment-free beekeeper right in your backyard. Save the Bees offers different, easy and healthier ways to keep your own hive!
Rob and Chelsea share all the wisdom from this ancient practice in a way that is fresh, modern and easy for anyone to do. Along the way, they bust up some common bee myths:
- You don't need to spend thousands of dollars on equipment. They tell you the most essential tools you need to get started and what you can make yourself.
- You don't need any chemicals, pesticides or supplements to keep your bees healthy. Rob and Chelsea tell you how to recognize and maintain a healthy hive and how to save a failing one. The treatment-free way is not just a way to keep bees; it's the best way - good for you, the bees and the world.
Save the Bees breaks down the complexity of beekeeping so you can learn step-by-step how to acquire a colony, care for it and reap the reward - that incredibly delicious, all-natural, chemical-free, unprocessed, sweet, sweet honey. Not to mention you'll be welcomed into the quirky, amazing and fun family of beekeepers around the world. So get on board and let's save some bees.
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Save the Bees with Natural Backyard Hives
The Easy and Treatment-Free Way to Attract and Keep Healthy Bees
By Rob McFarland, Chelsea McFarland, W.B. Fontenot & Rob McFarland
Page Street Publishing Co.Copyright © 2015 Rob & Chelsea McFarland
All rights reserved.
Principles of Treatment-Free Beekeeping and How It Will Save the Bees
For many beekeepers around the world, the idea of treatment-free beekeeping is taboo — unthinkable even. Beekeeping practices have long been based on the idea that it is impossible to keep honeybees healthy without the use of chemicals. Suggesting an alternative to chemical-laden beekeeping can be met with animosity and dismissal. Treatment-free beekeepers have been shamed with accusations of neglect akin to withholding standard medical treatment from children.
Despite the fact that it has faced modern resistance, treatment-free beekeeping is not a new concept by any measure. For most of human history it would have been simply called "beekeeping." Beekeepers have always fought to protect the purity of their hives and their honey. The idea of putting essential oils, formic acids, oxalic acids, organo-phosphates or any manner of synthetic chemical into the hive would be a perverse thought for the majority of beekeepers throughout history. However, when Varroa destructors (varroa mites) started to hit American hives around 1987, the gloves came off and beekeepers began looking for anything that could help their bees grapple with the destructive parasite. This seek-and-destroy mission quickly escalated into full-out chemical warfare, and has become a protracted struggle for nearly 30 years with no signs of abating any time soon. The sickening reality is that the mites have only become stronger and more resistant to treatments. After three decades, beekeepers must now reflect on whether this has been an effective approach and where do we go from here.
Treatment-free beekeepers believe that chemicals have no place in the hive, and that the "medications" used to fight pests, parasites and diseases only make bees more vulnerable to the very problems they were aimed at solving. The common wisdom in the treatment-free community is that meddling with bees and interfering with the hive is partially responsible for all the issues now facing honeybees. The way forward is to allow our colonies to live in a more natural, less disturbed state. Treatment-free beekeepers place a lot of confidence in their bees' ability to survive and adapt, and believe that bees are resilient enough to grapple with mites and microbes all on their own.
Rather than upending the natural balance of the hive ecology to treat mites, the only sustainable way to combat these common problems is to use the foundational principles of treatment-free beekeeping: maintain strong colonies, use superior genetics and only breed bees that exhibit the hygienic behavior necessary to reduce mite populations. Reduce is the operative word here; studies have shown that over time honeybee colonies develop resistance to mites. Treating them with chemicals actually delays or prohibits this adaptation. Hygienic bees are able to smell a brood that is infested with varroa larvae, and remove it from the hive before the mites can spread any farther.
The problem with treating bees is that the chemicals do not discriminate and unfortunately destroy many other beneficial organisms along with their target. A beehive is an ecosystem in and of itself, inhabited by countless microbes, bacteria, fungi and all manner of microscopic life, and held together in a delicate balance worked out over millions of years. By introducing chemicals into this ecosystem, we invariably upset the equilibrium and catalyze a chain of reactions we have barely begun to understand. By treating with chemicals, we interrupt a system that has been solving problems far longer than humans have been traveling around the sun. Treating bees is an attempt to cheat evolution, and in fact has an adverse effect, making evolutionary pressures even greater.
You cannot eliminate every mite or every spore when you treat your bees, and those remaining mites and spores actually evolve to evade and resist your chemicals. The mites that aren't killed by the treatment go on to reproduce and pass on whatever genetic advantage allowed them to survive the beekeeper's previous treatments. In essence, rather than breeding stronger bees you are breeding mites that are stronger and more treatment-resistant with every generation.
Treatments have had their place in beekeeping, but it is imperative that we find better solutions. In order to develop more resilient bees, the unfortunate truth is that we have to let a whole lot of weak bees perish. The longer we keep propping up weaker bees on the chemical treadmill, the longer we delay the inevitable — all the while making our enemies stronger. That said, we can't ask our commercial beekeepers whose operations are responsible for pollinating the majority of our food to take such a massive risk without setting up every possible safety net, and to date there exist no such protections for beekeepers to take that massive financial gamble.
This is where our opportunity to make a difference as small-scale beekeepers comes into play. Most of you reading this book will likely never become commercial- level beekeepers and only wish to participate as a hobby. This is not to say you take it any less seriously, only that your entire income will not be based on beekeeping, pollination services, honey sales and so on. Hobby beekeepers whose businesses and mortgages are not tied to annual colony losses or honey production can afford to take the risks necessary to buck the chemical way of beekeeping. Again, this does not mean that we have any less responsibility when it comes to dealing with disease and keeping our bees healthy; it just means that we have the flexibility to take risks and be experimental.
There is a parallel to the technology industry here. You have the tech giants like Google, Apple and Microsoft who have all the money, infrastructure, brain power and market advantage, yet it is often the kid in his dorm room who comes up with the greatest innovations simply because he is afforded the flexibility to think freely and tinker without consideration of running a business, satisfying shareholders or paying out yearly dividends. Going with the Mark Zuckerberg model here, the smaller-scale beekeeper has the flexibility to test, experiment and bring other skills and perspectives to the table. With that flexibility comes the distinct possibility of hitting it big and changing the industry as a whole. It would be foolhardy for the commercial beekeeping industry to do anything but welcome beekeepers of every stripe with open arms, as it stands to benefit most from the solutions brought on by new ways of thinking.
The principles of beekeeping backwards were first articulated by an observant and humble beekeeper named Charles Martin Simon in an issue of Bee Culture from 2001. While Simon didn't get into the to-treat or not-to-treat debate, he did give us a convenient framework to define "beekeeping backwards."
CHARLES MARTIN SIMON'S TEN PRINCIPLES OF BEEKEEPING BACKWARDS
Principle #1: Work with Nature, not against Her.
Principle #2: Profit doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot if you're dead.
Principle #3: Dead bees make no honey.
Principle #4: Don't fight it.
Principle #5: Beekeeping is not about honey.
Principle #6: It's not about money.
Principle #7: It's about survival.]
Principle #8: Forget everything you ever learned and start observing what is really going on.
Principle #9: Leave your bees alone.
Principle #10: Leave me alone.
The ideas gained further traction when appropriated by Kirk Anderson who evangelized the ideas to the swelling ranks of Los Angeles urban beekeepers. Kirk's free-spirited attitude, hands-off approach and wicked sense of humor resonated with a set of rebel beekeepers who already identified with the impulse to buck convention. This loosely affiliated group of people came to call themselves the "Backwards Beekeepers" and were soon overrun with eager "newbees" seeking answers and community — your humble authors included. Perhaps Kirk's greatest legacy is his insistence on an additional principle.
Principle #11: Beekeeping should be fun.
This is a helpful reminder for beekeepers fretting about mites or falling victim to warnings of doom and gloom.
Kirk's obvious love of bees encouraged countless new beekeepers, and his approach made beekeeping accessible and appealing to a whole new generation of beekeepers. Along with fellow treatment-free beekeepers like Ed and Dee Lusby, Michael Bush, Sam Comfort, Les Crowder, Laurie Herboldsheimer, Dean Stiglitz, Michael Thiele and many others, Kirk served as a whistle-blower alerting beekeepers around the world that rethinking our practices was critical to the future of bees. While the ideas behind backwards beekeeping do not belong to Mr. Simon, Mr. Anderson or any beekeeper for that matter, both men deserve tremendous credit for their contributions to the conversation about beekeeping.
Like "treatment-free beekeeping," the term "beekeeping backwards" still does not serve as the catch-all term describing all of the ideas, opinions and practices of this variant of apiculture. "Organic" falls apart as well when you delve into the details of what treatments are allowed under a USDA-sanctioned license use of the term. "All-natural" fails for similar reasons, namely that many treatments allowed under this label are of "naturally occurring" chemicals like oxalic acid. One main decision sets beekeepers with the same end goal on opposing paths — whether or not to use chemical treatments. This is probably the most consequential, far-reaching decision a beekeeper must make. Due to the divergent course of action beekeepers take depending on this choice, labeling the opposing schools of thought, even if inadequate, is necessary.
FIRST STEP–UNDERSTANDING OUR BEES
Despite what critics often allege, treatment-free beekeeping is not anti-science. Rather than looking for chemicals to circumvent the rules of nature, treatment-free beekeeping calls for a far more comprehensive scientific approach to understand the massively complex systems at work in a beehive. Honeybee colonies are infinitely more complex than our current understanding suggests. The rules of the hive may be so abstract that we lack the vocabulary to adequately describe its complexity, much less understand it.
Our current understanding of honeybees is similar to the common beliefs surrounding disease before the germ theory of disease was introduced. People dropping dead was much easier to blame on evil spirits at play rather than the work of invisible microbes. There were no common words at the time for the masses to describe things like germs, viruses and infectious bacteria, and therefore no way for people to understand the concepts and incorporate them into their cultural narrative. Germs were not part of the collective imagination, and it wasn't until their machinations were unlocked and described that we understood that the complexity of life was far greater than ever imagined.
Our current knowledge of how things work within the hive is akin to our understanding of infectious disease during the 1700s. We lack adequate language to describe the complexity of systems and feedback loops at work in the hive, and therefore must make a set of primitive assumptions based on what little data we are able to interpret. The assumptions about the hive underpinning modern apiculture are based on incomplete data, and the resulting beekeeping practices deliberately subvert honeybees' natural systems and behaviors in service of increased honey production and purely economic considerations.
A better understanding of bees can lead to better beekeeping practices, which in turn can help make our agricultural system less lethal to bees and less destructive to our ecosystems. This all starts by simply owning up to the fact that the current system isn't working and our understanding of the world is incomplete. We must abandon the dogma that rejects new ideas and unlearn what we think we know in order to approach the problems facing beekeepers with fresh eyes and open minds.
The hope for the future of beekeeping may be supercomputing. In the same way these powerful supercomputers are used to understand the systems governing the Earth, scientists can now begin to use advanced computer modeling to understand the complexity at play in the hive. In the meantime, beekeepers can only abandon the treatments that are disruptive to the hive ecology and the natural systems responsible for the health and prosperity of the colony.
As Michael Bush, author of The Practical Beekeeper: Beekeeping Naturally, said in a video interview I shot for HoneyLove's YouTube Channel:
"A bee colony isn't really just a bunch of bees that live together. It is a whole ecology. It is 8,000 microorganisms and 30 different kinds of mites and at least 30 different kinds of insects and all sorts of fungi and bacteria that all live together in this ecology that we call a bee colony. And treating pretty much ignores that that even exists and then it disrupts the entire balance of that colony. The entire balance of that ecology is dependent on things being in a balance, where you have a whole bunch of different microorganisms that keep each other from taking over. This is obvious in an organism, but people tend to forget that a colony is a super-organism. So it's not just the things that live in the gut of the bee. It's things that live in the beebread, which is the pollen that they're fermenting. It's the things that live in the colony and under the colony and the detritus that falls on the bottom. There's this whole ecology that's many more organisms than a bee and when you treat you disrupt that whole thing."CHAPTER 2
Beekeeping Basics: Getting Started Is Easy and Fun
Beekeeping is perhaps the most addictive activity one can discover. For centuries beekeepers have described the powerful hold honeybees have on them as "bee fever." Though not literally a communicable disease, beekeepers around the world describe similar symptoms — primarily an all-encompassing passion for these winged wonders. Once new beekeepers come down with a case of the bee fever, honey and bees practically take over their every thought. Before long, new beekeepers start pouring over books and YouTube videos in their spare hours, dreaming of their hive buzzing with bees. Established beekeepers are all familiar with the routine: the "newbee" is exposed to the seduction of the hive and all of a sudden can't wait another second before getting bees and becoming a beekeeper. Predictably, the first question every newbee breathlessly asks is, "How do I get started?" This is quickly followed by, "And when do I get to harvest honey!?!"
To embark on the beekeeping journey, one must acquire three crucial things: community, education and equipment.
Just like honeybees, beekeepers cannot exist without community. Whether it is an online community, a local beekeeping association or just a handful of mentors, a beekeeper needs to benefit from the collective wisdom of the greater beekeeping community. These groups are essential for sharing the resources and knowledge necessary to navigate the world of honeybees.
The ancient art of apiculture is the manifestation of the collective intellectual achievement of beekeepers stretching back over 8,000 years. This legacy would be impossible had beekeepers not been fastidious record keepers of their observations and experiences. By becoming a beekeeper, you are signing up to build on and carry forward a body of knowledge with a tradition as old as humanity.
It cannot be overstated how important education is to beekeeping, but at the same time one should not be discouraged by the amount there is to learn. Beekeeping is filled with such wonder and excitement that soaking up the knowledge becomes addicting and fun, which accelerates the learning process. Beekeepers are encouraged to join as many beekeeping communities, forums, associations and clubs as possible. Just like bees, beekeepers need one another to share knowledge and resources.
For a list of beekeeping clubs, resources and websites, visit: HoneyLove.org/resources.
Excerpted from Save the Bees with Natural Backyard Hives by Rob McFarland, Chelsea McFarland, W.B. Fontenot & Rob McFarland. Copyright © 2015 Rob & Chelsea McFarland. Excerpted by permission of Page Street Publishing Co..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION - THE BEES CHOSE US,
CHAPTER 1: Principles of Treatment-Free Beekeeping and How It Will Save the Bees,
CHAPTER 2: Beekeeping Basics: Getting Started Is Easy and Fun,
CHAPTER 3: Acquiring Honeybees Is Simple,
CHAPTER 4: Getting to Know Your Superorganisms,
CHAPTER 5: Bee Success: How to Inspect Your Bees, Fix Common Problems and Set Up Your Hive for Prosperity,
CHAPTER 6: How to Save a Failing Hive,
CHAPTER 7: Nectar Flow, Beebread and What to Feed Your Bees,
CHAPTER 8: How to Prepare Hives for Winter,
CHAPTER 9: Honey Harvest,
CHAPTER 10: Urban Beekeeping Basics for Tiny and Giant Backyards,
CHAPTER 11: The Art of Beekeeping,
ABOUT THE AUTHORS,