My guest today is Richard McGinnis, publisher and CEO of Mindful Metropolis. Welcome back to OpEdNews, Richard. I heard through the grapevine that you're a beekeeper. That's exciting. How did you get interested in the first place?
Richard's apiary; photo credit: Richard McGinnis
Hi, Joan! Thanks for the invitation. I have to tell you: I wasn't really interested in bees in the beginning. Sure, I love honey and always have. I had an uncle who kept bees and used to give us giant jars of the thick, golden liquid sunshine with the comb when I was a kid. And, after I had been keeping bees for a few years, I found out my dad had kept bees when he was in 4H. So, maybe it is in my DNA. My primary interest is in gardening. Honeybees are terrific (and vital) pollinators of many vegetables, berries and fruit trees. I am not able to cultivate large garden plots or vast orchards because of my career and abundant personal life. Plus, let's face it: The conscious media business doesn't exactly provide the kind of salary needed for rolling fields of happy, cooperative farm workers raising lovely organic produce. I needed to make the limited garden space that I work alone as productive as possible. In short, I was looking for free labor. I found it in the honeybee.
It was after I "inherited" my first truckload of bee stuff (and bees) that I started learning about CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) and the real peril and plight of the beautiful honeybee. It was like toppling dominoes after that first summer. I read just about every book I could find on bee culture, I took beekeeping workshops at the prairie preserve, and eventually took an eight- week course in apiary management. Now, my devotion to the art of beekeeping is inseparable from my love of growing food and my passion for organic agriculture - and equally as great as my distaste for industrial agribusiness.
I'm not sure I understand the connection between your new-found passion and CCD. Can you please flesh that out for me?
What I knew about bees was pretty sterile. My focus was purely entomological. My entire initiative revolved around what I had read regarding the increase crop yields utilizing pollinators (honeybees being just one of many varieties of pollinating critters). The honeybee concept was also appealing to me as a source for honey and the other products that can be made from the raw materials the bees provide. After I got the bees, I started catching up on the current news about CCD. What had been a benign decision to add bees to my life then became an environmental cause. Beekeeping went from experimental - something to add to my agricultural knowledge base - to being on par with saving polar bears from melting ice caps and blowing up dams blocking salmon from spawning. The human interference and impact on the honeybee is compelling and catastrophic. Now, you will frequently find me on the roster at events like Green Festival, Green Metropolis Fair, Family Farmed, etc., doing presentations and moderating panels on saving bees and the impact doing so has on our food systems.
Tell us more about what's going on with the bee situation, Richard. We're just learning how vital they are to our food production and now they're endangered?
The bees are in crisis. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has become epidemic. The first to notice the disappearance of bee colonies, and sometimes entire apiaries, were the commercial migratory beekeepers. These are the folks who load semi-truck trailers full of beehives (primarily based in the temperate regions of the southern US like Florida and Georgia) and head off to the almond groves of California and the cranberry bogs in Maine with the aggressively pollinating honeybee. Without vast colonies of bees, these crops would be (and are) severely diminished. Yes, the mobilization of the colonies is very stressful to the bees, though there is no reason to think it would suddenly bring on huge collapses after decades of commercial practice. A number of theories exist as to the cause of CCD, though the most relevant and realistic points to some of our least favorite players in the agribusiness industry: Seed producers/modifiers.
Many commercial and industrial seed producers (think of
corn, soybeans and canola) not only produce genetically modified crop stocks,
they also coat the seeds with very complex pesticides. As the plants grow from
these seeds, the modifications and additives become integral to the plant.
Pollinators collect poison and spread it to other plants and other colonies.
There are classes of insects that can only survive by supporting their social
hierarchy (i.e. the queen produces all the viable offspring and the workers
support the queen). You can see this in ants and some bees. If a pesticide is
targeted to disorient (largely by causing nerve damage) the worker, they become
confused, cannot find their colony, perish and eventually so does the social
Of course, there are a number of other supporting causes: Weak genetic stock from over-breeding certain strains of honeybee, mites and intestinal parasites, etc. All of these things in combination have severely adversely affected the honeybee. There are those, too, who are convinced that cell phone and wireless transmission facilities along with global warming are to blame. The evidence is not there, though anything is possible I suppose. I have even heard the completely esoteric concept that the demise of the honeybee is a sign of the 2012 doomsday prophesy. One would have to buy into a whole lot of unsubstantiated ideology to go for that idea.
together: hive cross-section; photo
credit: Joe Wigdahl for Chicago Magazine
Besides for the "free labor" that the honeybees provide, what is so satisfying about beekeeping?
Oh my gosh. I don't know where to begin. I adore watching them. I can spend hours in the apiary just watching them come and go. The sense of purpose, the initiative, the complete dedication to functional democratic structure... it is both unbelievably inspiring and soothing. I am overwhelmed by their cooperative effort. Every time I visit them, I wonder why humans cannot get it together the way the bees do it. Every bee has a job, only the queen is the queen (though she is more of an egg machine). And, every bee has every job. They are born, they learn how to be nurses to other emerging bees, they learn how to attend to the needs of the queen, they learn how to be "undertakers" which means they clean the hive and remove dead bees and non-viable larvae, they learn how to be guard bees protecting the entrance to the hive and warming or cooling the hive, and lastly, they become foragers until they are just worn out. It is a total, functional and purposeful existence. Bees are harmony. [Note: I just realized with some irony that in my last interview with you, that word came up, and I told you I have the kanji "harmony" tattooed on my back.] The sound the bees make is harmonic. They dance to communicate (technically called, believe it or not, the waggle dance).
Apiaries are also a great place for education. I love teaching kids and adults about bees and the important roles they play in our very existence. I love demystifying bees and explaining how the gentle honeybee differs from its distant cousin, the yellow jacket (which is not a bee, but a wasp). So many people think they have gotten a bee sting at the beach, or that bees bother their wine coolers... that is not the case. Yellow jackets are very different critters - carnivores and sugar addicts. Yellow jackets would be eating at McDonalds - Big Mac and a Coke and fighting over who the best hockey team is. Honeybees would be wearing tie-dye, eating a light fruit salad, drinking spring water and talking about global peace.
And, last but not least: Fellow beekeepers. What a riot! We are a strange and passionate lot. I have yet to meet one that I did not automatically trust. I have never been let down by someone who loves to keep bees. It takes a special kind of person to be chosen by the girls to tend them.
I love that tie-dye and fruit salad image. You've whetted my appetite for a bee tour. What do you mean when you say "chosen by the girls"? Bee colonies aren't only female, are they? How does that work?
I was waiting for that question. This is the thing that stops everyone in his/her tracks: The colonies are only female. Only a fertile bee can lay female eggs, and the queen is the only fertile bee. Unless the queen is absent or there is a problem in the hive, she will lay almost all females. Worker bees can only lay male (drone) eggs. Males are for one purpose only, and that is to take a mating flight to find a queen. They mate, and in doing so, they die. If there are any leftover males when the bees form a winter cluster (after all the work for the year is done, they go into a kind of stasis until the next spring) then the girls kill all the guys or just kick them out. Boys eat too much, and they are lazy non-contributors. Like I said, it is a great social system! The girls don't have to put up with football, farting or dirty socks on the floor all winter. And, they get to make their own fresh, hot studs the next spring.
all suited up; photo credit: Joe Wigdahl for Chicago Magazine
You got a belly laugh out of me on that one!
Spread the word; love the honeybees! We have to protect the species. If you have a garden, plant flowers and fruits and vegetables that bees love. Take care of your outdoors in an environmentally responsible way (check out the Safer Pest Control Project at http://spcpweb.org/). The best way to improve our planet is through education. Become an advocate for those who do not have the voices. Watch and share films like Vanishing of the Bees and Queen of the Sun (http://www.vanishingbees.com/ and http://www.queenofthesun.com/) .
The bees are telling us something. It breaks my heart, literally that is what it feels like, that we may not be "getting it."
I get you. Before you go, I understand there's an interesting new project that marries apiaries and airports, namely, O'Hare. What's that all about?
This is one of the most inspirational organizations I have ever encountered. The North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN) is a social service enterprise rebuilding an inner city community. In 2004, NLEN started a program to put ex-offenders back in the labor force with a project called Sweet Beginnings. Basically, Sweet Beginnings teaches former convicts how to keep bees and manage a rather large apiary in North Lawndale (a fairly disadvantaged community in Chicago), providing workers with new skills and incomes to support themselves and their families.
Shortly after the formation of Sweet Beginnings, NLEN launched the
BeeLove brand which is a high-concept bee product line (honey, beeswax)
consisting of comestibles as well as spa products and cosmetics. Now the
training program includes wholesale sales skills, in-store demonstrations,
direct to consumer sales, etc. It was just announced that Sweet Beginnings is
expanding its apiary to an additional 35 colonies at O'Hare International
Airport in Chicago. This will be the first airport in the USA with an on-site
apiary. The concept "took flight" (guffaw) in Europe, and we will be the first
to host it in our nation. I will be writing more about it in Mindful
Metropolis in the July 2011 issue, so check it out when it goes live July
1st. In addition, further expansion of that apiary is already planned, so stay
tuned at http://www.mindfulmetropolis.com/ and http://www.nlen.org/ .
Incredibly cool. And readers, you heard it first at OpEdNews!
Thank you so much, Joan, for the opportunity to share my knowledge with you and your readers. The buzz is on!
Thanks so much for talking with me, Richard. It's always a pleasure. I'm going to take you up on that offer of a bee tour. Can't wait!
Richard's Mindful Metropolis website