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Are organic bees thriving? Lessons from the natural world

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Message Suzanne Nelson

Several times in the past six weeks I have come across information -- bits and pieces, mind you -- that suggested that colony collapse disorder, otherwise known as the Disaster That Is Happening to Bees (and By Extension, Us), is not universal. I guess I sort of disregarded it, perhaps because it didn't fit my worldview that natural life as we know it is crumbling under the weight of human folly. I suppose we all best come clean about our own filters, and just as I can rightly call self-identified scientists to task for ignoring a significant amount of data on everything from the dangers of vaccines to plethora of cancer cures to be found in natural medicine, I am more than willing to call myself out for ignoring crucial information of any kind.

It seems that all of the talk about GMO crops, cell phone towers, pesticides and climate change as causal factors for the collapse of honeybee populations may be missing a larger and more important point -- certainly one that would allow the impacts of those other factors to be magnified. I read an interesting article today quoting Sharon Labchuk, a longtime environmental activist and part-time organic beekeeper from Prince Edward Island, Canada.

She claims that on her organic beekeeping list of about 1,000 people, mostly Americans, no one, including commercial beekeepers, is experiencing colony collapse. This following is her assessment:

The problem with the big commercial guys is that they put pesticides in their hives to fumigate for varroa mites, and they feed antibiotics to the bees. They also haul the hives by truck all over the place to make more money with pollination services, which stresses the colonies.

Labchuk recommends a visit to Bush Bees, where Michael Bush explains how he keeps these wonderful insects that pollinate a full third of our crops (including all citrus):

Most of us beekeepers are fighting with the Varroa mites. I'm happy to say my biggest problems are things like trying to get nucs through the winter and coming up with hives that won't hurt my back from lifting or better ways to feed the bees.

This change from fighting the mites is mostly because I've gone to natural sized cells. In case you weren't aware, and I wasn't for a long time, the foundation in common usage results in much larger bees than what you would find in a natural hive. I've measured sections of natural worker brood comb that are 4.6mm in diameter. What most people use for worker brood is foundation that is 5.4mm in diameter. If you translate that into three dimensions instead of one, it produces a bee that is about half as large again as is natural. By letting the bees build natural sized cells, I have virtually eliminated my Varroa and Tracheal mite problems.

Have we simply pushed the bees beyond their biological breaking point? Have we created a bee that just cannot survive our desire to supersize it? Has a constant stream of toxins (in the form of the fumigants used to smoke out the hives), artificial foods and too much stress (long-distance travel in trucks) weakened their immune systems beyond their vital forces' ability to self-repair? Does this all sound too familiar?

There has been much made, and rightfully so, about What This All Means. (The link at the top is to a fantastic column by S.F. Chronicle columnist Mark Morford on the subject.) Can humanity survive without this brave and bold little pollinator that travels thousands of miles just to make one pound of honey? Much has been made of Albert Einstein's poignant quote: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

But what if we've been missing the whole point? What if the honeybees reared according to nature's laws are thriving? Is the problem then that we have lulled ourselves into a fun-house world where actions such as repeated applications of substances ending in -cide (death), reliance on artificial food and an irreverent disregard for nature's complex and yet somehow simple operations can be willfully abandoned without thought for its inevitable consequences? Is that what the bees are here to teach us?

We are atypically manipulating our immune systems and those of our children every day, not least of which by injecting biological and chemical agents four dozen times before they enter school. We repeatedly ingest poisonous substances intricately designed to taste like food. We fill our homes with "cleaning" agents and furniture so toxic that our indoor air quality compares unfavorably to the tailpipe of our cars. And yet we can't stop talking about who fathered Anna Nicole's baby, like we have nothing more pressing on which to focus.

The ultimate wake-up call the bees have to offer might not be the threat of a decimated food supply but a renewed consciousness about the parallels between our plights when humans wantonly disregard nature's laws.


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