Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spring is not coming early

Expecting measurable snow tomorrow night. No one is happy.

What I said about the results of the disappearance of the honeybee from the New World? It would be less grave if the bumblebee and other native pollinators were not also disappearing. I read a delightful book that I recommend getting from your library, unless your library system has been gutted, as that of New Hampshire is about to be (one truck to serve all the libraries in the state is enough, of course it is. Spot of bother in the state budgeting process).

I am contemplating putting down a deposit on a second New England-bred nuc, this one from New Hampshire, only the cashflow is not helping and the person who breeds them medicates and clips his queens' wings. I don't know that Mr. Merriam doesn't, but he seems to be closer to the earth, in that he doesn't advertise anything or have a website. Those are not really a recommendation, but they keep me from knowing his bias and I can dream. I would like to have two hives, just so as to have something to compare with. And I want to build a top-bar hive and see if it works, only really, one must get bees somewhere.

No one in New England seems to be very sanguine about 8-frame medium hives (they think it's just too cold). So Mr. Merriam is building me a 10-frame deep for the brood chamber and he says I'll manage beautifully with the supers. I am hoping to go pick it up on Monday, and to start seriously worrying about putting in the electric fencing. Doug and I had about settled on the far end of the flowerbed-area near the pad of the burned-down garage (see this link for explanations of Doug, Deb, and the former garage which I never met), sheltered and perhaps warmed by the stone retaining wall. I realized that bears could jump into the proposed bee-yard from the slope retained, so we are now thinking farther from the retaining wall. The area under discussion still has discards from the kitchen renovation, because my ex-contractor Paul is a... well. Anyway.

Meanwhile, all five of Neil Gaiman's hives in Minnesota died out, probably during their really really cold spell in December, and the local bees-and-bunnies place I was going to visit tells me both their hives made it through most of the winter and died off in early March. Deb and I think it sounded like tracheal mites.

Sometimes I am more optimistic than other times. The sunlight does help.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Trying to sum up Bee School

I liked it. The people were very friendly, knowledgeable and eager to share it. And for $30 it was a great deal: we had 12 hours of class with a short break each time and free homemade cookies, coffee, and tea. Really nice people. It was not terribly structured, but it worked.

The first session was the NH Beekeeper of the Year for 2010 (I don't know their criteria). He was a charming man of 82, only moderately snotty about wives (apparently some spouses are funny about propolis stains and bad smells). One of the delights of this hobby is seeing regular older men be all tender about their bees. You don't want to squash your bees, or injure them, if you can help it. It would go without saying, but they say it.
He talked about the parts of hives and general management. Wore a complete beesuit when he inspected his hives. He was interesting and coherent and I had a 'drinking from a firehose' feeling -- there was so much to say. He used routine medications like Fumigillin and miticides, which is the sort-of normal thing to do. After all, the bees would get sick, right?

The problem here is that (surprise!) bacteria get antibiotic resistance, and the bees still die. Mites get insecticide resistance, and bees are insects, so if you have effective mite-killing properties you get bee-killing and weakening and genetic-damaging and the bees still die. Add in all the other stresses -- bad breeding, selfish apiculture, environmental contamination, habitat destruction, GM pollen that does not supply nutrients, artificial feeding, forced migration, imported pests and diseases from different parts of the world, careless importing of bees and bee ailments, ozone holes, lousy and extreme weather -- it would be amazing if you did NOT get colony collapses. There is no one cause, there will be no one solution, it will not come overnight.

I was glad of the reading about bees I have done throughout my life, and I went home and got on the internet and read a lot more (this treatise was strangely helpful, introducing a lot of things in passing. So was the rest of that site. Exhaustive).

The second session was given by a man who runs a small farm with cows and corn and so forth. He kept stressing how he had to keep PROFIT in mind, while mentioning that he could not in conscience use chemicals other than essential plant oils or feed the bees sugar syrup rather than honey (that last is _way_ out there nutty-crunchy). He wore a veil, generally, but no gloves when he inspected his hives. He also had a pretty good PowerPoint presentation, so there was evident structure in his presentation and he stayed in the limits pretty well.

I borrowed a couple of books from the club library and went home and read and got on the Internet and became steadily more impressed with the depth of resources available online. And also frustrated with the number of books out of print (I want to read the rest of Richard Taylor, and I want to read The Archaeology of Beekeeping, and they go for hundreds of dollars on the used-book sites. Library, I know).

The third session, the president of the local association spoke about what he does at each time of year. He doesn't treat with anything, and he raises queens. He wears a t-shirt when he inspects his hives.* I was wondering how much further green-left the speakers could go, but I was very impressed that they had a spectrum of opinion represented.

By this time in my self-administered education I had already decided that buying bees from Georgia or South Carolina to live and be well in New England was unrealistic. I was very glad to find a beekeeper in Vermont who had locally raised nucleus hives for sale. A 'nuc' is different from a package (and more expensive) because it is a little colony, with brood (bees in process of becoming) and workers of different ages (who perform different tasks) and a queen who is related to them. A 'package' is a bunch of bees, who may or may not be related, no brood, and a queen in a cage whom they may or may not like once she is released in the hive. Troy's queens were not available until midsummer and he was out of nucs for the year already.

I had the presence of mind to ask some of the organizers if there were any places we could go _see_ the hive equipment for sale and have a shopping experience rather than just order it, and they gave me the name of a beekeeper and bee-supplies person in Vermont. He turned out to have nucs for sale this spring, so I have put a deposit on one and asked him to build me an 8-frame medium depth Langstroth hive, as propounded in The Backyard Beekeeper. Langstroth is pretty much what you expect when you think of modern beehives, the big white boxes rather than the straw beehive-shaped skeps (which are now illegal most places because you can't inspect them for disease). And there are mostly rational people whose opinions I respect out there who believe Langstroth hives are what's killing bees, along with everything else. Ventilation matters, people.

The last speaker was the state beekeeping inspector, who is a commercial beekeeper himself. I suppose there is some conflict of interest possible, but I don't think he would try to restrain anyone's trade or queer their pitches. He seemed like a decent person, less organic than some but not doctrinaire-pesticide at all (and as accurately paranoid about Monsanto as anyone might wish). He also told funny disaster stories: backing his pickup truck into a beehive at night, his smoker setting fires in the back of the truck as they sped along a highway... good times.

The local society has a Yahoo group. It is unfindable among Yahoogroups if you don't know the name, although you can get to it from the local society website. It was never mentioned in class. It had thirteen members before class and now has I think 16, and no traffic. If no one knows it's there, no one will use it. They have a postal newsletter, which is pretty good; it's been out for a month but no one has updated the website, so only the October one is there, and the home page has the details of when the Bee School just past will meet. I spend a lot of time online, and it confuses me that people can be so ... offline. Bee School would not have been as good if I had not had the reading at home, and there are limits to what a library can contain (I really will go check it out, but it's just a small local library and InterLibraryLoan is not instantaneous). The websites and chat fora are invaluable; you can find out all kinds of questions _I_ certainly would never have known I had. There are already too many blogs and too many beekeeper blogs, but I will keep mine up if only to remember what's going on in my life when, and to be of possible help. Also it's useful to force myself to synthesize something occasionally.

*Bees vary from hive to hive (and from strain to strain) in their defensiveness and irritability. If there's been something snuffling and digging at the hive at night, the bes will be testy the next day. If it's sunny and there's a big nectar flow, they are happy, and too busy to go after you. If there is a shortage of nectar or it's cold and damp, everyone will stick around the hive and be tetchy. I can sympathize. Everyone agrees you get stung sometimes. Most people get used to it; it stil hurts, but you don't swell up. These guys remove hives on a regular basis not wearing anything extra; they are also really funny.

Oh, now, come on. Life in a time of cholera.

"Their extinction would mean not only a colorless, meatless diet of cereals and rice, and cottonless clothes, but a landscape without orchards, allotments and meadows of wildflowers – and the collapse of the food chain that sustains wild birds and animals."

I am not saying it would not be a disaster, or that our Way Of Life would not collapse; it very well might. But the More-First Americans managed a decent life without honeybees before the Europeans brought them.

This article from last year quoted above, is also interesting in a whole other weird way.
"Bee farmers in Scotland have reported losses on the American scale for the past three years. Andrew Scarlett, a Perthshire-based bee farmer and honey packer, lost 80% of his 1,200 hives this winter. But he attributed the massive decline to a virulent bacterial infection that quickly spread because of a lack of bee inspectors, coupled with sustained poor weather that prevented honeybees from building up sufficient pollen and nectar stores."

Blaming the bacterial epidemic on the government for not having enough bee inspectors? It's like blaming the AMA for deaths from flu. Except, as far as I know, we have not been misbreeding humans for a hundred years. (Maybe we have. Though it would be for longer than that. I still like plumbing and sanitary sewage.) And they never had a lousy summer before?

Look at that, I'm strident. I have been reading and listening to podcasts so much that I am concerned I will attribute ideas to the wrong people or get the problems wrong. Please do not flame me or anyone else as a result of what you read here.

Bee school has completed its four sessions and Deb and I went to the local meeting last week to hear a presentation from Michael Palmer of Vermont. They do not have CCD as such reported there. He points out that in VT they are not picking up hives in the winter, driving them thousands of miles to pollinate crops or orchards, and then expecting them to prosper. He makes his living with bees, has been since before the tracheal mite arrived in the 80's -- back when, he says, beekeeping was fun and easy. He says he doesn't care if you medicate or not, you have losses from varroa and you have losses generally and there is no silver bullet. He routinely breeds nucs to build up his colonies with locally adapted bees at a much lower cost -- economic and ecological-- than buying them in from the south. He regards buying packages -- a standard way to get bees, consisting of A queen and SOME workers who are not necessarily related, and may not accept her when they have a hive to live in -- as a great way to support the sellers of packages. You get a non-colony of older workers and a queen, who may or may not work out and increase together, who don't make a strong hive, who die off; and then, of course, you send for another package.

I think I need to say where I stand, but, first, I have to talk about 'standing.'

Beekeepers have more politics than prehistoric-American archaeologists.

And the stakes are not small at all: livelihoods and Life As We Know It. LAWKI is already under some threats, which makes everyone touchier; livelihoods, too. to talk rationally, as some legislative bodies seem to have given up upon, you have to take a deep breath and not start stinging everything in sight. One of the things I was able to ask Mr. Palmer (who seemed middle of the road sane, not pesticide-happy) concerned the relative sanity of one of the mailing lists I read. As I suspected, they are kinda out-there and willing, eager, to die for a hypothesis that has been disproven four or five times. Of course, you can argue that the universities who did the studies are on the take (as indeed they probably are. Monsanto must die), and then in their case you can add that to your apocalyptic (as quite strictly defined) worldview and put up more barbed wire. Palmer added that a much more apparently sane list deleted him every time he said 'hell' as in 'scared hell out of him when he was a kid,' and others just deleted his letters when he said something they did not agree with about, say, hive bodies. You cannot have increase of knowledge where the censorship is that doctrinaire.

Thank God this kind of censorship does not flourish in other parts of the Internet.


Anyway, I am trying not to become part of the problem, which is why I was worried about becoming strident (above).

One of my friends got exercised because people were discussing management for different kinds of wildlife. Why MANAGE? she said, why not just have nature? That sounds nice and Rousseauian, but people are so much a part of the ecology, of 'the balance of nature,' for good or for ill, that there is no 'non-management.' Even to be 'hands-off' is to vote for a particular result.

I am going to go chemical-free, because I think we have no choice. When the country was full of happily feral bees, we could valorize some for their familiarity to us, or some particular good quality, even if it was not in the larger sense a survival characteristic (to name but one: calm gentle bees are all very well, but they NEED to respond fast and hard against tall dark strangers -- there are a lot of bears here). Mites, diseases and habitat loss have killed off most of the feral bee colonies in New England. Apparently calls from frightened villagers to beekeepers about swarms are way, way down, which may go to explain why I had never seen a 'bee tree' until last year (in Jefferson, NH). Any bees is good bees. I would rather not have the angry Africanized ones become the default bee, but that would be far better than the Beeless Spring at the beginning of this post. I would like to have honey. I would like to have enough honey to sell, sometime, and I would like to have prosperous hives who make it through the winter. But using the chemicals doesn't seem to raise my odds, and it's expensive, and it goes against the rest of the way I garden (I use Roundup on Poison Ivy and Oriental Bittersweet. I continue to wonder if it is _possible_ to live in Texas or Florida or any tropics without insecticides; I hope so, but the fire ants really put me off. The rasberry (sic) crazy ants even more so. And I think that there are cases (bedbugs and mosquito netting in malarial areas) for a very limited use of DDT. Though it is probably not good for people even in small doses. So I am not ideologically pure).

Michael Palmer, whose lifework is bees, says he is tired of people importing packages of sickly bees from out of region whose drones get a chance to fertilize his queens. Ben Chadwick, the NH State Beekeeper, wants the traffic in bumblebees to be regulated, because people are bringing in new _bumblebee_ strains and diseases that are killing the native bumblebees (which, as well as being here before the European bees took up their slack, are the major pollinators of all kinds of native plants and tomatoes, which are New World but exotic to NH). I think each region needs to guard and develop its own strains of bees. But sometimes I read about these matters and just see another way we are all so very, very screwed.