SWARM THE STATE (of Hawaii)

Perhaps Hawaiian beekeeping is in its darkest hour. Beekeepers on the big island are getting an earful of “do this” and “do this” and “don’t do that!” I figure the last thing needed is for me to add to the pile- and besides, I run Anarchy Apiaries: anarchy does not make rules for other people, bees, or beekeepers. The best use of my energy is to BOOST MORALE. Bees have a unique resilience. The more bees die, the more they live. My bees and my story are just an example.

I’ve always done what I think the bees are telling me to do, but really that seems to come down to doing whatever I like. What I really like to do when in groups like W.A.S. is to talk about the bees that keep me, where they come from, how great I think they are, and how I am running a bee business, mostly selling top bar nucs, shaking packages, raising queens, and doing honey CSA shares, with minimal inputs and no treatments while under the pressures of varroa, nosema, hive beetles, global weirding, and whatever else is out there. This is working for me; while all bees have inherent value, my primary interest is quality of life for them and me.

I would like to say that I won my first hives in a poker game, but it wasn’t so sweet. I started out commercially working for a 1000 hive stay-at-home operation in Vermont. I got paid (not much but worth it) to get stung, and there were hard lessons that first exhausting season in 2002. I learned that all bees everywhere were not doing as well as they used to. Now that story is a national phenomenon that grows bigger every year.

After just a few months of producing raw honey for plant medicine products in Vermont, on a whim, I moved to Montana. (It seemed all my friends were moving to Brooklyn.) I signed up for a 5000 hive, palletized operation that focused on migratory pollination- almonds in California, apples in Washington, and the cherry orchards around Flathead Lake in northwest Montana. Everything was incredibly clean and organized, and the bees were run like clockwork. We could never stray from the schedule of feeding or medicating, because if we did, those bees might not be there next time. I learned a lot. I don’t judge people, especially not farmers. The general public wants to point fingers at the commercial bee industry for stressing the bees and causing large colony collapses, while the commercial beekeepers want to point fingers at chemical companies, while it’s the general public that is supporting monocrop farming, a profitable system that seems to be poisoning and malnourishing the bees. I won’t tell the public what to do; there’s no right or wrong, good or evil, in my world. Just monotony and diversity. I know the bees thrive on diversity. I know that bees that are shipped to monocrops, vast areas of sand and nutrient solution that don’t have enough natural forage for permanent hives anymore, are struggling. Commercial beekeepers are the hardest working and most innovative people out there. Their bees are dying. They want hives that constantly grow, so they can make splits and replace the deadouts. Much of the breeding research has been to develop such a “better bee,” using a lot of Italian based genetics. Hives that grow all the time need supplemental feeding through most of the year. Constant broodrearing means the constant rearing of parasites so they need to be medicated. The inbreeding and mass moving of hives has left a shallowing gene pool of mostly “welfare bees,” not really conducive to the backyard beekeeper who wants to keep a few hives alive with minimal inputs. A lot of us small timers see that networking model as a more viable, and still productive, beekeeping future. Commercial operators have always wholeheartedly helped me, even with these wingnut bee dreams.

I was amazed at the industry and thrift of it all. Commercial beekeepers are of course the first to admit that what they do is not sustainable and that they’ve created a monster; they wonder just who is getting to pick up this overbearing work load next. Their pollination services are enabling the majority of food production in America. We have yet to see if this industrial system of growing is feeding our children but starving our grandchildren. It doesn’t really matter, as everyone has an opinion; I just wanted an easier life for the bees. I didn’t want to approach beekeeping like a job. I never really cared about making money from them. What I discovered is that you take care of the bees first, and everything else falls into place. But I didn’t learn that until after I saw everything fall apart.

After a few years in Montana, I received a call from my first boss in Vermont. His bees were crashing: down to 500 hives from his normal 1000 going into winter. He decided to gather them all up (by hand) and cart them to South Carolina, hopefully saving his beloved hives and his bee business. When I agreed to take over management, he stressed the point that I was going to be all alone. I was dropped off in the spring of 2005 in the swamplands. Over the next few days I went through the hives to find another half of them had died, about 250 were left of the 1000. There was a Checkmite miticide strip in each hive, and when I pulled one out there were mites crawling up and down on the strip! They had become resistant to the incredibly toxic coumaphos. There were mites everywhere. The bees were crashing. I looked around. I was 24 years old, responsible for millions of little lives, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I called Vermont and expressed the gravity of the situation. The next day, 12 liters of pure formic acid showed up on my door step. I figured how to mix it down, got butcher pads to dip, held my breath, and dosed the bees. Sticky boards the next day revealed a mite drop in the thousands. While it killed mites it also killed a lot of the queens and brood, but the survivors stopped going backwards. That spring I taught myself how to graft queens from the best hives, and through a lot of trial and error, and thanks to a sudden and tremendous tupelo honey flow, propagating the hives became possible. After constant work, by May there were 1000 single deeps to bring to the northeast. They went onto the dandelion flow, grew up in a hurry, and made a bumper crop that year. As a bonus/payment for the effort, I was given ten hives to keep for myself, and I picked out some breeding stock that seemed to cope with the mite attack. They became the base of the stock I still work with today, and that spring was the last time they were ever treated in any way. (We treat them nice.) In the thousand commercial hives I tended that year, however, the mites were rebounding, and during a summer treatment of formic acid, I got a pinhole in one of the gloves and the top layer of skin was burned off of two of my fingers. I was done with it. It was time for me to work with the resilient genetics I had acquired. I think I understood then that beekeeping is the most difficult thing I had ever done and ever will do, and I knew I would stick with it.

I went back to work for other largescale operations, in south Florida where I saw the nightmarish devastation of hive beetles, and back out to California, Idaho, and Montana to earn money to go off on my own, back to Florida where I could propagate hives throughout the year. I stayed sensitive to the mite levels in my hives, and rather than treating I tried to ease the “stress” on the bees. I figured the mites and diseases to be symptoms, and the beekeeping world was trying to treat the symptoms but not looking at the underlying cause: that the bees are out of balance. I let my bees draw natural combs, then I used a round of small cell foundation when it became available. I decided to set up apiaries in the Hudson Valley of NY, a great venue for teaching minimal-input beekeeping as I figured out how to make it work. I brought 160 3 frames nucs up to the dandelion flow. The bees started bubbling out of the boxes, and I looked around to realize I didn’t have another frame or box, or any loose cash to build with. So I started building rustic top bar hives from rough cut 1 x 10s, for about $5 a box, and I found the core of the Anarchy Apiaries mission: to bring the means of production back to the beekeeper. My outreach today goes against 160 years of beekeepers being locked into a monopolistic hive design you have to buy, too difficult to make. My friends in their 20s and 30s, the future beekeepers of the world, often can’t or don’t want to afford Langstroth equipment. Many more don’t want to lift the heavy boxes. I can keep a lot more hives in top bar boxes and with less physical lifting and stress. More bees, in turn, make more honey and the apiary is more resilient to future problems. I can feel ok walking away for a year or two and figure on still having some hives when I come back.

I believe that my bees tend to survive because of three factors:
1) Queens from resilient bloodlines with their own resilient bees. Epigenetics tells us the DNA learns to express itself due to context. So it turns out all bees are good. Really by saying we breed mite resistant bees, it’s more like breeding less virulent mites. The mites breed and change faster than the bees. It’s a simple and unavoidable step to get there: split your best hives, and don’t breed from the dead bees. You don’t know what you don’t know.
2) Natural comb. I think it makes a difference, not for mite levels or anything tangible (remember that mites don’t actually kill the hives, it’s the secondary diseases from stress), but for the growth rate of more cells per square inch. Natural combs might take the edge off and buy some time for the bees to find balance. And drone brood right in the middle of the hive, with constant traffic and monitoring, is integral: the bees cherish the drones and cull any parasite or problem, all by their lonesome selves.
3) Breaking the brood cycle. Either by letting the hive swarm or simulating a swarm (moving the old queen out), has proven to be an important tool in establishing a core group of hives that eventually take care of themselves. With the right timing and mindset, honey production is still certainly feasible, and treatment-free honey fetches a high price in an educated market. The bees are teaching us what works for them; they have all the tools they need to survive. Brother Adam said, “Listen to the bees and let them guide you.”

So my recommendation is to become more self-reliant in your apiary. My long term goal is to work down to six hives, a fishing pole, and the network of sustainable backyard beekeepers, all with their five or six hives; beekeepers who, in a bad year can replace their numbers from their own resilient bees, and in a good year provide a swarm or two to their neighbor or bee club. It’s not particularly capitalistic, but neither are the bees. Beekeeping is not a rational endeavor. I mean, just look at all we are up against! But the bees themselves are not rational. Humans are not rational. Love is not rational. Only robots are rational. I decided that I didn’t want to beekeep like a robot, and I didn’t want to run my hives like machines, because machines break down all the time.

Farming is tough, and nobody gets rich. But what we do have is great farm parties. The camaraderie on the island is strong. I came here not to see the bees, I know what the scene looks like. I came to see the beekeepers. The bees will be fine, like the robust wild hive populations in Florida are today. Beekeeping in Hawaii will be different, but ok and viable once more. What has happened on the island is the catalyst for a new community. The bees are just the vehicle; it’s all about the people, overcoming fear, and the hive mentality. What we beekeepers do and teach is “awareness.”

Buzzing off,
Sam