Living with Bees, Naturally

by Jessie Ayani

I came to be a beekeeper through my garden. A garden bustling with honeybees is charged with life force such that it uplifts the gardener and all visitors – in addition to pollinating 30% of our food.  For years, my contribution to this natural magic had been the continual addition of bee-loved flowers within and around the veggie garden to attract more bees. And then, several years ago, the bee population dropped off, prompting me to get serious about where bees were living nearby. To make a long story short, hives were collapsing around me, either from starvation during our erratic late winter weather, destruction by bears, disease, or the inexplicable Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), wherein whole colonies of adult bees abandon their hives and disappear. I began an intense year of study about the bees and, in the process of coming to understand the nature and needs of the honeybee, not only arrived at my own theory of CCD but discovered natural beekeeping.


My theory of CCD is likely shared by most natural beekeepers. Guessing it will become apparent to the reader as this article continues, we can start by getting to know the bees. We cannot hope to understand why the honeybees are vanishing, without understanding how they are meant to exist in their natural state. I suggest we begin in the late spring or early summer and follow a colony through the year.


Bees in the Natural World

Assuming the hive survives the winter, foraging begins with the first blossoms of spring (weather permitting), usually the dandelions and early fruit. Worker bees create new honey from foraged nectar to replace the stores consumed over winter. Pollen is also gathered to provide protein for the developing brood. Because our queen will have started laying eggs at the end of winter, new stores of honey and pollen will fill frames flanking the frame holding the queen and the brood chamber where the eggs she lays develop through their egg, larvae and pupa stages to maturity. She is the mother of the entire colony.


As summer begins and the foraging season intensifies the hive becomes filled with new bees at various stages of maturity – mostly infertile female workers and a contingency of male drones. Honey stores bulge from all the frames in the hive as the worker bees finish filling comb on the frames furthest from the brood. After these frames begin reaching capacity, they will begin storing honey in the brood chamber itself. This causes the queen to feel “honey bound”, a condition that triggers the instinct to swarm. Her hive is too full – of honey and bees. She will be the one to go and her urge to do so signals the need for a new queen.


Back when the foragers and house bees started filling the brood chamber with honey, the workers who are at the stage of nurse bees in the brood chamber will have begun feeding a number of female larvae royal jelly (the food reserved for the queen) to rear a new queen to replace their departing mother. The first of these queens to be born will kill the other developing queens assuring her sovereignty. Those workers and drones choosing to swarm with their mother (roughly half the hive) begin stuffing themselves with honey for the adventure ahead. Soon they are swarming to a nearby tree, engulfing the queen, and attaching themselves as a single being to a branch, where they will wait for the future to unfold.

The swarm has approximately three days to find a new home before their honey stores run out. Scouts are sent out immediately and report back potential living quarters to the swarm. The pros and cons of each space are presented and the choice is made by consensus. Once that decision is made they swarm off to their new home and begin life over, from scratch.


If we stand back and look at this swarming process, we cannot help but be in awe of the honeybee. This mother of the hive has led half her children out into the world at huge risk to allow for the continued evolution of the honeybee. She is in self-less service to the bien, the German word for the Spirit of the Hive. In the natural world of bees, swarming is akin to a birth. It brings forth the most sacred and cosmic truth of the hive – that it is both a colony of tens of thousands of bees and an entity in and of itself – the bien. The bien is the equivalent of a collective ego. Honeybees are, in many ways, more highly evolved than humans.


Meanwhile, back in the original hive…..

When fully mature, the new queen takes her nuptial flight. Other than swarming, this is the only time a queen leaves the hive. She flies straight towards the sun, rising as far as she can above the earth while being pursued by drones from all nearby colonies. The strongest and most ardent of these drones sacrifice their lives to inseminate the queen. She will mate on this flight with a number of drones who (shall we presume?) immediately fall to earth in gratifying, bliss-filled death. The new, fertile queen returns to her hive to begin her life of service to the bien. She can lay thousands of eggs a day in good forage periods, and can live for up to five years.


As the foraging period of summer wanes, not so subtle shifts begin to occur within the hive. The queen lays fewer eggs and all of them will be female workers. These will be fed especially well as they mature for they will be the workers seeing the bien through the winter. The drones have outlived their usefulness and after a season of being doted on by the workers, their food supply is cut off. They are tolerated “gigolo” dependents during forage season, but are excess baggage for winter survival. The queen will take care to lay drone eggs early in the spring season in anticipation of the nuptial flights of her emerging peers. That is where the drones prove their worth.


As winter nears and temperatures drop, the bees form a warm body around the queen beating their wings to create warmth. In constant rotation, they each take their turn on the outside then work their way to the center to warm up again. Upwards of forty pounds of honey will be used to fuel winter survival. To be fair, in our climate, with erratic late winter storms and cold, wet extended springs that bear the stamp of climate change, we need to reserve filled frames of honey for emergency feeding. Therefore, most natural beekeepers harvest honey in the fall, leaving a good 40 pounds in the hive for winter food while setting aside a frame of honey-filled comb for emergency rations in the event of late-spring foul weather. They will harvest again after the generous nectar runs of late spring and early summer have filled the honey supers.


Here we have a sketch of the yearly cycle of the hive, which the natural beekeeper upholds and respects. There are spiritual and shamanic sides of beekeeping that deepen our appreciation of the bien, but that is another story. Most natural beekeepers will have, at one time or another, run across the work of Rudolf Steiner (1861 -1925). Steiner was a scientist, mystic, and philosopher whose lifework gave us many new forms, most notably Waldorf Education and Biodynamic Farming. In 1920 he gave a series of lectures on bees that is just now being appreciated by many beekeepers. He was living during the buildup of heavy industrialization in Europe and America. One man, a beekeeper named Mr. Müller, continually praised the many advancements made by science to beekeeping. In reference to one such interjection about artificial insemination of the queen, Steiner gave Mr.Müller a stern warning, predicting that within eighty to one hundred years such industrialization of beekeeping would cause whole stock of bees to die out. In late 2006, 86 years later, the first devastating reports of CCD rocked the world of commercial beekeeping.


The Industrialization of Apiculture

Mt. Müller’s was promoting artificial queen breeding, which is common practice in commercial beekeeping today. In fact queen breeding is a lucrative business. Looking back, we can see it as one of the first dark clouds to gather around the beekeeper and his apiary. To understand how the clouds grew into the maelstrom of CCD, let’s fast-forward to our present time and sketch the life of a commercial bee colony throughout the year.


I would like to report that the average bee lives in a nice apiary on a family farm in a rural setting. Some still do, but most don’t “live” in any one place. They are migrants, traveling the highways of America on flatbed semis. They may spend their summer in a northern state but the year begins early in the South. The grapefruit blossom in January in Florida and the crops are dependant on bee pollination.  Commercial beekeepers load upwards of 14 million bees in their hives on flatbed trucks and head south to start the year. These are real hard-working bees. The grapefruit farmer has contracted with the beekeeper at maybe $50 - $100 a hive for guaranteed pollination (now standard in contracts since the advent of CCD as many of those colonies collapse in the midst of this sort of work).


To get the bees into high gear, they are primed at a location near the grapefruit orchard, with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) feed. Most of these hives have minimal winter honey stores because their winter is artificially shortened by migration but also due to the harvesting of most commercial honey in the autumn. They will be supplemented with HFCS and/or sugar syrup. HFCS is not nectar but the same manufactured sweetener in our soft drinks and most commercial sweets. Picture our beekeeper with 14 million hyped-up ADHD bees ready to start his/their year with grapefruit nectar.


When the run of nectar peters out in the grapefruit orchard, our bees are packed up on the flatbed semi once more. Then they barrel across the entire USA to be in California for the almond bloom. While waiting to be moved to the almond groves to fulfill another contract, they are pumped up on HFCS again at a way station. After the almonds, it could be mono-crops in the Midwest, blueberries in New England, and on and on. It must be stated that no pollinating insect would naturally seek out a mono-crop (or GMO plants for that matter) because insects need habitat and diversity, the destruction of which, by Big Agriculture, has added another dark cloud to the CCD spectrum.


Throughout this extended and grueling year, our beekeeper is harvesting honey – a lot of honey. The price of this honey is continually rising as massive numbers of colonies are lost and bee shortages prevail. Keep in mind that this honey, made from nectar and HFCS, fills grocery store shelves across the country under brand names. In addition to overheating the honey, manufacturers often dilute this honey with so-called honey from China - often flavored and colored sugar syrup. For your own health and peace of mind, you may want to consider local raw honey from the farmer’s market instead, and meet the beekeeper while you are there.


Commercial beekeeping grew into an extremely lucrative business, walking hand in hand with Big Agriculture’s signature of mono-crops, pesticides, herbicides, GMO’s, and the most potent of chemical concoctions, systemic pesticides. Consistent toxic buildup in the bee hives turns out to be one notable factor in the CCD spectrum, while in the case of some heavy colony loss, systemic pesticides (pesticides that become part of the plant) directly affected the vitality of the bees. Systemic pesticides were banned in France as soon as beekeepers there recognized the connection to colony loss.


Looking inside the hives, we find that migratory bees are plagued with heavy infestations of parasitic varroa mites, bacteria and viruses. They are treated with miticides, antibiotics and other chemotherapies. It is hard to control the spread of disease when bees from all over the country converge in the Big Ag mono-crops. Additionally the bees are more susceptible because they have been stressed with travel/dislocation and high-powered junk food. Thus, another dark cloud of the CCD spectrum is the weakened state of the bees’ immune systems.


Now that we are inside the hive, let’s take a really good look at the bees themselves. The first thing we notice is that there are no drones hanging around wasting time and eating up food stores. We can couple that with the observation that the honeycomb is actually plastic – very uniform, nice and neat – wax-coated plastic. The bees don’t like plastic foundation, or even wax foundation. They are meant to build wax from scratch or remodel what is there. It goes without saying that they have a natural inclination and a need to build wax and will forget how to do it as generations are raised on preformed comb. However, this way the beekeeper can regulate the size of comb produced. Typically, the size of the comb cell is that of the worker bee brood. The queen in such a hive cannot lay drone eggs, which require a larger cell. She has only girl children.


This hive is beginning to resemble an all-girl honey sweatshop. In fact some of these girls are likely not this queen’s children. Commercial beekeepers can and do replace queens often to keep the hive at peak performance. Because they can order overnight delivery of a new clipped-wing queen and have eliminated the drones, there are no swarms (the best way to control varroa mite, by the way), no queen rearing, no nuptial flights, and, as you might have guessed, no bien. The spirit of the hive, the very soul of our most advanced companions on this planet, has been destroyed in this modern version of beekeeping.


Animals do not have egos, though the bien has been likened to a collective ego. Animals do have souls and spend most of their time in soul world while journeying with us in this material life. For the bees, there is no material loss if they withdraw from this reality into soul world but there could well be obstacles to the evolution of the bien’s consciousness. The loss, and karma, is ours. We have much to learn from these advanced and cosmic beings.


I have presented a very simplified overview of a complex wake-up call for humanity. The bees, with their willful rejection of slavery and withdrawal from our misguided civilization (CCD in a nutshell), are the passionate messengers of our own potential demise. We can mourn the loss and move on towards that inevitable decline and collapse, or we can light the fire of their return through our own conscious return to the natural world.


© Jessie Ayani 2011