I Used to Be a Beekeeper

Reader Contribution by Betty Taylor
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For I knew she was telling the bees of one / Gone on the journey we all must go!

From the poem Telling the Bees by John Greenleaf Whittier

I used to be a beekeeper.

I still look at my world through a beekeeper’s eyes. It’s late winter and the elm and maple tree buds are plump with the pollen that used to feed newly hatching larvae. Dead nettle and other cool-weather wildflowers that once lured out the first foragers of the year are beginning to bloom. Now their efforts, as mine, have grown useless in the lifecycle of the honeybee.

I had just hit my stride as a beekeeper when the end started. After years of learning and building up my apiaries, I had almost more hives than I could handle. The spring air hummed with the sound of bees coming and going from their hives. It took me all summer and fall to market all of the extra honey the bees produced. The rest of the year was filled with repairing woodenware, cleaning out old frames, and driving to, mowing around, and caring for hives in the apiaries maintained away from my farm.

In the early years, it seems all I did was look for mites. I did sugar rolls to count Varroa mites. I dissected bee trachea and counted tracheal mites under my microscope. I spent years, choosing mite-resistant queens to make new hives from and built my bee yards slowly and without chemicals. I was rewarded with healthy hives that produced strong nucleus hives that were in demand by other beekeepers trying to build mite-resistant stock.

The bees were strong and were good foragers, needing no help from me. Without being fed sugar syrup, they foraged on the abundance of wildflowers and produced pure honey that reminded my customers of “what honey used to taste like.”

And then after years of very few hive losses, I began to lose 30 to 50 percent of my hives each year. Even with making new hives from the survivors, this level of loss becomes unsustainable in a few years. What happened?

The “experts” spout whatever opinion they get paid to spout, but I know what changed for me: Big Ag. Before the losses started, all of the land around my farm was in pasture and none in row crops. Within one year’s time, three farms around me sold, and the new owners all rented out part of their land to row cropping and exposure to all the chemicals that come with it: pre-emergent spraying, chemical burn downs and desiccants, pesticides, and even the crops themselves that have to be regulated as pesticides and antibiotics because of the way they are genetically engineered.

So springtime is a little quieter without the honeybees, and I turn my attention to what I can control — planting and caring for an organic garden, watching this year’s goat kids play king on the mountain as their mothers clean up my fence rows, and learning to appreciate the insects that still live around me and their importance to our welfare.

Part of me still listens for the bees, hopes to see them again. Part of me hopes that humans will do what they have never done before: stop themselves before they do the irreparable damage, stop making poison and calling it food, stop destroying all that is here to nourish us.

When I think of the honeybees, I recall how they are one of the very few creatures that I know of that feeds itself without harming anyone or anything. On the contrary, in the act of harvesting pollen and nectar for their food, the bees cause the plants to fruit and to produce even more! I am thankful that I got to know something of these amazing creatures before they were gone.

Betty Taylor is a gardener and former beekeeper who keeps chickens, guinea fowl, and myotonic “fainting” goats on her 12-acre Tennessee farm. Read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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