Saving the Honeybees, One Hive at a Time

Reader Contribution by Jeremy Marr
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Jeremy Marr is a beekeeper from Michigan who uses natural beekeeping methods — no chemicals. To populate his beehives, he captures swarms and removes feral bee colonies from trees and buildings. Jeremy will blog and post videos about natural beekeeping, feral honeybees and more throughout 2011. He’s also looking for just a little bit of funding to expand his bee yard, and we would encourage you to help him out. He’s trying to help save the art of beekeeping, and his new bee yard will help with his research on colony collapse disorder. Details are at the end of this blog post. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS

This time of year, I’m happy that I’m not a bee. They are shivering a lot right now. There’s snow on the ground again in Michigan after a brief warm up that brought in the New Year.

Bees don’t hibernate through the winter. They spend the cold months huddled in a ball inside their homes. The queen stays in the center and the workers rotate inward from the edges to share the burden of the cold. They flex their wing muscles to create heat and gorge themselves on honey to power their shivering. They keep the cluster at about 90 degrees.

The other day I found a very cold bee outside one of my hives. I picked it up and it flew off into a snow bank after warming up from my finger. It looked totally frozen when I walked by it on the way into the house. I brought it inside and gave it a drop of honey off my finger. After filling up it began buzzing against the window, trying to take the honey back to the hive. They can be such single-minded creatures. Such focus!

The fact that the cold weather chases me indoors more often than not is something I can use to my advantage. It’s time to plan. These winters are good for giving you time to think.

For the past two springs I’ve kept busy. I’ve been collecting colonies of feral honeybees.

Some might think that this is a strange or even crazy pursuit. If I were allergic to bees I would probably agree. But bees don’t have it out for us, even though we’ve given them reason enough. If you are nice they will reciprocate. You just have to get to know them. They can actually be quite gentle if you know what ticks them off and what charms them. And the rewards are as sweet as… well, you know.

I fell in love with bees when I was a kid. My father kept a couple of hives and I had neighbors who were also beekeepers. The first time I saw the inner workings of a beehive I was hooked. It was such a fascinating world they had constructed in there, filled with strange patterns and lovely smells.

A few years ago I took up beekeeping in earnest. Like a lot of other people, I had been hearing about colony collapse disorder and varroa destructor mites. We had just moved the family to a small parcel of land on the outskirts of town and we were starting our homestead. My wife mentioned keeping honeybees.

I started digging into the literature and found that the beekeeping industry isn’t doing very well right now. For the past three winters alone most commercial beekeepers have reported losses that have hovered around 30 percent. That doesn’t count summer losses, which can be significant. That’s a lot of your stock to lose.

The response that many have taken to the heavy losses has been rather predictable. They have started treating their beehives with fungicides and miticides.

That wasn’t for me. I became very discouraged when I heard over and over that you can’t keep a bee colony alive without treatments. The status quo has it that all of the wild (or feral) bees died out when varroa went through North America. A lot of beekeepers say that the chemicals are the only thing keeping the kept honeybees alive.

I like a challenge I guess, because rather than being turned off by the difficulties I was all the more intrigued. I started reading everything I could find on bees.

My research eventually led me to a technique called natural beekeeping. Here was a group of beekeepers who claimed they weren’t suffering the huge losses anymore. They had changed their animal husbandry and the way they worked their hives and their bees were thriving again. This sounded promising.

The natural beekeepers posit that many of the industry’s problems stem from a shallow gene pool. Most bees come from only a small number of breeders who use artificial insemination rather than letting natural selection take its course. This is creating stock that has to be coddled. I wanted to find a tougher kind of bee.

So, I started collecting feral bee colonies from walls and trees. Some of these had surely come from recently kept hives. But some of them were from colonies that had been feral for over a decade at least. They are colonies that have been on their own for years, but weren’t killed by parasites. And they weren’t treated either. They must have traits that help them fight off pests and disease.

And the bees are tougher. So far they are doing very well. My pest problem is mice, not mites.

My biggest problem besides the mice is that I don’t have enough hives. I’ve been getting more calls for bee removals than I can get to because I have nowhere to put them. I’m the only beekeeper in the area who is doing this, so if we can’t get to them, people often have the bees sprayed by an exterminator.

This year I’m trying something different. I’m raising funds so that I will have plenty of hives to fill this year. And I need your help.

Could you send a link to my project page to anyone you know who appreciates bees or honey? If you could throw in a few dollars, that would be great too.

Thanks, and bee good.

Photos: Winter hive and nose-to-nose with a bee by Jeremy Marr. Swarm in tree and bees in wall by Gregg Marr.