The New Beekeeper

Reader Contribution by Beeweaver
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Image by edmondlafoto from Pixabay

As BeeWeaver gears up to take orders for spring 2012 bees and queens, I am reminded of how much beekeepers have changed in the last 2 decades.  When I began answering phones and taking orders in 1994 nearly every customer had kept bees for decades, had 5 or more colonies, lived in rural areas, were well over 50 years old, and about 99% were men.  Typically when a woman phoned the bee order in she was doing so on her husband’s behalf (‘he doesn’t like talking on the phone’ or ‘he can’t hear very well’ were typical refrains).  Over the next 5 or so years that generation of beekeepers began to dwindle.  Varroa mites caused some to give up, for others it was Small Hive Beetle, and still for others it was the hard labor of working bee colonies (lifting honey supers and honey extraction became too much for aging bodies).  Y2K brought a dearth in the hobbyist and sideliner beekeepers.  One season BeeWeaver’s packages for the following spring were sold out by Thanksgiving as commercial beekeepers raced to get replacement bees to cover losses caused by varroa mites, small hive beetle and other diseases those pests carried.  Hardly any of our bees and queens went to smaller beekeepers.  

We began leaving colonies without chemical treatment for varroa mites in the early ’90s hoping to cultivate varroa tolerant stock from the survivor colonies left behind.  Many beekeepers and bee experts from places that had endured varroa for longer told us our dream of chemical free beekeeping was, well….just that  a dream!  But starting in about 1997 most of our hives were surviving without acarcides, and in 2001 the few remaining colonies we had enrolled in a research program to evaluate new compounds for varroa controls went organic too and we’ve never looked back.  From the beginning of our chemical free commercial bee business we had beekeepers from all walks of life curious about our stock and willing to give them a try.  Still, many of our customers came to us merely to get ‘generic’ bees and queens.  Some didn’t understand our breeding program, others didn’t believe we were really keeping bees alive without chemicals and others were unwilling to risk their own livlihoods to learn if chemical free beekeeping would work for them too.  Many of our customers bought our queens and continued to treat with chemicals; scared their bees would die if they didn’t.  

In 2005, though, there was a change on the horizon for the commercial beekeeping world.  A sudden decrease in the commercial bee population (now termed CCD) and the lack of bees available for pollination brought lots of attention to the honeybee.  Prior to the media focus on the disappearing bees we only heard about bees if a ‘killerbee’ incident grabbed the headlines.  Now, suddenly, documentaries, newscasts, and even celebrities were spreading the word about how vital the honeybee is to our food chain and the environment.  People began to want to do more to restore pollinator populations, and boost honey bee colony numbers.  The attention on honeybees and environment grew with the synergy of awakening environmental consciousness across the spectrum and spawned a new generation of beekeepers.  Today we have thousands of backyard beekeepers and environmentally conscious gardeners who not only notice the shortage of bees, they know how to do something about it.   Suburbanites, city dwellers and rural agrarians alike found a spot in their backyard, on their rooftop or in their fields and woodlands and began establishing and caring for hives.  No longer do we just hear people remark about how their grandpa or great grandpa used to keep bees, those individuals are now keeping the tradition alive and have become beekeepers themselves.  Finally, the number of women who have taken up the hive tool is remarkable too.  Education and compassion have worked together to bring us The New Beekeeper.  The New Beekeeper is our hope for the resurgence of both managed and feral honeybees, all without the use of chemicals to control pests. New beekeepers will be starting tens of thousands of new hives across this country this spring – and there has never been a brighter silver lining to a dark cloud.

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