There’s been much talk about bees these last few years. People are becoming increasingly concerned about Colony Collapse Disorder, faced with evidence that honeybee populations have been declining since 2006.
Last week I heard Sam Comfort, a bee-keeper from New York, explain his take on the phenomena at the Calgary Permaculture Guild AGM. The owner of Anarchy Apiaries is clearly passionate about his business, if the bee hive tattoo covering his arm wasn’t enough of a hint, the t-shirt adorned with honeycomb and ball cap with a symbolic hexagon would give it away.
Comfort started out in the commercial bee-keeping world, and then gradually got more involved with keeping his own hives. He’s bold, and doesn’t wear any protective gear when dealing with bees – just for some added excitement.
He laughs at the fact that people have blamed declining bee populations on cell phones, and instead of Colony Collapse Disorder, he prefers to call it People Collapse Disorder. He says declining bee populations stem from the fact that people are not interested in the foundation of our eco-system and are not doing things in a holistic manner. Some of the factors that have affected bees are:
- Poor nutrition for bees from monoculture farming
- Lack of genetic diversity due to 100 years of artificial breeding which has resulted in oversized bees
- Overused comb
These factors have resulted in weaker bees. As a result, bees have grown more susceptible to mites, fungi, and bacteria. Sam says he’s seen mites take over unhealthy bee populations, but says that the mites are just a symptom of the deeper cause.
Most bees today in North America are kept in ‘inspection drawer’ or Langstroth hives. This type of hive was invented in the 1800s to maximize honey production. It’s the method of bee-keeping where wax foundation sheets are laid out in drawers, and bees then build their honeycomb on top. To further increase honey production, bees have been bred to be bigger, and their ‘swarming’ behaviour has been suppressed. This is a problem because bees need to swarm in order to ‘reset’ and stay healthy. Sam explains this idea nicely on his website:
“For over 100 years the beekeeping industry has been oversizing bees, typical capital-driven thinking “bigger is better,” bigger bees make more honey. It was only a matter of time before an opportunist arrived that really took advantage of an oversized bee. That pest is apparently the varroa mite.
I discovered that bees, when shook from “standard” beehive comb into an empty box with no hexagon-ridged foundations, will build a slightly smaller size wax cell than they had been forced to previously.
By allowing each generation of bees to draw its own comb, the width of the cells in the core brood area shrinks and seems to stabilize after 6 to 7 generations at a much smaller size than the ubiquitous industry standard. Once this cell size is reached, the bees are able to keep varroa mites below life-threatening levels and secondary diseases are less frequent, perhaps do to less stress.”
One of the solutions to all this is to use top bar hives – a simple hive that provides bees with an empty space with no wax foundations to build on. This allows bees to follow their own cycles, design their own comb, and raise their own queens, which leads to healthier bees.