Saturday, December 1, 2018

In The Beginning

Shortly after Christmas of 2017 my son learned of an introductory beekeeping course offered by the Connecticut Beekeepers Association and asked if I was interested in raising bees.  I hadn’t ever thought about having a beehive but being an environmentalist I was well aware of the importance of bees and knew they were being threatened.  The idea of raising bees wasn’t the craziest thing I had ever done and in the spirit of father son bonding I said ‘sure, let’s take the class‘.

Years ago I proffered the idea that if we ever managed to kill off the bees, we might have to send people armed with camel hair brushes into the fields to pollinate our food plants.  At the time it was what I thought was an exaggerated, cautionary tale with a warning that pollination is an essential job and if nobody wants to replace the bees, they better protect them.  Of course I was slightly wrong in what might replace bees.  I recently read that someone is working on tiny bee drones to do their pollination task.  God bless technology and the creativity of people that use it to produce solutions to problems often created by technology.  That last statement was a bit of self-described angst from being an environmental technologist myself.

But I digress.

The students in the lecture were a mix urban, suburban, agricultural, young, old, male, female, all having every immaginable reason to raise bees.  Of course there were the farmers interested in bringing bee husbandry to their farm but a good majority were people like us that just wanted to have a backyard beehive for all the good reasons.  I cannot say the lecturer made it seem easy to raise bees.  In fact we were told that in Connecticut the annual beehive survival rate is only 50% and there was a good chance the we would fail at our first try. People starting on a new venture often say "At the time I started my venture, if I had known what I know now, I might not have started it."   So far, as of this writing (June 5, 2018) I've found quite the opposite.  While there is a responsibility in being the caretaker of living creatures, you always have freely given advice from fellow beekeepers and more importantly, you alway have skilled educators by your side.  And by skilled educators, I mean the bees.  They know what they need to do and how to do it.  A beekeeper has only to step aside, let the bees do what they are born to do, and you do only what the bees ask of you.  

When I talk with friends about beekeeping the first subject of the conversation is the personal risk of beekeepers and how beekeeping must be like lion taming, putting on a suit of veiled armor and driving them into submission with smoker in hand.  It's just not that way.   Everyone knows about Africanized bees and while they are a problem, it is not widespread and is one that can be dealt with in managed bee colonies.  In fact, honeybees are actually very docile creatures.  Sure they can sting you and yes it hurts but to a bee a sting is not some capricious act of violence. After stinging you, that bee is going to die so it has sacrificed its life for a reason.  Stinging is done because you had done something stupid and upsetting to them and they are simply training you as to how they want you to act in the future.  Be polite and considerate and they will literally eat out of your hand.

 Let me step back and say something else about beekeeping.  In working with bees it is easy to become anthropomorphic and begin to think of them as thinking beings that have created a cooperative, hierological society using a modicum of rational thought.  That is absolutely not true.    In terms of thinking, they are as dumb as any creature could be.  But, having said that, they do have encoded in there DNA and gene expressions some of the most complex social structures of any insect I can think of.  Edward O. Wilson has spent a lifetime studying and describing how ants use pheromones and tactile interactions to create complex societies.  Personally, I believe bees have ants beat hands down.  True, they use pheromones and tactile interactions similarly but for one thing bees can have ambitions and the chance to improve their life and stature in society.  Ok, this is an anthropologic joke because while a bee's job description evolves with age they could not possibly have ambitions but saying so is a good example of how we as homo Sapiens can be so easily fooled by a mere insect.  In no way will I describe bee colonies as an all inclusive democratic society where major decisions are decided by a consensus vote of members of select working groups assigned to specific tasks.  While I might not describe them as such, Thomas Seeley did document swarming bees doing exactly that when selecting a new home.  ['Honeybee Democracy' by Thomas Seeley]   For my part, I'm just going unapologetically describe bees as intellectual thinking beings because it's absolutely more fun to do so and you just have to know that I'm laughing at how stupid it sounds when I do.

Next:  Bee The Best That You Can Bee

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