The Business of Bees: Livestock or Sacrosanct?
By: Eliese Watson, Apiaries and Bees for Communities
Over a dinner conversation with some close friends, I was asked the following question: Does is matter where you get your bees from? Is there a concern about ethical sourcing of bees? This question, although simple in its concern, has a very loaded response. And in thinking about the answer, I realized that I had to share my views on bees, the system in which they are born, and the future that lain before them.
When you enter a conversation about honey bees with a typical beekeeper, the immediate response will be something like “Those Ontario Buckfast Queens sure know how to produce” or “The A.I Hygienic Queens work great”, or “If you import those Hawaiians, you will be sure to get an early start and a heavy brood nest by June.” But what does all of this mean? The key here is to not become befuddled by what bees they are talking about, but by the terminology that is being used. Words like production, A.I (artificial insemination), import; these are all terms used in commercial globalized agriculture. From dairy cattle to corn production, it is a part of our industrialized vocabulary of genetic control. I believe that the real revolution in agriculture began with the sweet pea and Gregor Mendel. From then forward the human species has invested time and money in the effort to understand, experiment, and then manipulate the genetics of our food supply. This has propelled our diversified food systems to a seemingly efficient, immediate output, and monied products. As the 21st century has slid quickly in to a period of drought, flooding, famine, obesity, financial inequality, and economic collapse, we are realizing the true costs of industrialized convenience: its killing us, and not as slowly as we thought.
So you ask, what does this have to do with bees? It has EVERYTHING to do with bees. Stories about the disappearing honey bee populations smeared across websites, front pages, and television screens, the common concern is: what is this doing to the commercial farmers’ livelihood? What have researchers found out? What is the disease causing this? Can they find a cure in time? This is assuming that the symptoms, the actual bees flying away, are the problem. Suppress the symptoms and the tenets of industrial agriculture, immediate output and immediate productivity, can be realized. But what about bees in the long term? What is going to happen to the bees in the next 100+ years? Are they going to become stronger or weaker by the cure? How about humans, are we going to become stronger or weaker by finding these sorts of cures for the environmental problems we are facing?
Enter urban beekeeping. You may not be familiar with why you are drawn to keeping bees, it could just come to you naturally, a yearning to experience the world of honey bees in your own backyard. But you and I know that it is deeper than that, it is a chance to connect with organisms that practice real altruism, real compassion and full selflessness. The advent of urban beekeeping makes me think of the following quote:
“More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in man; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all.” – Sir. Charles Chaplin, The Great Dictator
I not only feel that by working with bees you are connecting with the true character of human nature in yourself, the need of a community and a connection to something outside of yourself, without expectation, failure, or judgement. When you see the bees care for one another without discrimination it makes you, the beekeeper, become a member of a hive community. Here are my beliefs on why urban beekeeping is so essential to our planet. It is not that we are going to save the bees, the bees, if I have learned anything from them, are going to save themselves if we let them. Urban beekeeping is a symptom of something far greater than the bees, it is an act of intuitive solidarity and awareness that the industrial system cannot and will not protect us or the bees: it physically cannot as it was not designed to. We as a human species are beginning to understand the importance of diversity and the uniqueness of local (in native speciation, distribution, or behaviours) and we are becoming more aware of what we can do on a local scale, in contrast to the globalized system that we are all active participants and victims of.
Back to the question: Does it matter where you get your bees from? Yes and no, always and never. Here in Calgary Alberta, we source our bees from Bill Stagg of Sweetacre Apiaries in Sorrento BC, all of his bees are from openly mated queens and the bees you get come with their parent queen (which is uncommon by the way, many sellers of nucs/splits will send you bees with a foreign queen recently accepted, meaning that the bees born 21 days later are not sisters of the bees you have grown to love in the past 21 days; think of it as colonial despotism). This means that our bees have no stock label, we do not know their genetic lineage, and we do not know lab results on their hygienic behaviour. What we do know is that they are survivors; they are as genetically diverse as nature has intended. In an industrial mind set, this is risky. The bees may not have the genetic predisposition for early brood production, the hives honey yields might be lower than expected, and the bees have not been bred to suppress the urge to swarm. These are all the industrial constraints that urban beekeeping, intuitively and actively, is rebelling against.
So, is it better to get bees that are bred in a more natural way? A professor of mine once told me that 90% of work in research is finding the right question, not the research itself. So to me, this is the wrong question to ask. This question implies that humans are a part of the equation in ensuring honey bee survival rates. I think that we need to change the human participation in beekeeping from an active to passive role. The genetic archetype of a colony can, within a single short Alberta summer, change up to 2-3 times. This means that if the colony is not happy with itself (the hives output, responses to disease, brood laying patterns) it will in effect requeen itself and allow the new queen to mate with local genetics, and try again. So, for all of the research and investment the industrial system attempts to control honey bee genetics, the bees still strive to take care of themselves. This is why honey bees are still wild at heart; even while being enslaved to our industrial food systems, they rebel and do what they need to do to care for each other and fix our mistakes.
So, get your bees from where you get them, but like all things, it is better to be closer to your source (in this case, your beekeeper or your apiary) because it decreases your economic support for the industrial complex. But, like rescue dogs from puppy mills, you can get your bees from a commercial supplier overseas, artificially inseminated, bred to genetic controls mandated by our industrial complexes, but offer healthy and happy homes for them and most importantly, offer them a chance to save themselves. In the end, we are all victim to natures ways, natural selection and environmental whiplash, whether you are a product of industrialization or you are homespun. This is because we are a part of nature. It is our ability to unite as a community, a tribe, a collective as bees have done for millennia, that will allow us to thrive, grow, breathe, and live another day.
So, why keep bees? You tell me. I just know that when I work with bees, watch them, see them care for their young and nurture their queen, my heart becomes lighter and I feel a sense of hope for all of us- human beings and all living things. We are what we relinquish to nature.
By Eliese Watson
Founder of ABC Bees Apiaries and Bees for Communities