Exploring the relationships between people, plants, bugs and beings on the planet.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
As Seen in Edible New Jersey
The honeybee has a new hero. You.
by tammy toad ryan
For thousands of years, honeybees have been an important part of human lives. From magical rites in ancient Egypt to pollen on shelves in health food stores, bees have offered us a connection to the natural world that inspires a certain humility coupled with a notion of healing powers. So it’s no surprise that, when news came around a few years ago that our little ally was sick and dying, a rallying cry was heard across the continent: What is going on? What can we do?
It used to be that this Garden State was full of gardens and farms. Generally, each of these farms housed a few hives containing bees that would forage on the land, which held a diversity of plant species. The farm’s trees, weeds, shrubs and flowering plants offered nectar that the bees would use to make honey, and the pollen was used as a protein source to feed their young. In the bees’ quest for food, they moved pollen from one flower to the next, ensuring pollination and reproduction. With the help of these pollinators, the land provided abundant crops.
Monoculture, a system of farming that uses vast tracts of land to grow a single crop, changed this arrangement. With monculture, chemicals are often used excessively to eradicate weeds. Without diversity of flowers, the bees are not able to survive. On land with only one species of flower in bloom for a short period of time, bees must move on. And, since pollination is vital to the production of the food that we eat, farmers who practice monoculture must import bees at certain times. So beekeepers haul thousands of hives around on flatbed trailers every three weeks or so depending on how long the bloom is on the specific crop that needs pollinating. In some cases, bees are moved from state to state to pollinate.
“Bees pollinate 60 percent of the food that we eat,” says Jake Matthenius, former New Jersey State bee inspector. “From clover and alfalfa for animals to cranberries and blueberries, they help produce food.” After 42 years as state bee inspector and 65 years of beekeeping, Matthenius should know. Bees are said to be the backbone of agriculture. Without them life on the planet as we know it would end. Melons, squashes, blueberries, apples, nuts, alfalfa, clover, cocoa, vanilla, mango, plums, apricots, cherries, avocado, canola, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, cotton, carrots, coffee and kiwi are just some of the crops that would not survive without the efforts of pollinators.
So how are the bees doing? “When I left the Department of Agriculture [in 1990] there were 40,000 hives in New Jersey; now there are 10,000,” says Matthenius. “You tell me how they are doing.”
Jean-Claude Tassot of Tassot Apiaries in Milford has been keeping bees most of his life. Six years ago he and his family decided to make a business of it. Over the years, Tassot has seen many changes in beekeeping. “It was more natural before; it is worse now because of chemicals. The bees are not healthy. If they were, there wouldn’t be problems like CCD [colony collapse disorder, the most recent assault on the weakened colonies]. They are not healthy because of chemicals.” Tassot disapproves of the use of insect-control products like Bayer Advanced, which is given to plants in food, water, or soil. The insecticide is actually taken into the plant. Rain and water cannot wash it off. Insects are killed when they come into contact with the product or when they attempt to eat the plant. “We need to ban the way we use chemicals now. We have to realize this is not good for the bee and it isn’t good for humans.” Tassot’s hives are faring better than many. He uses essential oils, rather than chemical or acids, to treat his bees for the varroa mite, a honeybee parasite that can cause serious damage to a colony. Like many beekeepers, Tassot would like to see more farms and lawns “go organic.”
Organic beekeeping is something that Earl Rowe, of Douglas Farm and Apiary in Gladstone, is very familiar with. Like Tassot, he too has been beekeeping much of his life. Rowe is a hobbyist and has about 25 healthy hives that he cares for organically. He believes that there are “too many toxic chemicals given to bees to make them ‘better.’ They are little creatures and they are really stressed out. When human beings overwork themselves, they get sick. It is the same with bees.” Earl and his son Brian teach a bee club for children at the Somerset County 4-H. They also do outreach at schools and clubs, showing people the gentleness of the bee as well as the magic of the hive. Through teaching about the bees, they encourage children and adults alike to be more intimate with their environment.
From a bee’s point of view, the environment is the surrounding area that provides food. The bees will travel up to three miles from their hive to collect nectar and make it into honey, which they store for later use. According to Tim Schuler, current New Jersey State bee inspector, “the biggest threat to honeybees is the lack of forage because of changes in land use and pesticides in our environment. The image of the perfect lawn needs to go.”
Earl Rowe agrees. If we are to help the honeybees we must be “willing to accept dandelion, daffodils and a bit of wild.” He suggests “throwing down a bit of wildflower seeds to provide nectar for bees. Each flower has different flowering times.” When a person keeps the bees in mind the whole of nature opens up to them. Flowers are no longer just pretty borders to the highway or pesky weeds, they are viewed as a source of food for our much-needed state insect.
Along with serving as the state apiarist, Tim Schuler is also the coinstructor of the beekeeping courses offered through Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station. Their course for novices, Bee-ginner’s Beekeeping, covers the basics of beekeeping such as bee biology, hive management and how to put a hive together. They also offer a beyond-the-basics class for more experienced apiculturists. This class covers Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for honeybees, methods and equipment for moving and feeding bees, honey removal methods and small-scale queen and “nuc” production (a “nuc” is a small start-up nucleus colony of bees, brood [babies] and honey). According to Schuler, “Of the 1,000 registered beekeepers in New Jersey, the vast majority has one or two hives in their backyard.” He believes wholeheartedly in IPM. “Some measure needs to be done [to treat for the varroa mite],” he says. “Use nonchemical means as much as possible but if that doesn’t work use harder chemicals.” It is better to have a hive that is alive with chemicals in it than a dead hive.
The growing public awareness of bees and their mysterious disappearances with colony collapse disorder has generated a new momentum in beekeeping. A few short years ago, the average beekeeper was 60 years old and male. That is changing as more people are catching the backyard buzz. Along with the 4-H program and the Rutgers classes, there are programs in southern New York State that promote organic and biodynamic beekeeping, emphasizing the importance of respecting the entirety of the web of life. Chris Harp of Honeybee Lives teaches regularly at his New Paltz Apiary and he also conducts classes with Ross Conrad, author of Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture, at the Pfeiffer Center in Chestnut Ridge, New York. Harp and Conrad have established a following of new beekeepers who are interested in the bees and helping the planet.
Stephanie Smith is one of the new breed of beekeepers. She keeps bees the old-fashioned way in a Kenyan top-bar hive. Top-bar hives allow bees to make their own comb in the shape that they would in nature. It is about trusting the instinct of the hive instead of forcing the bees into rectangular boxes with cells designed to get more honey out of the bees. Smith started keeping bees in Frenchtown last year after taking courses at the Pfeiffer Center. “It is such an amazing experience, to witness such a cohesive social system. Their way of living provides for us a model of cooperation.” Beekeeping for her isn’t simply about honey or pollination, as it has been to many beekeepers in the past; to her and to many new beekeepers, it is about stewardship. “We need to shift our perspective of small creatures and start seeing them as partners, not our enemy.”
After starting to keep bees last year under the tutelage of a friend, Shaun Ananko, 26, is an inspired new beekeeper. This year will be his first with his own hive. When I asked him what motivated him and what the bees have to offer, he didn’t give the typical answer of pollination or honey. He said, “They have lessons to offer us, love and inspiration. The bees help me find my place in the world and understand my purpose of giving back what I take and not harming the environment. They work together as one organism.” For someone who is just forming his relationship with the bees, he has a strong view as to the lessons we have learned from the bees’ ordeal with colony collapse disorder and mites over the past 20 years. The bees have offered us a way to find our connection with our environment, to take care of the small as well as the great. “Through commercial beekeeping we have put stress on the bees and it is our responsibility to bring the bee population back to its natural order,” Ananko says.
Indeed, it is our responsibility to foster these relationships with the natural world around us. For us to really help the bees and to change the course that we are on, we must be more conscious of the chemicals we use and the impacts we have on the whole of the environment. Everything is connected and what hurts one being will have a ripple effect throughout the ecosystem. Planting flowers to feed our pollinators will help offset some of the environmental degradation that has occurred in the past century. Let us remember what our ancestors knew thousands of years ago. The bees are our messengers and our symbol of the deep interconnection of all that exists. We must sit still and pay attention so that their message can be heard.
HERE’S WHAT YOU CAN DO:
Become a beekeeper. Even keeping one hive makes a difference, and you don’t need an expansive farm or field to be a beekeeper. Hives can be set up in a small backyard or even on a building rooftop.To take a course, or to simply learn more, visit one of these websites:
Rutgers University’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Center. Information on their many courses, including their Bee-ginner’s Beekeeping workshops, is available.cpe.rutgers.edu .
Get involved. The New Jersey Beekeepers Association offers a variety of events, products and promotions designed to increase the public’s understanding and appreciation of bees. Join your local branch. njbeekeepers.org
Get the kids involved. The 4-H Beekeeping Club of Bridgewater allows kids to start keeping bees at the age of nine. Their website offers a variety of kid-friendly information for teachers as well as participants. freewebs.com/4hbeekeeping
Create a bee-friendly landscape. Instead of focusing solely on evergreens, choose shrubs and trees that bloom, such as maple, blackberry and hollyberry, along with perennial flowers. And don’t forget: clover, thistle, dandelions and milkweed are bee-favorite sources of nectar.
With an extensive history in farming and beekeeping, Tammy is currently opening the vaults of her knowledge banks to share with the community. She is for hire as a lawn removing, veggie planting, beekeeping, sustainable living, thought provoking, community organizing, garden consultant.