Beekeeping and Honey Hunting on Six Continents
preface by Kirk Webster of Middlebury, VT
This essay is the original version of what became the preface for the book, Honey from the Earth, by Eric Tourneret and Sylla de Saint Pierre, Deep Snow Press, Ithaca, NY 2018
I am deeply honored to be asked to write an introduction for the English language edition of this amazing collection. And I was surprised as well — all of my direct experience with honeybees has been contained within North America, and almost all of it has taken place in just one county in northern New England; where the ground is often frozen for five months of the year, and where even a good honey crop might be largely gathered in just seven or ten days, sometime (we never know exactly when) between June 10 and September 15. The scope of this book is just the opposite. But all of us who have been privileged to spend the best part of a lifetime in close association with honeybees have already been transported many times through doors we never knew existed, and to places we never could have imagined. No matter what first attracted our attention to this extraordinary creature, whenever we examine her products, her home, or her way of life we find more magic, mysteries and connections spreading out in all directions. Whether we were seeking it out or not, we have witnessed honeybees enabling the lame to walk and the blind to see.
This book takes all of these experiences and projects them out onto an enormous expanse of space and time. It leaves no room for doubt that the bond between humans and bees — especially honeybees — is unbreakable, universal, and exists wherever both can survive. It also sends the clear and chilling message that if the environment changes such that one (bees) or the other can no longer live in a certain locale, the other partner (humans) will lose the advantages of health, and be at risk as well. Even with inflation over the decades, pictures are still supposed to be worth one thousand words; but that’s an enormously conservative estimate in this case. Every one of the stunning photographs in this book is worthy of careful study. Though they depict scenes from every continent except Antarctica, and from dozens of different cultures, almost all of them — if you look at them carefully and consider the descriptions in the text — suggest a dual subliminal message: awe and wonder at the beauty and diversity of this planet, our home, given to us by Nature and the Creator; and a warning that if we destroy this beauty and diversity, we destroy ourselves as well. The photos of “primitive” beekeeping and honey hunting show living examples of humanity’s joyous and primeval association with Nature, but also contain the warning when we learn that all of these habitats and cultures are shrinking and embattled by modern civilization. In the pictures of modern industrial agriculture, creating huge monoculture deserts where neither bees or people live anymore, we can still see that Nature gives her best effort at all times and under all circumstances. She’s ready to recover whenever we allow her to do so. It’s an incredible fact that honey hunting is still being carried out in many locations worldwide, in exactly the same manner depicted on cave walls 8000 years ago; and at the same time the world’s most fertile soils are dominated by an agriculture conducted mostly by machines, that degrades the land, poisons the water and drives the people and most other living things away. At this point we desperately need to decide which elements of tradition to combine with new ways of thinking and acting as we face the future. We may not be up to this on our own, but with the bees’ help it may be possible.
Beekeepers worldwide share many of the same tasks, carried out at appropriate times during the year: providing their bees with a suitable home; examining their combs; feeding them; helping or encouraging them to reproduce; protecting them from heat, cold, predators and parasites; and of course — harvesting honey and other hive products. It has always fascinated me that even though beekeepers share much of the same work, every beekeeper has a unique relationship with his or her bees. Almost any two bee people will argue (usually in a friendly way) about the details of good beekeeping, until the cows come home — or longer. You will never find two beeyards, large or small, and owned by two different beekeepers, that look quite the same, and where the bees and their keepers behave in just the same way. Even if I take ten colonies from one of my distant apiaries, and as close to identical as I can make them, and put five in my backyard, and give five to my neighbor beekeeper just one half mile away — in a couple of months his new bees will not behave quite the same as mine anymore. Even more astonishing, they will smell different as well. If you don’t believe me try visiting a few different beeyards and experience it for yourself.
In Honey from the Earth we see the diversity of hives, bees and methods played out to its absolute extreme. There are plenty of the familiar wooden, frame hives here, close to the ground; easy to manipulate and move, and very efficient for the mass production of honey and pollination services. But if other hives and methods are deemed necessary or superior, the sky is, quite literally, the limit. Beehives are made of any and every available material that can be fashioned into homes that bees will accept and occupy — lumber, hollow logs, live trees, straw, reeds, bark, mud and plastic are all used according to the unique local situations in which bees and their keepers find themselves. Most managed bees are kept close to the ground, or maybe on a truck or trailer. But some need to be high off the ground, attached to trees in order to escape predators, or for some other reason. As someone who makes a living producing surplus honey and bees, my favorite of all the stories in this book is from the northeast corner of Turkey, close to the border with Georgia. Beekeepers there keep most of their colonies in modern wooden boxes, on the ground. But some are kept in barrel-shaped hives high up in some of their most stately trees. The honey from these primitive hives is considered better than that produced close to the ground in modern hives, and brings a higher price. A few of the beekeepers tending these colonies are over 70 years old, living in prosperous looking houses in a beautiful mountain setting.
There is honey being harvested while hanging from cliffs hundreds of feet in the air, supported only by ladders made from grasses, reeds and branches gathered at the site. The unaided hunter wields a bamboo pole to cut the honey and brood combs from huge, open air colonies; at the same time maneuvering a large basket to catch the harvest, and protected from a lethal dose of bee venom only by a burning bunch of grasses and herbs — and his intimate understanding of his beloved insect partners. These are images of the actual stuff from which mythological heros were made.
There are no obstacles — except one — that can prevent beekeepers from moving their bees to a source of nectar and from harvesting whatever surplus honey may result. Every possible means of conveyance — from carrying by hand to the most modern trucks, boats and planes — has been and is being used to move honeybees from one place to another. Some beekeepers can work their bees without any protection at all, and sometimes even without smoke. Most beekeepers need to use smoke in order to examine their colonies and harvest the honey or other products. Some need to be completely protected by impervious suits and veils — whether made from modern fabrics or shredded bark — or the bees could threaten their lives. All of this diversity is shown in this book as well. The only thing that can stop bees and beekeepers is the place where the honey plants end — where they have been dug out or poisoned; where only a few species of plants grow, and are tended by machines that grow larger every year. This is where people, and their best friends among the insects, are forced to stop and retreat.
So, let’s go back to where the lame have been able to walk again, and sight has returned to the blind. Bees, and their many wonderful products, really do have many roles to play in their association with humanity. As a young apprentice, living in Charlie Mrazs’ household (lifelong beekeeper and modern apitherapy pioneer), and since then on my own; I have watched many people, crippled by arthritis, restored to health and full activity through the use of bee venom and honey. With the image of sight returning to the blind, I am speaking in a more metaphorical way.
During the first half of my career, there was generally very little knowledge of honeybees in the communities where I lived. Even though beekeepers had been present there since the Civil War at least, every first conversation about bees with a new acquaintance had to start from scratch. How different it is today. The rapid decline of honeybees (and all other bees as well), brought on by the introduction of exotic parasites (tracheal and varroa mites) and the expansion of industrial agriculture, now poses a real threat to our food supply. Within just a few years, urban and rural people from all walks of life became aware not only of the bees’ decline, but also that all life is interconnected, and that if you change one part of the environment, you effect all of it. A huge outpouring of interest in honeybees followed. Even though keeping bees is much more difficult today than it was twenty five years ago, every beekeeping club in the country now has two, three or more times as many members as it did back then, and new local clubs have sprung up everywhere. The threat to honeybees, along with others such as climate change, has also caused many people to reconsider, sometimes for the first time, how they fit into the world of Nature; how they get their food, housing and energy; and how they make a living. This is quite an achievement, even for a remarkable insect that’s just trying to mind its own business and quietly survive by moving pollen around and gathering nectar.
Honey has been sought after and venerated by people since long before any graphic representation was made about it. People must have been intimately involved with them for just as long. A swarm hanging in a tree — so obvious and easily captured — isn’t this Nature’s way of insisting that we and the bees will live together? We have been warned, and if we now choose to ignore the wisdom bees have shared with us, it is at our own peril.
With problems that involve a fundamental shift of perspective or action, it’s always easy to point out what other people should do in order to solve them — much more difficult, and essential, to walk the path yourself, encounter the unknown obstacles that invariably appear, and then help others over them — if in fact you do get over them yourself. From my experience I offer these two suggestions for using the wisdom of bees and people together, to create a better world for all creatures yet to come:
First, the indigenous traditions of honey hunting that still exist should be preserved if it is possible to do so. As Wade Davis, the famous Canadian ethnobotanist has written, indigenous knowledge and traditions represent a rain forest of ideas and wisdom that enabled people to live in almost every habitat that exists on the earth. This diversity of ideas is just as important, threatened and worthy of preservation as the diversity of plants and animals we hear more about. My own commercial apiary looks completely modern from a distance, but indigenous ideas and practices were far more inspiring and helpful in making it into a really nice way of life than anything from science or technology.
Second, and more important, our farmland, our countryside has to be brought back to life again, so that bees and people can live there in good health, and get the energy they need from the sun and wind and flowing water — instead of by probing the ground for every last speck of fossil carbon. Our population has grown so large, and we dominate the land on every habitable continent — agriculture is our only choice for getting the food we need. This is the arena where the future health of bees and people will be either won or lost. Agriculture needs to be a creative process, where we improve the environment first, and then obtain our food and energy as the by-products of this work. This sounds counter-intuitive in a culture so thoroughly based on the destruction of habitat and the exploitation of people and natural resources; but this is where we find ourselves at this critical point. To survive and thrive in the future, we need to ensure the health and well-being of other living things first, before ourselves.
The spread of varroa mites dealt a terrible blow to beekeeping around the world. This parasite was far more destructive to its new host (apis mellifera) than a parasite can normally afford to be, and in the beginning it was not clear whether our bees would be able to survive at all without constant intervention against these pests. So many colonies were lost, and many abandoned their bees in despair. Now it is much more challenging to keep bees alive and to produce honey than it was thirty years ago.
Just as devastating was the change in the community outlook caused by this disaster. Before the mite invasion, beekeepers were the one part of the farming community uniformly opposed to the proliferation of pesticides. When varroa first arrived, we had no choice but to begin using pesticides ourselves in order to keep our bees alive. But instead of searching for more stable solutions to the problem, pesticides came to be considered normal and necessary for keeping bees. Overnight, our legitimate claim to a poison-free world was gone, and beekeeping became fully absorbed into the mentality of industrial agriculture — with all the same vulnerabilities and difficulties found there in the production of every other commodity. Like Sisyphus pushing the rock, beekeepers are now on a constant wartime footing, and use up all their oxygen struggling to repair the damage caused by the previous temporary fix. I call this “worry intensive beekeeping.” It has also drawn attention away from the genuine existential threats to our bees, and ourselves.
A few of us, remembering what became of the rest of agriculture as it pursued this path, rejected this approach and took our inspiration instead from the ancient methods — honed and perfected over hundreds and/or thousands of years — and from the pioneers of modern organic farming. The key concept in both of these movements is the idea that pests and diseases should always be regarded as friends and allies, and that their purpose is to point out where our practices are unbalanced or poorly adapted. Running our apiaries along these lines for twenty years, we now have no doubt that honeybees and varroa mites can co-exist in mutual health, and that our bees also have the ability to adapt to other problems such as climate change. But all of this work and hopeful progress have no value whatsoever if pollen, nectar, air, water and soil are increasingly tainted with life-destroying compounds.
Let’s consider the difference between farming and industrial agriculture. Farming was the way most food was produced before the Second World War. It was an agriculture conducted by people living in close association with their crops, livestock, and surrounding habitat. After the war, industrialists sought new markets for the nitrogen formerly used in the manufacture of explosives, and for the pesticides first used to control lice on American soldiers. New machines were already replacing many of the young farmers called into the armed forces, and the three-legged base of industrial agriculture locked into place and assumed a presence that has been dominant in North America ever since. This approach is now dominant in the U.S., and attempting to encroach on farmland everywhere around the world. I used to think that the goal of industrial agriculture was to produce our food with the smallest possible number of farmers. Now I realize that the real goal is to produce it without any farmers at all. Most of our people now live away from the countryside, and would be shocked if they knew how far advanced this process of removing people, health and beauty from our rural areas really is.
The real obstacles to reclaiming farming, healthy soil, clean water, and a place for bees and people to thrive in the future are all cultural ones. This is why the perspective of indigenous knowledge is so important. We need to learn from this accumulated wisdom how to be happy and healthy without competing for resources or expecting to live from the labor of others. But their ideas have to be adapted to a far more crowded world than their ancestors could have imagined.
Every single crop plant or animal used by humanity is still being successfully and profitably grown by at least a few or many farmers using ancient and/or organic methods — with yields equal to industrial production, a good life for the farmer and without creating pollution. Every problem of practical biology has already been solved — in at least a local way — by farmers and others working on their own, and with only the resources supplied by their own farms or businesses. But finding these people and persuading them to participate in the larger discussion can be hard. Many of them have been ridiculed and harassed, and to succeed they needed to separate themselves from the dominant greedy and destructive culture. However, these are the very people we need most, to remind us that all farming is local, and steer us toward a creative relationship with Nature, instead of a predatory one. Science can help, but much of honeybee science, at least in the U.S., has been recruited into the service of industrial agriculture. There are of course exceptions, and some shining places where science and traditional wisdom have worked together and yielded great results. For the last twenty years, my only means of support has been from a small (by North American standards) commercial apiary run without treatments of any kind. This became possible only by combining an outlook and methods gleaned from long tradition and modern organic farmers, with the brilliant work of Dr. Thomas Rinderer, who introduced bees from far eastern Russia — where they had lived together with varroa mites in a semi-wild state for more than 100 years — into North America. But for real farming in general, science is a very poor substitute for traditional knowledge, accumulated and preserved for millennia despite floods, droughts, wars, migration, and every sort of good and bad fortune people can encounter — by countless generations whose lives and entire fortunes depended on a successful relationship with their crops, livestock and all of their surroundings.
If there’s one thing that almost anyone can do to make life better for bees (and then for us), it must be to dispel this horrible myth that industrial agriculture is the only way to feed the world. If this one is toppled, other myths will fall with it — especially the one that food is food, no matter how it is grown. Do your own research, and you will find both of these positions are completely indefensible. Be sure to seek out later editions of The Living Soil by Eve Balfour, with descriptions of the “Haughley Experiment,” where different farming systems were monitored through many generations of crops and livestock. A current American example is the “Farm Systems Trial” going on at the Rodale Research Institute in Kutztown, Pennsylvania. Different farming systems, conducted on a farm scale, have been compared there for thirty seven years.
Along with this goes support for organic farming — any way we possibly can. Unfortunately, not everyone has the opportunity to farm or keep bees, but everybody eats. We all get to vote this way every day with our money and/or our energy. If organic food is too expensive, growing your own is a great option — in any case, that’s the only way to get the full health value of the food. The more demand there is for organically grown food, the larger the supply will become and the more land will be freed of its burden of poisons and harsh, energy-consuming fertilizers. The price of the food will eventually come down as well, because once stable practices are in place, most of the energy and fertility is provided by Nature on the farm itself, and very little needs to be purchased. Today, organic farming occupies only a fraction of the world’s farmland — but it is growing and known by many names: organic, biological, biodynamic, regenerative, permaculture, restorative, and natural. This movement is the entering wedge by which people, bees, beauty, and the element of Wildness can return to our once and future countryside, and more of our people can again enjoy living with bees, close to Nature on our still wonderful planet.
To finish, I’ll just propose that, in a certain sense, there are only two events going on in the world today. The recent and very powerful industrial paradigm that swept over the world, is already entering its death spiral. Great material wealth has been created by plundering the storehouse of Nature. But the costs are coming due now, and we are losing the ability to pay. At the same time, a new paradigm is struggling to be born, but the mother is alone, and even as she goes into labor, is still searching for a safe place to bring forth her baby. Both the mother and child are in danger and the outcome is uncertain.
We all have to decide now which event we are going to attend — the funeral or the birth. They are going on simultaneously, so everyone must choose one or the other. Most people in the First World are frantically searching for a comfortable place to watch the funeral. But assisting at the birth and protecting the mother are much more worthy of our attention, and help. For this is the only place where hope, health and beauty can be reclaimed and made to grow again. In the future, this is the only place where we will find Honey from the Earth. If the mother finds enough shelter and friends, and a healthy child is born; when June comes around again, a swarm will be hanging in a tree nearby. Will you be there to catch it for them?
Kirk Webster operates a full-time, nature-oriented commercial apiary in Addison County, Vermont, called Champlain Valley Bees and Queens. For the last 15 years, no treatments of any kind have been used on his bees.
Honey From the Earth, originally published in 2015 in French (under the title Les routes du miel by Editions Hozhoni) is an exquisite, large full color Photo documentary of Beekeeping. The english translation edition was published by Deep Snow Press, Ithaca, NY in 2018. ISBN: 978-0-9842873-7-6