Date: February 14, 2011 5:05:23 PM EST
To: Cerise Mayo
Subject: honeybees and some questions
Dear Ms. Mayo...
My name is Michele Liu. I read about you in an article in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/30/nyregion/30bigcity.html) and a few other ones I have found on the internet. I was wondering if you could help me answer a few questions regarding beekeeping, honeys and what it is like to be an urban beekeeper.
I am currently pursuing my Masters degree in the Netherlands at the Design Academy Eindhoven, in a program called 'Social Design'.
(http://www.designacademy.nl/MasterCourse/MasterDepartments/SocialDesign/tabid/1693/Default.aspx) Prior to graduating, I am expected to complete a research project of my choice.
I am currently focusing my project on honeybees, why people should be more aware of their sudden disappearance and what it will mean if they are no longer a part of the natural life cycle. I want the end result of my project to be a communication tool which educates people about the processes that occur prior to food arriving at the supermarket and, even the farmer's market. I am also aiming to design something that engages the user/audience into the process of making edible goods.
Up until now, I have only been able to do my research through books, journals, documentaries and the internet. I would really like it if I could also consult an expert on this subject matter. I feel that you would be someone who can offer me some advice and details on honeybees. Would it be possible to ask you some questions? Please let me know if this is OK. If not, I completely understand.
Thank you for reading and I look forward to your reply.
Date: Tue, Feb 15, 2011 at 2:55PM
To: Michele Liu
Subject: Re: honeybees and some questions
Cerise forwarded me your e-mail, and I would certainly be happy to help and try to answer any questions you may have. I have been a beekeeper for over 13 years, have had hives in both urban and rural apiaries, maintain an urban beekeeping blog, and teach a beekeeping course in Brooklyn.
What would you like to know about?
From: Michele Liu
Date: Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 8:21AM
Subject: Re: honeybees and some questions
Thank you so much for your email!
There are so many things I need to know about bees. Where should I begin? Perhaps by talking a bit about my point of view and what I would like to accomplish in my graduation project.
Because most people in modern society are not farmers or living close to the land anymore, our understanding of what our role is within the larger cycle of life and how that cycle operates has been lost. I feel that because we are quite disengaged from this knowledge, people make decisions and go about their everyday lives only thinking of consequences which affect their immediate environment. This is especially noticeable in how the Western industrial agriculture sector operates. "Big Ag" prioritizes functional efficiency, monocultures, pesticides and cost saving techniques over the value and respect necessary to keep nature balanced and running as it should.
A particular practice which I do not understand is the use of commercial bees for pollination of crops such as almonds in California. Why can't bees be raised in the same region as our food crops and if they can, why aren't they? Why is it necessary to truck bees around the country to pollinate these plants, forcing them to only feed off one chemically laden source?
Another recent incident that made me question the world of bees is the Red Hook bees/maraschino cherries factory situation. As wonderful and positive urban agriculture is (and I'm definitely a big supporter of it), I wondered why we haven't focused our attention on how the human world may actually be a bad influence on the little bees. What can we do to support a more harmonious relationship between the human and bee world? There seems to be something in this story that can be addressed through design. I'm not sure how yet, but I've been thinking about it quite a lot. Your thoughts?
The aim of my project is to design a system and an object which allows someone to take part in the food production process which occurs prior to edible goods arriving the supermarkets. My hope is that if someone can see and partake in the complexity of the cycles behind food production and the craft of its makers (in this instance the honeybees and the apiarists), our relationship and appreciation for food takes on another meaning. Will we become more aware of the need to balance things? Will we understand the importance of things such as soil quality, the caring of the animals and permaculture? Perhaps we will become less wasteful with our food? Basically, what I want is to design an object which ultimately designs our behaviors and our relationships with food. The reason why I want to work with honeybees is because they are an important part of our survival and seem to the the perfect host to address many of our modern day food issues... both in dire need of attention at this moment.
Here are some other questions I have... these questions came about while thinking of initial design solutions for this issue.
1) How did honeybees live before humans became apiarists? Can I design something which promotes the health of wild and domesticated (is that how you classify bees that are cared for by beekeepers?) honeybees?
2) What happens to the bees and their honey, wax, propolis and hives if it's not attended by humans? Do they continue to stay in the same hive? Does the honey just crystallize and create some sort of outer coating to preserve itself? Does the wax ever disintegrate?
3) As a material, what are the properties of propolis? Can I use it as a building material?
4) Do bees need to live in complete darkness or can the hive have clear side panels allowing us to view the work they do inside?
I apologize if my questions are naive and possibly silly! I really need to understand a lot of little things about bees and apiary so that my designs are well informed.
One last question... do you think that it would be possible for me to visit you and your hives? If not, I understand.
Thanks so much for reading! Have a nice day and I look forward to your response. Your help is greatly appreciated! : )
Date: Wed, Feb 16, 2011 at 3:36PM
To: Michele Liu
Subject: Re: honeybees and some questions
You really answered that first question yourself. The operations of “Big Ag” and the livelihoods of commercial beekeepers are inexorably linked by the consumer's desire for a full selection of produce year round, regardless of sustainability. With the agriculture section's prioritization of efficiency and monoculture comes the requirement for a mobile army of pollinators. These vast tracts of land devoted to a single species simply cannot maintain the honeybee population required to pollinate the entire crop in the short window that it is actively blooming. You mentioned the almond growers in California, and I'm going to use them as an example.
Vast tracts of land (over 600,000 acres [approximately 2500 square kilometres]) are given over entirely to almond trees. In these areas, nothing else of practical value is grown in any significant quantities. In the approximately 22 days of February that these almond trees are in blossom, over a million hives are imported into the state solely to pollinate them. After that short window is closed and the flowers fall, there are simply not enough local, sustainable and natural food sources to sustain those billions of bees. The beekeepers are forced to move them to another area that can sustain a large number of hives—often another monoculture.
The impetus for changing this practice is not going to come from the commercial beekeepers or "Big Ag". They have a system that works for them NOW, and, in the short term, they can cover the costs, both environmental and monetary. In the long term, the push for change will have to come from the individual consumer understanding and accepting that current farming practices are ultimately unhealthy, and that they can live without strawberries in January. It'll take a major paradigm shift, but I believe that the general population will come to it eventually.
Many backyard and rooftop urban beekeepers are very aware of the influence our environment has on our hives. The incident with the maraschino cherry factory is only the brightest example of beekeepers interacting with their community, taking its imperfections in stride, and trying to improve it. Hopefully the issue with the factory will be eliminated or at least reduced in the coming year, but there are always more issues to contend with. Bees and their keepers still face a lot of fear and misinformation in the public theater, and we spend a lot of time (willingly) sharing our passion and educating our friends, neighbors, and acquaintances about the importance of bees to our immediate community and the wider ecosphere.
The thing is, beekeeping is only one aspect of a greater need to be aware of where our food comes from. It is obviously one of the more visually and viscerally striking elements, but it is still just a single facet of the whole. Good beekeepers are aware of the work of other beekeepers as well as those in their community striving for sustainability; composters, community garden volunteers, rooftop gardeners, and all the kinds of people who are willing to place a premium on foods grown locally and sustainably by supporting farmer's markets, CSAs, and food co-ops. Beekeepers need their community, not just to buy their honey, but to share the space needed for an apiary, make conscious decisions regarding their food choices, and provide some portion of the food sources needed by hives. Likewise, communities need beekeepers to provide a healthy and diverse population of bees able to provide the pollination required by local farmers and gardeners. Balance and awareness are key to a sustainable local food system and I believe that with the efforts of beekeepers and their supporters, both will grow with time.
Bees have been around for millions of years, and prior to domestication, they lived in any sort of hollow, dry, and sheltered spot they could find. Hollow trees were probably the most common and inspired the design of the modern hive. Wild or feral bees can be transplanted into the same sort of modern, modular, movable frame hives that we use with our domesticated bees. Most 'feral' bees these days are swarms from hives of beekeepers who either didn't catch them in time or didn't care to. In the wild, hives have a much more shorter lifespan than those kept by a beekeeper. A beekeeper may maintain an individual hive for years with good management and regular rotation and replacement of old, damaged, or diseased comb. In the wild, the bees themselves do not replace comb, but instead use it until it is so old and diseased that the colony will move on or die out. The empty comb and any stores in it will be consumed by wax moths and other insects or animals until it is all consumed and the space is ready to host a new colony.
In a healthy hive, the honey itself has a practically indefinite shelf life. It is mildly antimicrobial and the bees seal it into the comb using a thin layer of fresh wax, in effect 'canning' it. In the comb, honey can last for years.
Think of propolis more as the mortar in a brick wall than the bricks themselves. The bees use it to reinforce and seal their hives, but generally not as a primary building material. It is made from natural plant resins, and like those original resins it is hard and brittle when cold, remarkably gooey and sticky when hot.
Finally, while bees do prefer to live in the dark, they are adaptable and can be put in a glass-walled observation hive so that their activity can be observed without too much disturbance, but there are downsides. Observation hives are relatively high maintenance and require a lot of time and attention to keep healthy. The most sustainable observation hives have two or three layers of comb sandwiched between the sides and stacked several layers high, but this creates its own issues. The queen prefers to work in the dark and if she has a middle layer to hide in, she will. Single-layer observation hives are great for viewing since the queen has nowhere to hide but are somewhat more stressful, and because a single layer provides less storage, they require constant and regular artificial feeding.
Don't worry about asking too many questions. It's a complicated topic. There is a huge amount of factual information and an even larger supply of opinion.
You are more than welcome to come visit my hives. Just keep in mind that they won't be really active until April and May. I'll be installing new bees into new hives the weekend of April 9th. That'll be an exciting time, but you wouldn't be able to see the bees really working until I start checking in on them, 2-3 weeks later.
Bit of a trek from the Netherlands, isn't it?
P.S. Do you mind if I share this correspondence on my blog? You're asking interesting questions, and I think my readers would be interested in the answers.