Even people who don't take a special interest in insects have probably heard something about the troubles afflicting honeybees in recent years. And many people are aware of the name that has been adopted to describe the rise of an especially alarming phenomenon that was recognized in 2006, "colony collapse disorder." In hives stricken by CCD, the worker bees simply all go missing, and they're presumed dead.
The press has tended to treat CCD as a crime story and has wrongly pointed the finger at one smoking gun after another as the cause of it, for reasons about which I won't speculate here.
The scientific community has been moving toward a consensus that attributes CCD to the interaction of a variety of factors affecting bees kept by large-scale, industrial operations: agricultural pesticides, poor feeding practices, parasites and a lack of genetic diversity chief among them.
This consensus rings true with Maggie Wachter of Urbana. Given the industrial model of beekeeping that has developed to support large-scale agriculture in the U.S., she thinks it would be a mystery if honeybees were faring well.
Wachter is proprietor of Second Nature Honey, which sells products at farmers' markets and through Strawberry Fields and Common Ground Food Co-op. She also is accredited by the University of Florida as a Master Beekeeper and an accredited honey judge.
She began keeping bees in 2009 with just a single hive, but she has steadily added to her operation since then and now maintains 45. (At the time we spoke recently, she was exploring the possibility of adding another seven to her care at a church-affiliated community sponsored agriculture site in Chicago.) Wachter seeks to redress the problems that beset beekeeping on an industrial scale by treating her bees in a humane fashion.
What, you might ask, is humane treatment for bees?
Allowing them to live at a fixed location, for starters. "Trees don't have wheels," Wachter likes to say, "and bees evolved to live in trees." Bees — which she reminded me, communicate through vibration — experience an enormous amount of stress when they are loaded onto a truck and driven from place to place.
On top of that, bringing bees together from far-flung places promotes the transmission of diseases from one hive to another. This is especially problematic in the case of California's vast almond crop, which requires the presence of more than half of all the bees kept by large-scale U.S. operations to be in the same place at the same time.
Wachter's hives are set up at locations scattered around her Urbana home base, which allows her to travel to them.
In addition to keeping her hives at fixed locations, Wachter also seeks to keep her colonies strong by feeding her bees a high-quality diet. This means leaving them more of the honey they make for their own use in the winter — and having less to sell — but from her perspective, the investment in a healthier colony is worthwhile.
When problems such as parasites come along, and that's an inevitable part of beekeeping, Wachter employs a system of integrated pest management rather than relying strictly on chemical fixes. She has found, for example, that she can control varroa mites by sacrificing a select number of the bees that the mites use in their own reproduction.
Although Wachter takes great pleasure in the hands-on aspect of beekeeping, she also is interested in the work of promoting small-scale beekeeping as a way for people to reconnect with the environment and the sources of their own food. "Beekeeping requires mindfulness," she told me, "and that can have great therapeutic benefits for groups seeking empowerment, whether they're wounded veterans or battered women seeking to rebuild their lives."
One thing that Wachter suggests everyone can do to benefit honeybees and other pollinators is to put more flowers in their landscaping, with a preference for native plants. Who could argue with a call to plant more flowers?
Environmental Almanac is a service of the University of Illinois School of Earth, Society and Environment, where Rob Kanter is communications coordinator. Environmental Almanac can be heard on WILL-AM 580 at 4:45 and 6:45 p.m. on Thursdays.