The Plight of the Honeybee
For Ron Breland, beekeeping is all about the bees, not the honey.
From spring through fall, Ron Breland can be found among his beehives in New York’s Hudson Valley carrying a smoker filled with smoldering sage, red sumac, and artemisia, which is used to announce his presence and calm the bees. Unless an animal has knocked over a hive or the biodynamic calendar indicates that the bees are fractious, he doesn’t bother with a veil and gloves. Wearing protection, he says, means “doing battle with the bees, which are misperceived as aggressive, stinging insects,” rather than working with “gentle creatures.”
On warm days, Breland even approaches his hives shirtless, wearing shorts and sandals. Because he respects the bees as practitioners of “tough love,” he doesn’t get stung. “Bees don’t take any nonsense and if they think you’re weak, they’ll run you out of town. They will! But if you stand your ground and prove you’re genuine, they’ll say, ‘Okay, we’ll work with him.’”
The honeybees need more friends like Ron Breland. They are dying. According to entomologists at Cornell University, upwards of 90 percent of wild honeybees have disappeared since 1990. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture reports that commercial beekeepers maintained 4.2 million bee colonies in 1982 and only 2.4 million in 2005. And beekeepers across the U.S. have reported honeybee losses of 50 to 80 percent. The reasons for the decline are many: loss of habitat, use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, infestation by two species of mites, pollution, climate change, and commercial exploitation.
The disappearance of honeybees could have catastrophic implications for our agricultural economy and the health of the planet: honeybees are responsible for pollinating 80 percent of the crops worldwide that need pollinating. “If we lost the honeybee tomorrow, there would be no more cucumbers, or pumpkins, or zucchinis,” says Breland. Or squash, tomatoes, peppers, apples, and pears, to name a few more of our favorites. In the U.S. alone honeybees pollinate $14.6 billion of crops, according to a 2000 Cornell University study.
So, for over 30 years, Breland has dedicated his life’s work to helping save honeybees through practicing organic farming and the natural art of beekeeping. An organic gardening instructor at Rockland Country Day School, he also mentors other beekeepers; travels the region speaking about beekeeping; oversees a public bee sanctuary; and runs a nursery selling bee-friendly, open-pollinated seeds and plants.
Breland also builds wooden beehive “temples,” resembling Buddhist stupas, based on the principles of sacred geometry. “My aim is this: I know the higher organization of the bee cries out for a place for it to incarnate in the material world under hospitable circumstances, and I am trying to create a kind of temple where this creature can come into the world to do what it [is meant] to do.” Breland can’t help speaking of bees in these terms. “I believe the absence of such a place is, in part, if not in whole, the reason that we’re faced with the prospect of losing the entire species [of honeybees],” he says.
A Dilbert Depression
One of the honeybees’ problems, according to Breland, is the box-shaped modern beehive containing movable frames with narrow passageways for bees—“a filing cabinet for bees to live in”—invented by a Philadelphia pastor named Lorenzo Langstroth in 1851. “It’s as if we had taken this sacred creature that has been revered throughout history and said, ‘Here are your chains; put your shackles on and do our bidding.’”
With the advent of the Langstroth hive, beekeepers no longer had to destroy hives to harvest honey, could easily move hives in order to pollinate crops, and honey production became a viable source of income. Beekeeping moved into industrial mode. Previously, hives had occurred naturally in hollow trees, logs, and building crevices, or were created by beekeepers from natural materials at hand: branches, grasses and leaves, straw, clay, mud, even cow manure. In Old World Europe, says Breland, where the American honeybee originated, beekeeping was something peasant farmers and monks “did on the side, when they had time, producing only three to seven pounds of honey a year.” If a farmer “got a little surplus of honey he would put it on his table, and if there was a little more, he would give it to his neighbors. The idea of producing thousands of pounds of honey, and filling up 55-gallon drums with it, is relatively new. A conventional modern beehive produces as much as 50 to 200 pounds of honey a year.”
The “mechanical treatment of honeybees” enabled by the Langstroth hive “is one of the major reasons for the honeybees’ problems now,” says Breland. In 1923, he points out, Waldorf education founder Rudolf Steiner predicted commercial beekeeping would wipe out bees within 100 years. Breland believes we are at the tipping point. “Honeybees are not machines, so if you treat them like machines, eventually they break down.”
For Breland, beekeeping is all about the bees, not the honey—a stance he defends so passionately that he once gave up a lucrative position as a beekeeper on a 650-acre farm and took the bees with him rather than submit to production demands. In the face of a growing number of “violations of honeybee integrity”—like using antibiotics and chemical pesticides to “heal” hives of varroa and tracheal mite infestations, as well as plastic combs that force bees to gather nectar for honey-making rather than comb-building—Breland wants to “resanctify” the practice of beekeeping, and he’s letting the public know about it. Traditionally, he explains, “beekeeping used to be referred to as ‘the art of beekeeping.’ There is a science to beekeeping that’s been done fairly well, but I’m trying to put the art back into it. Bees should not be treated as a resource like coal or oil that has fallen into the marketplace and can be used up and cast aside.”
Learning the Art—and Science
Breland is a former successful commercial photographer based in Manhattan, who abandoned his professional career for full-time farming and beekeeping in the 1990s after growing tired of “corporate assassinations.” Although he began beekeeping in the early 1970s, inspired by the books of Euell Gibbons and mentored by “a very eccentric, 80-year-old Ukrainian beekeeper,” his approach to bees tended to be conventional until the summer of 1996, when he lost his own bees and more than 35 other hives he was caretaking. “In the winter of 1995, half of all the bees in this country died [because of the varroa mite infestation]. An organic farm I know lost all their bees, and I didn’t lose any of mine, and I thought, ‘Well, I’m a better beekeeper than they are,’” he recalls. “Then in the summer of ’96 I lost every single one of my hives. I realized things had changed.”
After losing his hives, Breland turned to scientific and beekeeping journals for help on dealing with the Asian varroa mite, which first appeared in North America in 1986. But he was disappointed to find only information on using Apistan pesticide strips. “The beekeeping journals were all saying we need something to kill the parasite: ‘Here’s this magic insecticide; it won’t kill the bees, it’ll just make them sick for a while, but it’ll kill the parasites so that’ll solve our problem,’” he says. “But they didn’t tell us there was some question about whether the honey you’re producing will be poisoned as well, or that whenever you spray poison into the environment to kill something, whatever it is you’re killing, not all of it dies, and then the survivors’ offspring oftentimes are resistant to whatever it is you were using to kill them—so pesticide resistance is a problem. Downstream, they discovered that residues of this poison appeared in beeswax, so when you’re having a candlelight dinner with your loved ones, are you inhaling this stuff?”
By delving into mythology along with the scientific literature, Breland also discovered that for millennia, honeybees have been held sacred, considered Ra’s tears in Egyptian mythology and messengers of the Greek gods.
As the result of his research, Breland reformulated his concept of the honeybee as a “genetically weakened” being—“incapable of fending off” infestations or diseases, or of “surviving on its own”—that needs healing and nurturing. The bees are still delivering messages from the gods, he says, and the latest one is, “we need to rethink our relationship with the bees,” literally “out of the box.”
A Temple for Bees
Today, Breland works alongside his wife, Otti, operating Bumps & Company, their nursery in West Nyack, New York, named after 19th-century English gardener Gertrude “Bumps” Jekyll and dedicated to “spreading the word about open-pollinated non-hybrid varieties that have fallen by the wayside.” The nursery grows all sorts of bee-friendly, nectar-rich plants in a charming, messy, cottage garden of the style advocated by Jekyll. Among the floral jumble poke the conical wooden roofs of the chalice-like “temples” Breland has built for his “15 or 16, or maybe 17” colonies of bees.
“The best beekeepers don’t count their hives, because they’re not their hives,” he quips when asked how many bees he cares for between Bumps & Company and The Bee Sanctuary, which he runs at the Harrison Farm in Claverack, New York. “The beekeeper is the servant of the bees. He has to know his hives the way you know your children, but you don’t count your children because it puts you in the wrong relationship to them.”
Breland’s current crop of dodecahedron (12-sided) and earlier five-sided hives were the result of his quest to “make a cylinder or sphere, which is what handmade hives were before the Langstroth hive, out of flat board,” and fueled by the theory that “there are no squares, no corners, in nature,” as well as the study of sacred geometry (a belief system attributing spiritual value to fundamental spacial forms) and the abstract sculptor Brancusi “and his notions of tension and release and his endless column form, and how that mimics the sap in trees and lifts everything away from earth and back to the heavens.”
Purposefully placed to be seen from the road at The Bee Sanctuary as well as at Bumps & Company, Breland’s hives are advertisements for the plight of the honeybee. “I don’t expect that building these eccentric hives can make 150 years of sins against the bees go away,” he says. “But at the moment, the hives have enough stopping and staying power to get people focused, and most people say, ‘I didn’t know the bees were in trouble,’ or ‘I heard there was a problem, but I didn’t know it had such magnitude.’ Artists and architects look at the hives and say, ‘Wow, that’s a good idea.’ Well, maybe it is, or it isn’t. The bees are going to determine that.”
In the meantime, Breland is comfortable being a maverick, the kind of beekeeper who “works on the margins, and in the interstices, the spaces in between.” Ultimately, he says, he may be “some wacko fiddling around with an idiosyncratic, crazy idea.” But trying to “create a temple where the gods can come and incarnate as bees” will be worth it even if his experimental hives fail, and even if sometimes when he talks of bees “in poetic terms,” which is frequently, “people look at the ceiling and I can tell they’re thinking, ‘What did he put into his smoker?’
“As the poet Antonio Machado wrote: ‘The bees at night in our dreams, where even angels would fear to go. To heal, they go to heal.’ There will be no healing of the honeybee unless the beekeeper is able to heal himself. What motivates me is that the bees are forces of tremendous healing power,” Breland continues. “They can heal the most fallen of our human aspects if they’re given a place to do that. As the beekeeper attempts to heal a beleaguered honeybee, he heals himself and those around him.”+
Susan Piperato writes on sustainable agriculture from New York’s Hudson Valley.