AM: Honeybees have this incredible capacity for navigation, memory and communication. Can you explain how honeybees locate floral sources and then communicate that to the other bees in the hive?
Les: A number of bees as they get older, start flying outside the hive and become the field bees as opposed to hive bees that work inside the hive building wax and feeding baby bees. Among the field bees, there are certain bees that designate themselves as scouts, and so rather than just work at taking nectar back and forth; they’re constantly searching for new nectar sources.
When they find the nectar source, they leave a little bit of a scent around the flowers. They fly back to the hive and then they do a dance in the hive, and the dance indicates an angle in relation to the sun, and a distance. So it says basically fly 35 degrees to the left of the sun, so to speak, 12 bee miles, and then keep your nose peeled and you’ll smell my scent and that’s where the flowers are.
They’ll bring some of the nectar and the pollen from the flower to feed the bees that are watching them. The bees that gather around them watch the dance, gather the concept and know which direction to go, and then head out to look for those flowers.
AM: Do the bees know when flowers produce nectar?
Les: Yes. For instance, there was a flower I had seen for years, and I often wondered, boy, it’s a beautiful little flower, but I never see bees working it. And then I was walking at five in the morning and there were bees buzzing all over it. I had never looked at it that early in the morning. Flowers are all competing for bees, each species of flower has a tendency to produce nectar at different times in the day in order to get the bee at that time of the day to concentrate on their species of flower. In that way, they divvy up the day so each species gets a portion of the day to itself. Some flowers will try to make nectar throughout the day, but others definitely have a certain time of day that the bees get to know.
AM: I’ve read that honeybees provide pollination for anywhere from nine billion dollars worth of food crops to twenty billion dollars. What are some of those crops in New Mexico that depend on bee pollination?
Les: In New Mexico there’s all the fruit trees – apples, peaches, pears, plums, as well as raspberries There’s a lot of melon growing, everything in the cucumber family and squash need pollination; and there are seed growers in New Mexico for onions and cotton and alfalfa, and those all need pollination.
Interestingly enough, onion honey is a totally delicious honey that has no flavor of onion in it whatsoever. Cotton honey tends to be very sweet, very clear. I don’t like it. I feel like it has almost no taste. But some people really like it. The danger with cotton is it’s so heavily sprayed that it kills a lot of bees. It’s a tricky crop to try to get near and especially to try to pollinate. They have to promise not to spray during the bloom.
AM: What are some of the problems that are contributing to bee colony collapse disorder?
Les: Last year in California, I was helping the honeybee inspector in Modesto County inspect hives. There were a lot of hives with dead bees arriving from out of the state that were full of apistan and check mite strips, which are insecticides that beekeepers use to kill parasitic mites. You’re supposed to leave them for two weeks and take them out, and then dispose of them as hazardous materials, which costs a lot of money to dispose of them properly. Beekeepers were struggling, the price of honey is very low, and diesel fuel is high, etc. So they didn’t take the time or pay for the labor to remove the strips; they just left them in. Next year, they put in two more, and next year two more.
When the inspector took samples of those combs and had them analyzed he found lethal doses of both miticides in the honeycombs due to an accumulation of the chemicals. Each time the beekeeper was putting in the strip, he was putting in a sub-lethal dose for a honeybee. But it’s a fat-soluble insecticide that over the years was absorbing into the beeswax and killing the bees. That’s one of the factors.
High fructose corn syrup, which is a low cost food source for bees used by industrial beekeepers transporting bees across country, interferes with their digestion. Antibiotics interfere with their digestion, just like if we take antibiotics we get diarrhea sometimes because we kill off our natural flora. My wife just recently wrote an article for the American Bee Journal, which they declined to print, indicating that the use of antibiotics can set up conditions for things like Candida and Nocema cerranae [a pathogen tentatively linked to colony collapse disorder] in honey bees. In beekeeping, they advise you to give antibiotics to bees, every beehive, every year as a preventative. It is administered in the winter to prevent them from getting sick in the summer, which doesn’t make any sense.
AM: Administering sub-therapeutic antibiotics has proven to be a risky policy in cattle breeding resulting in increased antibiotic resistance, why would it be any different with bees?
Les: Right, and then you feed bees high fructose corn syrup on top of that and destroy their digestion, weaken them, expose them to insecticides. Just one thing after another. Too many hits from too many directions.
AM: What are some of the other industrial practices that are detrimental to the health of the bees?
Les: Beekeepers often use a bee repellent to drive the bees out of the top of the beehive where the honey is so they can lift the whole box and put it on the truck. Some of the bee repellents are relatively innocuous, but they smell bad and bees often come out rubbing their eyes. I always felt repulsed by them and sorry for the bee.
There is a wax moth in all beehives that will eat honeycombs. So they fumigate the honeycombs with some kind of poison, and nowadays the legal poison is mothballs.
The other thing is the reuse over the many years of the comb. Just now reading an article in the American Bee Journal about how Europeans have always felt that you should renew the honeycomb in the brood nest because it gets dirty; it gets old. The cocoons build up in there and it gets full of bee feces, larval feces, and the honey bees eventually, in nature, abandon their old combs, let the wax moths eat them up and then they clear the wax moth webbing and build new combs.
Every comb that you throw out, you have to replace for $1.50 or so, plus the labor or putting it together. So there’s a reluctance to cull the old combs, but the old combs harbor disease and there is a build up of insecticides.
AM: How about the issue of mites and miticide resistance?
Les: I started keeping bees when I was a kid. It was then I read an article in the American Bee Journal was reading about the varroa mite in Europe, written by an Italian who was researching the Italian honeybee in its natural state. He calculated how many feral beehives there were throughout Italy. When the varroa mite arrived, many of the feral hives died.
About eight years after the arrival of the varroa mite, he noticed a general increase in the feral Italian honeybee population in the wild. He concluded that they had developed a natural resistance to the mite. And, of course, nobody applied any miticide to those bees. They’re just wild bees out in nature. So, honeybees left alone will naturally develop mite resistance.
AM: Not allowing that evolutionary process of mite resistant bees to become the dominant survivors, we now have an opposite situation with the use of miticides, the mites have become resistant.
Les: Exactly. Initially one miticide was used for many years, which was a guaranteed way to select for a resistant mite, and that happened fairly quickly. So we went to two. One of them was an organophosphate. You had to get a special exemption to use it because it’s like DDT; it has a very, very long life.
I took a serious hit the first two years because I didn’t use any miticide and I lost almost all my bees. And then I got bees from the Russian bee project. I went to beekeepers conference in Colorado Springs. A lot of the bee keepers got together and said, where is this mite from, aren’t there Apis mellifera [honeybees] near there, and wouldn’t they be mite resistant? One of the experts said that bees cannot be resistant to the mite, that’s like lambs being resistant to the teeth of wolves. It made me angry.
But there was another doctor, Dr. Thomas Rinderer from Baton Rouge Bee Lab, who said fluvalinate [miticide] was sterilizing the queens and the drones and that we needed to find an alternative. He decided to go to Southeastern Russia, and he found that, even though there were mites on the bees they weren’t hurting the bees.
He called the beekeepers there peasant beekeepers. He said they didn’t understand bee biology, but they had mite resistant bees. So he finally imported some of those Russian bees and they’ve been great. I don’t even think about mites anymore. I see them occasionally, every once in a while I’ll see a mite on a bee, but I don’t worry about it.
AM: What are some of the other ways that your practices differ from some of those industrial practices?
Les: Industrial honey manufacturing uses extreme processing methods: pressing, adding water, heating, filtering, which, take all of the pollen, all the enzymes out, you’ve basically ruined it at that point. It becomes sugar syrup.
We just brush the bees off of each comb, cut the comb into a bucket, crush the combs and then pour them over a strainer and the honey drips through. We melt the wax in a solar melter. Because we squeeze and crush the combs, the honey potentially has more pollen and some of the propylis, which the bees us as a varnish on the inside of the beeswax, so our honey will crystallize a little faster. We don’t ever heat or filter the honey. We just let it settle, and let the wax float to the top, and sell it crystallized.
AM: Is honey basically nectar that the water has been evaporated off of, or is there further processing by the bees?
Les: There is a little bit of processing, but yes it is basically distilled nectar. Bees add enzymes. One enzyme makes hydrogen peroxide when exposed to water and carbon dioxide. So, if yeast begins to digest some of the sugar in the honey, which would make water and carbon dioxide that would turn on the enzyme, which would make hydrogen peroxide, which would kill the germ. So, it self preserves. The bees preserve it with a natural enzyme.
There are also enzymes that help digest the honey. Honey has got a variety of sugars so that it comes into our blood more slowly and doesn’t give us really high blood sugar and then subsequently low blood sugar. The plants make nectar to attract the bees. They put sugar in it, but it’s fairly dilute. Honey bees will take about eight to ten drops of nectar and reduce it down to one drop of honey.
AM: What are some of the other health benefits of honey?
Les: Honey contains pollen from your neighborhood, which seems to help people become less allergic to the pollen in their neighborhood. So it reduces allergies.
Honey has some trace minerals. It turns out that the darker honeys have more minerals and iron. Honey, if it’s been heated, is potentially not as good for you. You denature the enzymes.
Honey has also been used as a wound dressing. It is a great burn ointment. It humidifies and kills germs on the skin and actually feeds the tissue of the burned skin.When you place it right on an open wound honey acts as an antibiotic, but pasteurized honey doesn’t work nearly as well because the pasteurization gets rid of the enzymes that kill the germs on your skin.
AM: What needs to happen to protect our wonderful ally the honeybee?
Les: We need more small beekeepers. We need cities to encourage bee keeping. I was just reading an article in the American Bee Journal about a man in France who keeps bees on top of the Paris opera. There are people in San Francisco, right downtown, that keep bees up on rooftops.
Les Crowder is a chemical-free beekeeper, who has been teaching beekeeping since 1988 and is a member of the Permaculture Institute