A new hive mentality

By Coach Mark Smallwood
Originally appeared at www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com

This past winter was another tough one for the humble honeybee. Winter losses as reported by beekeepers nationwide rose from 22% in 2011/2012 to 31% in 2012/2013. If any good has come out of it, it has been the resurgence of column space in the wider media for the mysterious honeybee deaths otherwise known as colony collapse disorder (CCD) and tougher action (at least in Europe) on some of the clear threats to honeybee health.

You, me and CCD

While there are dozens of native and wild pollinators, our current food system is balanced precariously on the back of the honeybee. More than 70 of the 100 crops that provide 90% of the world's food are pollinated by bees.  Blueberries and cherries are 90-percent dependent and almonds entirely dependent on the honeybee for pollination. In total, U.S. honeybees’ economic contribution has been valued at nearly $15 billion.

Whole Foods created a great visual representation of how tied we are to pollinators by removing all fruits and vegetables from their University Heights store that relies on pollinators to produce. Turns out, 237 of their 453 products (52% of the normal offerings) had to be taken from the shelves. The short list of items that disappeared: apples, onions, avocados, carrots, mangos, lemons, limes, honeydew, cantaloupe, zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, cucumbers, celery, green onions, cauliflowers, leeks, bok choy, broccoli, broccoli rabe, mustard greens and more.

It is clear why when beekeepers began reporting unexplained losses of 30% to 90% of their hives in 2006, industry response was swift. Research began immediately to determine what may or may not be happening to the honeybee. Unfortunately, as potential suspects were unveiled, the denial machines kicked into action. Despite industry funding supporting pet projects looking into one or two issues that aren’t a threat the bottom line, the list of suspects has remained unchanged for the last few years. Pesticides, pathogens, parasites, migratory life, monoculture, GMOs have all been proven to negatively impact hive health.

The process of elimination

Without an easily determined reason for CCD, researchers have begun to focus on what happened differently around 2006 and continues to happen today. It turns out neonicotinoids, a particular class of pesticide (called neonics for short) came on the scene in 2005 and usage has ballooned since. Add to this that many of the EPA approvals for neonics were conditional, meaning full environmental impact research for all their approved uses was never conducted.

This year, U.S. almond growers were out of luck when it came time to pollinate. Honeybee losses were so high already there weren’t enough bees to go around. The crisis point on which we stand has inspired some honing in on threats that are ultimately within our control—one of which being pesticides. While the European Union instituted a precautionary two-year ban on select neonicotinoids earlier this year, American beekeepers are still bumping up against a wall with their lawsuit that claims neonics are a threat and should be removed from the market.

Thinking positively

While the race is on to test all the possible harmful practices threatening the honeybee, it seems we’ve forgotten to think about taking better care of this valuable pieces of our food system. Even without the threat of CCD, the number of honeybee colonies in the U.S. has been steadily declining for the last seventy years. In the 1940s, there were 7.5 million colonies nationwide. Today, there are only 2.5 million colonies. That’s 250 billion fewer honeybees today than in the 1940s.

The question we want to answer is, “What happens to the honeybee mortality rate when you take care of them?” Rodale Institute began the Honeybee Conservancy in 2012 to begin to answer that question and have been training individual hive stewards to spread the best management practices from community to community.

The key tenants of the Rodale Institute Honeybee Conservancy are: clean and natural comb, no smoke, no toxic chemicals, and preservation versus production. We use a Thomas hybrid hive to ensure clean, natural comb. It combines the Langstroth hive (the bee box most familiar to Americans) and a top bar hive which was invented in Africa. The top bar arrangement mimics a hollow tree so that bees can make brood and honey as they would in nature. The Langstroth arrangement allows the beekeeper to take honey and work the hives easily. This Thomas hybrid hive, developed by Meme Thomas in Baltimore Maryland is best for the bees and best for the beekeeper.

We also refrain from using smoke. You often see beekeepers smoking the hives before they open the box. But what folks don’t realize is that bees have 170 scent receptors. When we smoke bees, we hinder the tools they use to go out and find flowers and bring nectar back to make honey. It takes 10 days for their scent receptors to become clear again after being smoked. Instead, we sometimes use cold water and mist the bees. But, we usually just rely on proper technique to avoid stings—and believe it or not, stings are rare. During installation of our 12 hives this year (that’s approximately 150,000 bees), the four stewards working the hives received only six stings in total. This year also marks the beginning of our research on how environmental management can impact an apiary. The 2013 Conservancy has a new physical arrangement and a whole new set of beds that include nectar plants that bloom throughout the season and incorporate biodynamic principles. We’ll be looking at the impacts of compost, compost extracts and biodynamic preparations on the health and vitality of the plants and the colonies. We’re looking forward to harvesting the sweet rewards of humane hive stewardship. And we’re not just talking honey.

The next Honeybee Conservancy training class is schedule for March 1 and 2, 2014. {LEARN MORE}


Coach Mark Smallwood has been dedicated to environmental sustainability, efficiency, and conservation for decades. Since joining Rodale Institute in December 2010, he has brought heritage livestock back to the institute’s 333-acre farm, expanded and enhanced its research efforts, and launched Your 2 Cents, a national campaign to support and promote new organic farmers. In recognition for his sustainability efforts, Coach was chosen as a messenger for Al Gore’s Climate Project, presenting to more than 15,000 people on the effects of global warming. Last, but certainly not least, as a longtime organic farmer and biodynamic gardener, Coach has raised chickens, goats, sheep, and pigs, and driven a team of oxen.

6 Responses to “A new hive mentality”

  1. Jose Francisco Barnett


    Are you in conditions to help out beekeepers working in Nicargua? I would love to network with you all.


    Jose Francisco

    • Gerhard Baufeldt

      Dear Jose,we have been doing bee keeping for more than 40 years here in Namibia.We try to find water brakes to place beehives on.We also round off the sharp edges of the wax frames on the outside of the top and bottom bars,to allow bees to move over more easily.(in nature nothing has sharp edges.)
      For more advise please don’t hesitate to contact me .Regards.

  2. Lynn (Seigfreid) Taylor

    Thanks Mark. I am a new beekeeper and just got my 2nd Langstroth hive. I have been angonizing over smoking, so enjoyed what you shared about misting with cool water. Our friend and mentor uses sugar water with Beehealthy added, but we were cautioned it makes their wings stick together. I just discovered the ingredient Imidacloprid by Bayer is in my cat’s flea drops Advantage II. Ugh! Please share more with us on Bees. We have Italian Bees and are in South Carolina.

  3. Mike Gruca

    Can one get plans to build the Thomas Hybrid Hive? Do you have any research data comparing it to other “traditional” hives? The more we learn sometimes, the less we know. Old/traditional ways worked for a reason!

  4. Greg Kuebler

    I walked by the top bar bee hives in the Conservancy on Siegfriedale Road tonight (16 July) about 7:30 pm and was surprised to see very little or no bee activity at about 8 of the 12 hives. The only hive that appeared to be strong was the southern-most hive which had a small ball of bees hanging below the entrance hole. Some of the hives that had no visible bees tonight had bees when I walked by about 6 weeks ago. I expected to see more activity in all the hives. I started two 3 lb bee packages on wax foundation in 8 frame medium Langstroth hives, and followed the conventional routine of feeding with sugar syrup until a couple of boxes of comb was drawn out in each hive. The population in both hives is so high that bees are hanging out the front at night. I know there has been a nectar flow in the area (I live 2 miles from Rodale Farm), so I’m a little worried about the bees at the Conservancy.
    Greg Kuebler
    Maxatawny Township

  5. Andrew Jones

    I operate a trail system in the midst of tobacco fields along the upper Dan River in North Carolina. I will be planting nearly 7 miles of Southern native wildflowers in borders in our area as part of a quail reintroduction project. My predominately tobacco growing neighbors have no need for neonics given the nature of their crop. They of course prevent flowering in their crops to encourage leaf out. I have access to many additional acres of land free of neonics. I am happy to host guest populations of bees as a hedge against both parasites and suspect pesticides if there are any takers. Google Jessup Mill to get in touch.


Leave a Reply