The Ancient Practice of Beekeeping, and its Relevance for the Future

Jennifer Tarnacki
Oct 7, 2019 · 11 min read
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“The future is not in one beekeeper with 60,000 hives, but rather 60,000 people with one hive”

Sun creatures. Messengers of love. People get bewitched, they report, from beekeeping. Beekeepers are chosen by bees, one explains.

Honeybees are at least 50 million years old. The relationship between Homo Sapiens and Apis mellifera began around 10,000 years ago, when humans were honey hunters. There are images in Paleolithic rock paintings of tribes people climbing tall trees for the golden liquid in the beehives above. In Tanzania, they even work with honeyguide birds to score caches of hidden honey in the desert. Over time, the relationship evolved from hunting honey, to working with them — ‘keeping bees’.

A 3,000 year old jar of honey was found in King Tut’s tomb, and it was still edible! Honey was considered so sacred, a panacea for health problems, that it wasn’t even sold. Honey was a gift from bees, a substance that came 50 million years from the past. It was food and medicine, but it was also, in a very real way, a gift from the Gods, a gift from the mystery centers.

The honeybee was considered a sacred animal. The sacredness came out of the knowledge that the bee is one of the greater nurturers of life and fertility. Bees and honey are present in a remarkable number of creation myths around the world, in the cosmologies and sacred places of many diverse ancient cultures.

It’s not hard to see why.

Honeybees have an amazing array of capabilities. A beehive as an institution is a matriarchal society, led by one queen bee who can lay up to 1,500 eggs a day. She is aided by a robust team of nurses, workers, foragers, and honeycomb builders. The hive works together for the good of the whole.

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The essential and invisible service that bees provide as pollinators of plants has largely been taken for granted. This is a departure from the past, when bees were revered. If we didn’t have bees, we’d mostly have to eat grains and a few nuts. This is because bees pollinate almost 80% of flowering plants, and a third of the food we eat. 4 out of every 10 bites of food comes from the pollination services of a honey bee! We rely on them, the USDA estimates that honeybees do $11-$15 billion of work in pollination for American farmers each year.

Honeybees are pollinators; messengers of love. Plants are stationary sun creatures, so they recruit creatures with wings, like honeybees, to assist them in mating.

Beauty and seduction are the flowers’ tools for reproduction and survival. Flowers developed enticing nectars, scents, and colors to entice pollinators to them. When a male flower loves a female flower, he makes a little pollen, which the winged bee is recruited to deliver to the female flower. The female produces the seed, which becomes a fruit.

Their ménage à trois is the love story that feeds us all.

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Bees forage for the pollen and nectar, pollinating along the way, and then return to their hive. They use the nectar to create honey and beeswax, while pollen provides healthy fats and proteins for the brood, rounding out their otherwise carbohydrate based diet.

Once back at the hive, the nectar is passed from bee to bee. An enzyme in the bee’s stomach turns the sugar into a diluted kind of honey. That’s stored in comb cells where worker bees fan it with their wings to evaporate excess water. The honey is then ready to be stored for food during the winter when flowers are not in bloom.

Beeswax is also made, by specialized bees, from honey produced from the collected flower nectar. The bees use the forces of the sun to turn materialized light into wax; we can then use that wax to make candles in the darkness of winter!

From sunlight to honey, bees are transformative little beings.

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They also have incredible natural defenses that have kept them healthy and thriving for over 50 million years. So when honeybee colonies were reported to be dying in industrialized countries in droves, a phenomenon deemed Colony Collapse Disorder, it was clear something was very wrong.

For all bees, foraging on flowers is a tough life. They must leave the hive and travel large distances to collect pollen and nectar from flowers, and return to the hive. It’s cognitively and energetically difficult on them, and in order to accomplish their feat they use their finely tuned spatial memory and senses. Anything that damages those abilities for learning and memory can make it very difficult to find food and safely return to the hive. This means that bee colonies are sensitive and vulnerable to “sublethal” stressors in their environment: factors that don’t outright kill them, but hamper and weaken their abilities.

Bees are dying from multiple and interacting causes, but scientists believe it boils down to the interconnected factors of monoculture farming and pesticide use. Experts have concluded that it’s the combination of pesticide exposure, lack of food, decreased nutrition and vitality, and weakened immune systems that are causing Colony Collapse Disorder.

Ultimately, bees dying reflect a flowerless landscape and dysfunctional food system.

Bees have been in decline in the industrialized world since World War II. The United States has half the number of managed hives compared to 1945, down to 2 million. After WWII the country changed farming practices drastically, and the chemicals from the war were made into the agricultural chemicals farmers now rely on. Clover and alfalfa, which are natural fertilizers, were no longer planted as cover crops as a rule of thumb, and instead we starting using synthetic fertilizers and herbicides from those wartime chemicals. It seemed like a good idea

(higher crop yields mean more people get fed), but the problem is clover and alfalfa are highly nutritious for bees, and many of the weeds that the herbicide chemicals target are flowering plants that bees require for their survival.

Another massive change was the introduction of monocultures, which became the industry norm. We started sowing larger and larger single crops, with acres upon acres dominated by one crop like soy or corn, and the very farms that used to sustain bees became agricultural food deserts, providing no food for honeybees.

As leading Vermont apiarist Dennis van Engelsdrop explains, it used to be a continuous paradise for honeybees in this country, from Pennsylvania through the West, but after farmers started planting monocultures, they had to start using pesticides. This became necessary because of the pests brought by the monocultures themselves.

“A monoculture from nature’s point of view is insane”, says journalist Michael Pollan, in the documentary Queen of the Sun.

Monocultures are an absolute distortion of the way a healthy ecosystem works. Biodiversity builds ecosystem health, so when there’s no natural barriers or plant diversity for acres and acres, as in a monoculture, it creates a feast for pests, which then creates a huge need for pesticides. Farmers use systemic pesticides to treat this problem, and they’re used heavily, so Americans have been consuming a cocktail of chemicals in our food for years.

Like a system of governance with no checks and balances, monocultures wipe out the strengthening aspects of diversity. We can try to add inorganic inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, but eventually the land gets too damaged, too distorted, diminishing Nature’s very capacity for regeneration.

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Imagine a weakened bee, looking for food. The food she eats contains a neurotoxin that confuses her enough to the point she can’t find her way home. This is what experts suspect is happening. Researchers from Penn State University have started looking at pesticide resin in loads of pollen, and they’ve found that every batch of pollen a honeybee collects has at least six detectable pesticides in it: insecticides, fungicides, herbicides.

The Environmental Protection Agency, the arm of our government responsible for protecting the environment, operates on a basis of risk assessment; t hey manage environmental risks to humans. In response to honeybee colony collapse, the EPA conducted a scientific study to determine the safety of spraying systemic pesticides by testing for lethal doses of pesticides in adult honeybees.

You can see the study here: toxicologists measure single dose exposure of a test pesticide followed by an observation period of 48 hours. Data obtained from the single-dose study is used in estimating risk to individual larval bees based on a single exposure event.

The problem is, you don’t start seeing the effects of pesticides until several generations later. The observations of multi generational beekeepers testify that pesticides affect the bees far later than in a 48 hour period. Not to mention, when it comes to designing a scientific experiment, sublethal stressors are extremely difficult to capture in a data set of such interrelating factors. Since we do not have the current science to measure the interconnected phenomenon, and since science is the last word driving EPA policy, environmental policies can stay legal for longer than is truly healthy for the environment.

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With the lack of up-to-date science informing policy, beekeepers are reporting from the ground, and passionately speaking out. David Hackenburg is the poster child for Colony Collapse Disorder. In 2016, Hackenberg sued the Environmental Protection Agency for “inadequate regulation of the neonicotinoid insecticide seed coatings used on dozens of crops.” Hackenberg was quoted as saying, “As a beekeeper for over 50 years, I have lost more colonies of honey bees in the last 10 years from the after-effects of neonic seed coatings than all others causes over the first 40 plus years of my beekeeping operation.”

As the old timers watch the bees disappear, they bid somber farewells to not only their livelihood, they also share their pain at watching a familiar standby of nature disappear. Honeybee vitality, or lack thereof, is a metaphor for the health of the whole planet. “This is bigger than us”, one beekeeper laments, tears in his eyes.

Honeybees are indicators of the health of an ecosystem. Taking care of bees is like taking care of ourselves; the sentiment is repeated everywhere. This is because what affects them will ultimately affect us. If pesticides accumulate inside honeybees in low, sub lethal doses, they will inevitably come to do the same in other creatures.

Could this small bee be holding up a large mirror to humans?

The honey bees could be telling us something. But the answers to this conundrum might not be found within the same mindset, the same paradigm.

“We’ve become so used to using nature for our owns means”, Gunther Hauk, lecturer and founder of Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary explains, “The honey bees are saying, if you continue on this path, we're withdrawing.”

The internal contradictions within the industrial agriculture system garner quick profits now, but could ultimately cause its own demise. It’s a bit of a Faustian deal with nature. The retreating bees are like the canary in the coal mine, a signal that they (and therefore we) are in distress. As Bill Maher once quipped, the honeybee’s disappearance is like Nature’s way of saying, “Can you hear me now?”

It’s enough to watch a disoriented bee on a flower fumble around before falling off to feel the question arising up from deep, “Why are we doing this?”

The pesticides and insecticides are the same chemicals as the original chemical agents of war, meant to kill. They’re poisonous. And at some point, you have to ask if dominating Nature in such a way might ultimately prove, in the long run, to be unwise. If, instead, there is a way of creating fertility without diminishing our world.

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The treatment of the queen bee could be a metaphor for the way mother earth is treated; the feminine aspect herself.

Bees are a matriarchal society, and as such they are seen as the feminine aspect of the divine. The honeybee has long ties with the divine feminine, from priestess hoods of ancient Greece to practices of Celtic origin. The bee was revered as a symbol of generative power.

As Marguerite Rigoglioso, author and Ph.D, explains in the documentary Vanishing of the Bees,

“The bee clearly represents the female aspect of the divine, in the fact that the queen is the centerpiece of the bee culture. In antiquity, the queen and the bees were associated with the sacred feminine.”

This could be why so many women are stepping up into beekeeping roles as a compassionate response to their disappearance. It’s almost as if we know, deep in our collective conscious, that something is wrong. “The bees are saying we need to open our consciousness again to the idea that there is both masculine aspect of deity and feminine aspect of deity, and the two have to come into balance again, honoring the body of the earth as mother” says Rigoglioso.

“We’re so used to using nature, but the answers are to inner problems,” explains Gunther Hauk, expressing a similar concept, “We wont solve bees disappearing by killing a virus or mite or a fungi, because the problems are internal, requiring a mindset shift. It’s an inner problem, solved by an inner transformation in how we see nature.”

So what can we do to transform how we see nature and fix a dysfunctional food system? The great thing is, its an easy, and rather poetic answer:

Plant flowers!

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Flower power is perhaps indeed more powerful than just an expression — bees love flowers! On a global level, to preserve bees we have to improve the environments in which they forage for food. Flowering plants and pollinators have been in a coevolutionary dance for millions of years, and we can participate in this dance by creating habitats that nurture their symbiotic relationship. We can reintroduce space for the sacred. We can venerate their role, and be open to the honeybees’ sweet messages.

To avoid a beepocalypse might require citizen vigilance. We must look out for the health of our air, soil, and water, and defend it, as patriotic duty. Big change can come from small acts. We can plant gardens with bee friendly flowers, we can build apiaries and bee sanctuaries, and we can avoid pesticides. Every tiny action we all take can make a difference.

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In her passionate and informative TED talk Marla Spivak concludes: “Every one of us needs to behave a little bit more like a bee society. Each of our individual actions can contribute to a grand solution, an emergent property, as our acts become much greater than the mere sum of our individual actions.”

In the small act of planting flowers and keeping bees could be sown the seeds of large scale change. Plus, beekeeping is a dynamic, historic and exciting community to be a part of! As beekeeper Simon Buxton said, “The future of beekeeping is not in one beekeeper with 60,000 hives, but rather 60,000 people with one hive.”

There is much of value in life that eludes the calculus of money. The value of robust colonies of honeybees buzzing around the world, pollinating flowering plants, and building up the ecosystem, is priceless.

Want to Help Protect the Honeybee?

If you’re interested in learning about beekeeping hands-on, check out the many WWOOF farms in the US that offer educational opportunities by visiting WWOOFUSA.org

If you’re interesting in getting involved politically, check out Bee City USA, an intiative of the Xerxes Society, whose aim is “Making the World Safer for Pollinators, One City at a Time.”

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