honeybee on flower
PHOTOGRAPH BY AZUR13/GETTY

Why Honeybees Are Dying So Quickly

If these fascinating creatures are any indication of the health of the environment, they are sounding a warning. 

July 9, 2015

I’ve been a beekeeper for nearly 20 years. I have developed a philosophy of beekeeping as a meditative, spiritual experience that teaches patience, trust, and respect for bees. 

But not everyone holds the same degree of esteem for this industrious insect. Sadly, honeybees have been drawn into the sphere of industrial agriculture, where they are treated like a commodity, much like livestock crowded into massive feedlots. Each year, hundreds of thousands of honeybee hives are shipped from coast to coast, tasked with providing pollination for everything from almonds to zucchini. This system focuses on the economic value of the bee while disregarding its life. 

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To compound the problem, honeybees face threats from diseases, parasites, and the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Bee populations are in decline: There are 2.5 million fewer managed bee colonies in the United States now than there were in the 1940s. Clearly, if honeybees are any indication of the health of the environment, they are sounding a warning. 

At the Rodale Institute, our organic research farm near Kutztown, Pennsylvania, we believe the backyard beekeeper is the key to honeybee health. Each spring the Institute offers a two-day workshop in an effort to cultivate more of these hobbyists. The workshop is important because the first step for anyone interested in beekeeping is to find a mentor who shares your values of hive stewardship. Here are some of my own:

  • Bees get a bad reputation for stinging, but they won’t attack unless they feel threatened. When purchasing bees, make sure you’re getting a calm strain from a local breeder who is respected by other beekeepers. 
  • Be present with your bees, but don’t overwork them. During warm weather, when bees are most active, check on your hives about once a month. Your bees will begin to recognize your shape—they will get to know you as you work with them. 
  • Make sure your bees have a constant source of clean water. 
  • Avoid all antibiotics and chemical treatments, and never feed your bees sugar. 
  • Many beekeepers use smoke when entering the hives to calm the bees. I do not. I know how I feel when someone blows smoke in my face, and I have only two scent receptors, my nostrils. Bees have 170. 
  • Don’t take too much honey, especially in fall. Bees need honey as food to survive winter. 

We are the stewards of this planet, much as bees are stewards of their colony. After a bee stings, she dies; she gets only one chance to make this sacrifice for the hive. We humans are lucky. We get many chances to protect and preserve our “hive”—this planet we share.

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