Learning from the Bees, a conference about natural bee husbandry, took place in Holland at the end of August. It was a brilliant coming together of contemporary thinkers and do-ers who are actively engaged in changing the narrative about honeybee protection. There were over 300 of us coming together from over 30 countries, and that in itself felt momentous. Our common ground held the container for the different approaches of our work; bee scientists presented their research about treatment free beekeeping, conservationists shared their research of wild hives in rock faces and trees, activists spoke about their projects be it through education, large-scale pollinator forage planting, the legal system, rewilding, awareness raising through social practices, the arts, and seers spoke of their experiences of the subtle aspects of bees and the land.
It felt like we were inside the inner workings of the somewhat abstract notion of paradigm change; participants telling their stories, adding facets to a growing understanding that the bees themselves can show us all we need to know about caring for them when we observe them carefully. We were not talking about saving the bees, we were talking about how to relate to the natural world in new ways, ways that respect the honeybee as a wild being, part of the multiple tapestries of life, of which we are part.
As the title of the conference Learning from the Bees indicates, this event brought together voices expressing multiple ways of learning and different ways of knowing that were enabled, through the organizer’s invitation, to complement each other in order to create a picture of what is needed from us as a next step. This is a systemic approach where no voice is marginalized but all have something to contribute. Science, art and spirituality, were all invited to the table. The conversation was so multifaceted that it seems to me that we have to take time and care to listen to the new thoughts that emerged from the fusion of disciplines.
Bee Time participated with an art exhibition curated especially for the conference and in a parallel session called ‘The Beehive Metaphor‘ How can art invite, provoke, educate, explore and share ‘Stories from the Hive’ with those who are eager to hear them. We were proud to share this space with Turkish artist and activist Nil Ilkbaşaran and the American writer Heather Swan, author of the book Where Honeybees Thrive. We explored the interrelated experiences of our respective projects and praxis, creating a space for a participative conversation, which the active audience engaged with passionately. We all felt that open space as a beginning of an important dialogue, where time fell short to embrace the amount of enthusiasm, urge and determination we were all sharing.
Here is a (very small) selection of the many inspiring projects and visionary activists we met during the conference:
- Julie Armstrong from Australia educating and advocating for policy changes in Act for Bees
- Magen Dvorim Adom A national swarm collection network in Israel initiated by biodynamic beekeeping educator Yossi Oud that gives immediate swarm call response anywhere in the country. Yossi also runs many educational projects including Bees for Peace where he introduces the world of bees to groups of Palestinian and Israeli participants.
- Ujubee Jenny Cullinan and Karin Sternberg researching and documenting wild bees in Western Cape, South Africa where they are based, and raising awareness of the importance of safeguarding indigenous bees living in the wild.
- Mission Life Force Polly Higgins an environmental lawyer spoke to us during a panel on pesticide policy making about the law of ecocide which aims to add the ‘loss, damage or destruction of ecosystems’ to the list of international crimes at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. This idea aims to hold those who put profit over ecosystems accountable for their actions.
- Deborah Post of Honey Highway, a Dutch based initiative planting wild flowers along Holland’s highways to create an abundance of forage for pollinators.
- The Pollinators Another Dutch based initiative raising awareness for pollinators and pollinator habitat.
- Bees in Rye Hill Prison An ongoing project carried out by the Natural Beekeeping Trust, teaching the art of caring for bees within a prison setting.
We were also there as scouts for our learning community Apijanda, to whom we brought back new information and inspiration we collected from the conference talks. Much of what we noted on a practical level was related to the transition process from ‘beekeeping’ to ‘rewilding’ bees.
Tom Seeley described his research with wild colonies in the Ithaca Forest over a period of over 20 years and has noted that the sharp colony decline that took place with the arrival of the varroa mite, recovered in later years with the colonies showing signs of genetic and behavioural adaptive changes.
Some behavioral changes observed in colonies were:
- Bees chewing off the legs of Varroa mites.
- Increased hygienic behavior; bees detecting and opening capped cells that have varroa and killing those pupae.
- Uncapping and recapping brood cells
- Increased grooming behavior.
Some advice for apiaries
that are aiming to manage colonies with a view of rewilding them:
- Keep larger distances between hives to help minimize the spread of diseases.
- Use smaller hives to encourage swarming every year – that helps the bees manage varroa numbers.
- Use rough hive walls, like the interior of tree trunks or anything with a rough surface. That encourages the bees to propolize the entire inner surfaces as they do in nature, and that provides a significant layer of hygiene and protection for them.
- Mold is deadly for the bees so take that into consideration when choosing hive wall thickness and material.
- Capture swarms from Wild colonies they are more likely to have a genetic resistance to varroa.
- Allow as much as possible for the bees to rear their own queens, they select the brood from genetic ‘royal lines’ which would not necessarily be the case in cases of artificial queen rearing.
- It is advisable to kill dying colonies that are ridden with mites as they have not displayed the genetic/ behavioral adaptive changes they need in the selection of healthy colonies (natural selection with a bit of assistance…).
We heard about Colonies in the wild in South Africa documented and studied by Ujubees, and learned from them as well as from scientist Torben Schiffer about the book scorpion those small pseudoscorpions who have shared living quarters with honeybee colonies in their natural habitat and who’s feeding habits help keep the bee pests at bay. Nature, as we know, has all the solutions, we humans just need to stop being in the way.