At a February beekeeping conference at Warren Wilson College, I heard repeated but vague mentions of "natural beekeeping." I came away curious to know more about what sounded like a buzzword in local beekeeping, so I got in touch with some local bee enthusiasts, Calvin Robinson and Carl Chesick.
Robinson, a small-scale beekeeper in Candler and president of the Buncombe County Beekeepers Chapter — a unit of the nonprofit North Carolina State Keepers Association — has a vision that both men share for the future of beekeeping: Go natural.
Robinson has kept honeybees since 2003, but he has been around them all his life. Growing up, he had an uncle who kept bees. "After my uncle died, I purchased some so-called sourwood honey from a store and knew I had to do something to get the real thing," Robinson says. "The only way I knew to be sure was to do it myself."
Colony collapse and the importance of bees
Honeybees have been getting lots of press recently about their rapid decline, often attributed to colony collapse disorder, a mysterious malady that is blamed for causing bees to die or to disappear en masse. But nobody seems to know exactly what colony collapse disorder is. Pesticides, viruses, mites, as well as industrialization, urbanization, and climate change are all cited as factors. Robinson is skeptical of the term, however. "I think CCD is not new but a progression of problems we were already experiencing due to use of chemicals, poor genetics, and highly stressed hives."
"There's been a 50-percent decline in the number of bee hives in the U.S. since 1980," notes Chesick, director of the Buncombe County Beekeepers Chapter and Robinson's close friend and colleague. "In the early 1990s, hives were being lost so fast it looked like there wouldn't be any bees left. That might be tolerable if it just meant no more honey or beeswax candles, but honeybees are indispensable in the production of more than a third of everything we eat," says Chesick, who has been keeping bees in West Asheville for eight years.
Natural beekeeping: letting bees be bees
Robinson and Chesick's response to the hard times bees are facing is to fight back — naturally. Many large commercial beekeeping operations have turned to chemical treatments to bolster bees and combat deadly mites. But the long-term effects of these treatments are more harmful than helpful, Robinson says. The chemicals have created more resistant mites and stressed the bees.
Some local beekeepers are using naturally derived treatments for their hives, but Chesick and Robinson advocate for no treatments. "Asheville has a consciousness about sustainability and a concern for keeping food pure, so most of our beekeepers use benign substances like formic acid or thymol, which is derived from the herb, thyme. I don't use anything, because I want to breed bees that will survive without having to be propped up," says Chesick, adding wryly, "Maybe I'm just trying to save myself a lot of work."
Robinson and Chesick think the best way to keep bees healthy is to manage hives in ways that allow them to thrive without chemicals and with as little assistance from the keeper as possible. Low interference helps the bees build natural resistance to disease, fungus and mites. "The basics of natural beekeeping are to find diverse genetics and preserve them, allow bees to do what they were designed to do — collect pollen, propolis, water, and nectar — and help bees regain their ability to keep the colony disease free," Robinson says.
He and Chesick work together on breeding queens to create what they call "survivor stock." Survivor stock is a tougher breed of bees that's resistant to mites and can thrive without chemical treatments. Robinson and Chesick create this hardiness by breeding their queens with wild bees in the area.
They also use strategies like "splitting" hives to reduce mite populations. "A hive split removes one-third of the mites from the parent colony because it interrupts the mite breeding cycle," says Robinson.
Robinson notes that chemical-free operations "seem to be seeing increased success over many commercial operations that rely on chemicals."
"We have a perfect storm of things against our bees," he continues. "It is up to beekeepers to do everything possible to take out each part of this disastrous equation to quiet the storm enough for our bees to do what they were designed to do."
For info on upcoming bee schools, getting started with hives, and what the BCBC is up to, go to www.wncbees.org. To support honeybee research and the arts, check out the Asheville Area Arts Council's Crystal Ball at the Grand Bohemian on Friday, March 26. The arts auction will feature a piece of jewelry from "Friends of Honeybees: The Life's Work Amulet," which represents the life's work of a single honeybee — one twelfth of a teaspoon.
[Robin Criscuolo is a Warren Wilson College junior who first came face-to-face with bees when her father kept a hive.]