There were 44 of us at the Third Organic Beekeeping Conference in Oracle AZ March 5-7, 2010. These conferences were begun and organized by Dee Lusby, an organic beekeeper, a researcher (www.beesource.com) and an early proponent of organic = no treatment beekeeping. I’d discovered this movement 8 years ago, was fascinated, and implemented some of the management techniques; I quickly discovered it was more complicated than I’d expected. I had also wanted to attend one of the earlier conferences but AZ was far away. This time I was already in AZ for an advanced organic inspector training; further, I contacted Arthur Harvey of Maine to see if he was going. Arthur is an organic inspector and has one of the very few certified organic bee/honey operations in the country. Arthur informed that he’d been to the first 2 conferences and was not planning to go; however, if I went, he would come as well. He had been trying to get folks at the conference to enter discussions on establishing standards for organic beekeeping in the US.
Arthur & I attend the morning session at the Advanced Organic Inspector Training – it’s about Organic Apiculture, the first time it’s offered here (partially due to the USDA’s National Organic Program now in the process of formulating organic apiculture standards). After the session, we drive 2 hours north to the Organic Beekeeping Conference at a YMCA camp way out in the desert near Oracle AZ. I’m looking forward to meeting the legendary Dee Lusby.
The facility is unpretentious: a large open room with several tables of bee equipment & supplies and about 50 chairs. Dee pulls herself away from an animated discussion – to register us. She continues talking bees: “are you aware that there is a left and right side to every frame?” I look at her skeptically – is this her idea of a joke? She senses my ambivalence: “come here, I’ll show you.” She holds a frame of bee comb up to the light: “look inside the cells – see the Y pointing down? When I turn it around – see how the Y points down on this side?” After several attempts, I see it. She continues: “this may not make a difference to you – but it’s a big deal to the bees. When you switch frames from left to right – it’s like someone moving your furniture; after awhile, the queen goes “how can I do my job when the furniture is constantly moved? I’m leaving – so she swarms – that ever happen to you?” OUCH! (Coming to this conference, swarming is one of the main issues I want to explore – we had excessive swarming last season). I’ve been here less than 10 minutes and already my head is spinning: YES! This is what I came for.
People are standing around outside in small groups – talking bees. After dinner, we introduce ourselves to the group. It becomes apparent that there is no scheduled program; tonight, a few of the regulars will sketch it out: who speaks when and for how long. That’s cool – I’m down with informal.
We have sessions all day: 8 am – 9:30 pm, except for breaks and meal times. The speakers are us: small time beekeepers (Dee is the only large scale beekeeper – 600 hives). She is not a speaker – “I’m trying to draw back;” however, she is the queen bee here – her pheromones set the tone.
Some topics are common to most beekeeping conferences: how to increase the number of your hives, personal experiences in beekeeping, health benefits of propolis, etc; others are new to me: top bar hives, how to get started with no treatment beekeeping, the interaction of microbes and bees in the bee hive, and apitherapy: a practitioner demonstrates how he uses bees to stings people to treat human illnesses.
Some generalities: about half of the folks here keep top bar hives rather than “Langs” (Langstroth hives = standard beekeeping equipment, after Langstroth – who invented the movable frame inside the hive 150 years ago). Top bar hives (lots of info on the internet) is a more natural way of keeping bees and it disturbs them less; consequently, they are more gentle, but make less honey. I gradually get it: these folks are more into bees than honey. For them it’s a way of “going back to nature” or bringing nature into their backyard.
This theme is highlighted in the presentation by Corwin and an apprentice, Claire, of Boulder CO. Although he had no experience, Corwin began catching swarms and installing them in top bar hives. He found the bees to be gentle and easy to maintain. He began teaching classes and was overwhelmed by how many were interested. For many, it’s a way to help bees (this was during the time when the plight of bees was in the national media). It is also a way to be an active participant in sustainable living and production (similar to folks gardening and keeping a few chickens). Some had attended local bee club meetings – only to be discouraged by beekeepers discussing products used to treat their hives. This is not what they had in mind. Corwin’s classes rekindled their interest in natural beekeeping and he showed folks how to build top bar hives, catch swarms, and take care of them. After 10 years, they have hived about 350 swarms in top bar hives in people’s backyards. As the number of hives in the area have increased – so have the swarms. They are now expanding into neighboring towns and people in other parts of the country are using this model to establish similar programs. (For more info, see backyardhives.com.)
Another theme: any & all treatments are discouraged and considered detrimental. Ramona gives a fantastic presentation on the intricate relationships and balance between microbes and bees within the hive. Even the so-called “soft” treatments (allowed in certified organic operations, eg acids: formic, oxalic, lactic, & thymol), totally upset the bees, the microbes, and their delicate balance. Dean’s presentation “How to get on the treadmill of no treatment beekeeping” is an overview of how to transition to this ideal.
On Saturday night, Arthur and I talk about organic standards & certification. I’d been preparing myself – sketching notes of what I wanted to say. Whenever I met Dee, she would tease me: “ha, you’ll be up front tonight – we’re gonna roast you!” I tried to be nonchalant “come on – you don’t scare me!” But, truth be told, she did! Arthur had warned me that folks here scoff at organic apiary certification because some products are allowed and they distrust government regulation.
I go first in our session – I want to get it over with. I decide to keep it personal: give a background of how/why I am involved in the organic certification movement. I’m not trying to convince anyone – I want to build bridges. I’m more nervous than I’d realized and cut my presentation short. Arthur is more relaxed and gets into the nitty gritty fairly quickly. He is very knowledgeable about the proposed standards, has all the details at hand and discourses at length. I scan the audience, looking for signs: are folks engaged? interested? Want to talk about different issues? Sometimes I cut Arthur off to call on people who raise their hands – to steer the conversation to what people really want to talk about. Summary: we have an informative and lively discussion.
Two comments after the session bolster my spirits: “hey, I appreciated the way you did build bridges – just like you said in your introduction”; and next morning Ramona says: “I could tell you really wanted the discussion to go well – I get that you don’t like conflict and work hard at getting to a smooth place – and you did!”
The conference ends at noon on Sunday. The last half hour, Sam entertains us with his humorous tunes on his ukulele – mostly about bees & beekeepers. It’s a great way to end.
Arthur & I leave immediately to go back to our inspector’s gig to attend our annual meeting. After that, we drive to Dee’s ranch. The tradition: after the conference, some folks crash at Dee’s place for anywhere up to a week – to see her operation and continue networking. I expected about 5 – but there were at least 15! People sleep in guest rooms, couches, and some of us on the floor. It’s fun getting to know people better and hear their stories.
Next morning it’s chilly and threatening to rain. No weather to go see bees – instead, Dee shows us how to make propolis capsules and gives us a tour of her honey house – it’s a large scale operation with old timey equipment.
- I’m humbled: our farm has been organic for more than 30 years and been certified for 20. I’ve kept bees for 30 years – the folks at this conference are more “organic” than I am – in the sense that they practice and spread the word that NO treatment beekeeping is possible.
- Many of the beekeepers in this movement are more into bees than honey – I feel ambivalent here: I want to believe that my first priority are the bees; however, we are also a commercial farm and part of our mission is to demonstrate how to make a living from the land – which includes selling honey. Then there is Dee – she started this group and is dependent on bees for her income.
- Organic vs organic certification. I’d like these folks to be involved in discussions re certification standards but there is little/no incentive for them – in fact, they scoff at the current proposed standards.
- This group’s enthusiasm and love of bees is infectious & inspiring; it’s part of a larger sustainable and green movement.
The energy feels like community building: it’s an intimate group and we are a small minority (David vs Goliath). It reminds me of the organic gardening/farming movement 20-30
FYI: two of us beekeepers at Sandhill will be teaching a one day course on bees – see http://milkweedmercantile.blogspot.com/2010/03/joy-of-beekeeping-honey-and-hives-for.html