A New Hive Mentality

by guest blogger Coach Mark Smallwood, Rodale Institute executive director

This past winter was another tough one for the humble honeybee. Winter losses as reported by beekeepers nationwide rose from 22 percent in 2011/2012 to 31 percent in 2012/2013. If any good has come out of the crisis, it has been the resurgence of column space in the wider media for the mysterious honeybee deaths, otherwise known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), and tougher action (at least in Europe) to mitigate some of the clear threats to honeybee health.

You, Me, and CCD

While there are dozens of native and wild pollinators, our current food system is balanced precariously on the backs of honeybees. Bees pollinate more than 70 of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of the world’s food. Blueberries and cherries are 90-percent dependent and almonds, entirely dependent on the honeybee for pollination. In total, U.S. honeybees’ economic contribution has been valued at nearly $15 billion.

Whole Foods created a great visual representation of how tied we are to pollinators by removing all the foods that rely on pollinators for their production from its University Heights, Ohio, store. Turns out, 237 of the store’s 453 products (52 percent of the normal offerings) had to be taken off the shelves. The short list of items that disappeared: apples, onions, avocados, carrots, mangos, lemons, limes, honeydew, cantaloupe, zucchini, summer squash, eggplant, cucumbers, celery, green onions, cauliflowers, leeks, bok choy, broccoli, broccoli rabe, and mustard greens, among others.

Given our dependence on honeybees, it’s clear why industry response was swift when beekeepers began reporting unexplained losses of 30 to 90 percent of their hives in 2006. Research began immediately to determine what may or may not be happening to the honeybee. Unfortunately, as potential suspects were unveiled, the denial machines kicked into action. Despite continuing industry-funded research looking into one or two issues that aren’t a threat the bottom line, the list of suspects has remained unchanged for the past few years. Pesticides, pathogens, parasites, migratory life, monoculture, and GMOs have all been proven to negatively impact hive health.

The Process of Elimination

Without an easily determined reason for CCD, researchers have begun to focus on what began to happen differently around 2006 and continues to happen today. It turns out that neonicotinoids, a particular class of pesticide (called neonics for short), came on the scene in 2005, and usage has ballooned since. Add to this that many of the EPA approvals for neonics were conditional, meaning full environmental impact research for all their approved uses was never conducted.

This year, U.S. almond growers were out of luck when it came time to pollinate. Honeybee losses were so high already there weren’t enough bees to go around. The crisis point where we find ourselves has inspired some honing in on threats that are ultimately within our control—one of which is pesticides. While the European Union instituted a precautionary two-year ban on select neonicotinoids earlier this year, American beekeepers are still bumping up against a wall with their lawsuit that claims neonics are a threat and should be removed from the market.

Thinking Positively

While the race is on to test all the possible harmful practices threatening the honeybee, it seems we’ve forgotten to think about taking better care of this valuable piece of our food system. Even without the threat of CCD, the number of honeybee colonies in the U.S. has been steadily declining for the past 70 years. In the 1940s, there were 7.5 million colonies nationwide. Today, there are only 2.5 million colonies. That’s 250 billion fewer honeybees today than in the 1940s.

The question we want to answer is, “What happens to the honeybee mortality rate when you take care of them?” Rodale Institute began the Honeybee Conservancy in 2012 to begin to answer that question, and we have been training individual hive stewards to spread the best management practices from community to community.

The key tenants of the Rodale Institute Honeybee Conservancy are: clean and natural comb, no smoke, no toxic chemicals, and preservation versus production. We use a Thomas hybrid hive to ensure a clean, natural comb. It combines the Langstroth hive (the bee box most familiar to Americans) and a top bar hive, which was invented in Africa. The top bar arrangement mimics a hollow tree so that bees can brood and make honey as they would in nature. The Langstroth arrangement allows the beekeeper to take honey and work the hives easily. This Thomas Hybrid Hive, developed by Meme Thomas in Baltimore, is best for the bees and best for the beekeeper.

We also refrain from using smoke. You often see beekeepers smoking the hives before they open the box. But what folks don’t realize is that bees have 170 scent receptors. It takes 10 days for their scent receptors to become clear again after being smoked. When we smoke bees, we hinder the tools they use to go out from the hive and find flowers to bring back nectar to make honey. Instead, at the Rodale Institute, we sometimes use cold water and mist the bees. But we usually just rely on proper technique to avoid stings—and believe it or not, stings are rare. During installation of our 12 hives this year (that’s approximately 150,000 bees), the four stewards working the hives received only six stings in total.

This year also marks the beginning of our research on how environmental management can impact an apiary. The 2013 conservancy has a new physical arrangement and a whole new set of beds that include nectar plants that bloom throughout the season and incorporate biodynamic principles. We’ll be looking at the impacts of compost, compost extracts, and biodynamic preparations on the health and vitality of the plants and the colonies. We’re looking forward to harvesting the sweet rewards of humane hive stewardship. And we’re not just talking honey.


Coach Mark Smallwood has been dedicated to environmental sustainability, efficiency, and conservation for decades. Since joining Rodale Institute in December 2010, he has brought heritage livestock back to the institute’s 333-acre farm, expanded and enhanced its research efforts, and launched “Your 2 Cents,” a national campaign to support and promote new organic farmers. In recognition for his sustainability efforts, Coach was chosen as a messenger for Al Gore’s Climate Project, presenting to more than 15,000 people on the effects of global warming. Last, but certainly not least, as a longtime organic farmer and biodynamic gardener, Coach has raised chickens, goats, sheep, and pigs and driven a team of oxen.


Bee photo credit: dni777


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One Response to A New Hive Mentality

  1. Norma Cusick June 24, 2013 at 4:16 pm #

    I am a member of the Lehigh Valley Beeeepers Association. We meet monthly in Allentown and at the Apiary at LCCC on Saturday mornings.. Perhaps we should have a joint meeting along the way or at least share information.
    Norma Cusick

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