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Creature of the Sun

By Mary-Ellen Garner, AMI Phase II Fellow

Much of our agricultural system is extractive. We take from the earth its nutrients. We take from dairy animals their milk. We take from bees their honey. We take from each other - through seed patenting and a ‘mine’ mentality. We take and we take, and we rarely give. When will this taking stop?

The sustainable/regenerative agriculture movement challenges this ‘taking’ system: it seeks to give as much or more than it takes. I find myself a part of this movement, and I hope that I can also contribute the change that our agricultural system must encounter if we are to continue as a species.

As a part of this endeavor, I hope to steward the land that I am given charge of so that it may heal: so that it may be regenerated and the soil may become more fertile and productive each year that it is in my care. Natural Beekeeping, I believe, is an integral component of this movement, whether it be Biodynamic Beekeeping specifically or some other derivation thereof.

View from the top of Bear Mountain, where AMI is located. You can see the dandelions in full bloom, which the bees love to forage first thing in spring! Allowing this ‘weed’ to bloom and planting other flowers and plants for the bees is on way to give back to the bees.

As a part of our first six months on the mountain as Phase I Fellows, we received a wonderful introduction to the ways of Biodynamic Beekeeping by Carter Wallace, the 2017 Farm Manager at AMI. Carter studied under Gunter Hauk, founder of the Spikenard Farm and Bee Sanctuary in Floyd. During our recent cohort trip to the Virginia Biological Farming Conference (VABF), I was able to attend two lectures given by Alex Tuchman, an educator of the Sanctuary. Alex has this very ethereal presence and teaches with a purity and genuineness that captivates his audience. Although I can’t speak much of how biodynamics contrasts with conventional beekeeping, I can tell you that Spikenard’s philosophy and practice is different, and that it presents an alternative way of beekeeping that seems much more in line with what nature intended.

Though I was exposed to many new pieces of information during these sessions, there is one phrase that continues to circulate in my mind: Beekeeping is about expansion and contraction. This expansion and contraction is highly cyclical--it follows the sun! As bees prepare for the summer, they begin to expand, laying and capping eggs, and as the first flowers spring forth, they begin gathering pollen and growing the brood nest. By the time summer comes, they begin building comb, the size of which is directly (!) related to the nectar flow of the given year. By the time of the summer solstice (June 21), bees are at their pinnacle of expansion and start preparing for the contraction in the months to come. From this time on, the bees begin to save up their energy for winter in the form of honey, and slow down their biological processes in an effort to tighten up the hive.

As keepers of bees, we should be aware of these natural processes. It is my hope that we also strive to do all that is in our power to support the bees. Three principles that specifically stood out to me over these sessions include:

  1. Work with natural queens and swarms
  2. Don’t use pre-fabricated foundation (let the bees make their own comb)
  3. Harvest honey in the Spring

Naturally rearing queens means letting the bees decide when to create a new queen. Allow the hive to swarm when they decide and be prepared to catch swarms when they occur. This is also a great way to get bees if you don’t already have them! Many beekeepers are willing to sell swarms when provided with materials to do so.

Allowing bees to make their own comb is important for their health. In areas that are prone to pesticides or other contaminants (such as cities), bees rid themselves of toxins through making wax. Thus, making comb is an important hygienic and health-promoting action for the bees. And, as I mentioned earlier, bees make comb that is proportionate to nectar flow. Ensuring this process allows the bees more control and offers overall better health.

Honey Bee’s create comb by ‘festooning,’ or creating chains of bees. If you connect a chain on two points of a straight line, gravity yields a parabolic shape! This is why comb is built in such characteristic ‘u’ shapes as seen above.

The last principle blew me away a little bit: Under most beekeeping operations, honey is harvested in the fall. Often all of the honey is extracted and used by humans. This means that bees must be fed by the beekeeper over the winter, and commonly bees are given sugar/corn syrup rather than their own honey.

Spikenard, on the other hand, chooses to extract honey in the spring. This allows the bees to enjoy their hard work, and it also serves to give them the nutrition that they need for the winter, nutrition that sugar/corn syrup cannot give them!

An impeccable example of a Langstroth frame in which the bees have made their own comb, filled it with honey, and capped it with beautiful wax. The look of this frame is particularly exciting to most bee-keepers because it can be put into an extractor.

Natural Beekeeping methods are not without disadvantage. Letting the bees make their comb sometimes leads to some funky shaped structures which cannot be extracted mechanically. Another method, called ‘crush and strain,’ must be utilized. This method is quite simple, but more time intensive!

As a part of the regenerative farming movement, I rejoice that places like Spikenard exist and live to share their passions with the greater community. If you are at all interested in keeping bees, or just want to know more about different methods of beekeeping, please be sure to check out the educators at Spikenard. I believe their passion and purpose for beekeeping is unparalleled--and highly contagious. These methods of beekeeping, just like regenerative methods of agriculture, serve to give back to the land and the community rather than take from it.

I hope to put into practice at least some of these principles, as I embark this year helping to maintain the hives at Allegheny Mountain Institute. Due to some unfortunate circumstances we will be starting over this year with a new set of hives. Thankfully, we will be getting our new hives from another beekeeper in the area! This means that we will be working with bees that are already acclimated to this region. This reset will also allow us to have a lot of control over what materials are used in the hives. We are thinking about experimenting with different types of frames in each hive to see what works best. We also plan to try and align ourselves more with the bee’s rhythm and harvest in the spring rather than the fall. I look forward to the year and getting to see first-hand how these principles can be put into practice!

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