Apr 192012

This film opens with a topless woman wearing a blouse of bees. It’s a dramatic statement for a dramatic film, now available on Instant Play for Netflix subscribers. I missed it when it played in Bellingham last year. The Mt. Baker Beekeepers Association often had a volunteer member introduce the film. I detected some dissatisfaction with Queen of the Sun on the part of MBBA. I now understand. Every beekeeper in the piece is a biodynamic beekeeper, a follower of Rudolf Steiner, the German philosopher possibly best known for his educational theories (think Waldorf School). The Mt. Baker Beekeepers are pretty conventional folk treating their bees with various chemicals and antibiotics to fight off mites and other beasties that plague today’s hives. Biodynamic beekeepers don’t use conventional approaches. Actually, the film doesn’t have much information on what the do do, just what they don’t do.

I think I’ve watched all the bee movies now; all the films that explore Colony Collapse Disorder and I’m ready to buy into the thesis of this film which is: Colony Collapse is the end result of monoculture. Let’s face it. Monoculture, or factory farming is the source of a lot of our problems. For bees the vast monoculture of the California almond grove is the culprit. Miles and miles of almonds with no other food for bees. Bees from all over the United State and even imports from other countries trucked or flown in for the pollination of this crop. Millions and millions of bees sharing all their diseases and ailments. It is a recipe for disaster. Bees ought to be able to stay in one spot and feast on a varied diet of plant and fruit blossoms. It’s not natural or healthy for them to be trucked all over the country and have their diets supplemented with corn fructose.

Other bee movies feature large beekeeping businesses who have lost thousands of hives to Colony Collapse. They want to point the finger at systemic pesticides. Understandably, they also want to continue trucking their bees around the nation from crop to crop to keep their businesses going. Recently, there was a study that blamed a certain class of poisons. Using poison is an integral part of factory farming or monoculture. But is poison the proximate cause of Colony Collapse?

This is the reaction of a beekeeper on Whidbey Island as posted to his Facebook page:
“Many of you have been sending me info on a Harvard study of neonicotinoids (neonics) pesticides. I pay very close attention to these studies because many people claim they are the cause of CCD (Colony collapse disorder) There were many flaws with the Harvard study and closer inspections quickly reveals them. As a professional beekeeper I get really frustrated when people vilify a product they do not like and use bees as a reason. There have been many studies done by independent agencies that show the neonics are not the causal factor for CCD. Most beekeepers who keep their bees in proximity to neonic treated plants report no problem. I understand that many people do not like the way these particular pesticides work, I am one of them. But PLEASE do not use the bee die offs to support your claims. We have not had significant genetic diversity in our bees for almost a century. Efforts to rectify this often hit a stone wall because so many resources are being spent on the neonic issue.” Almond growers have funded scientific studies to get at the cause of Colony Collapse. Almonds are a huge business in the USA.

I started trying to keep bees using natural methods including biodynamic ones. Half my bees died last May, a month after I got them, as did half the hives of two friends who bought bee packages at the same time. The rest of my bees made it to the cold weather in January, then succumbed. Watching Queen of the Sun made me feel less guilty about our honeybees. There are just so many strikes against honeybees as a result of how they are raised and handled.

It’s tough to peer into a dead hive and I can ache for beekeepers who have lost hundreds, even thousands of hives. The problem with bees is that it’s easy to fall in love with them. They are endlessly fascinating and entertaining and it’s important that we try to rebuild our bee population. Monoculture and the bee keeping practices that it fosters is the culprit behind lack of genetic diversity.

I deal with a guy who makes biodynamic sprays to help keep hives healthy. He believes he can talk to the bee deva, the nature spirit who manages the bees. Who am I to claim he can’t do this? I called this fellow and reported on what happened. The bee deva had a long list of things for me to do to become more successful with bees. This was the final suggestion: “There is one other consideration.  They should get the new cluster inserted early in the spring and make sure it is natural and healthy.  Do not use bees raised in a production facility.  Only use locally grown bees from swarms collected by a reputable beekeeper who can keep the bees for a week or two, or more, to be sure they are healthy.  The earlier the better.  And this year, be sure to plant as many herbs and flowers around their property as they can to feed the bees and provide them with plants like flax for self-medication. That is it.  They should be fine this year if they follow these instructions.”

Interesting that this tracks with the beekeeper on Whidbey Island who suggests that genetic diversity is the problem.

The problem is there aren’t too many local bees available. Wild swarms are rare on Lummi Island where you can count the beekeepers on one hand. I’d love to capture a swarm rather than pay $90 for a package of bees that are probably weak to start with. So, call me if you hear of one. I will keep a hive empty just in case.

After the bees leave the almonds of the San Juaquin Valley they end of in large bee lots in Northern Califonia. At this point they have mixed it up with every bee in the country and exchanged every nasty virus and bacteria known to bees. Now, hives are split, queens go on mating flights and these bees are funneled into packages that will be sent around the country. I am expecting to pick up two packages sometime this week. In gambling terminology this is called, “Doubling down.” I would prefer wild bees but I can’t count on them. My hope is to nurse a couple of hives of bees through the season trying to avoid many of the mistakes I made last year.

Watching a film like Queen of the Sun inspires one to help increase and nurture the bee population. Likewise inspirational is this film (in 8 parts on Youtube) about how they did it in the olden days in Europe.



  16 Responses to “Queen of the Sun”

  1. Any interest in encouraging the humble Mason Bee? I notice the nurseries selling paper tubes for their abodes. In the wild I think they use woodpecker holes etc. Now that my beekeeper has deserted the hives on my acreage, I’m turning my interest to other pollinators who are not part of monoculture.

    On my last trip through No. California I drove by hundreds of miles of almond groves with hives everywhere. Outside Bakersfield there are muddy cattle feed lots with tens of thousands of animals with nary a blade of grass to eat. Factory farms are a problem everywhere, even in the wheat fields of eastern WA.

  2. Why keep chasing ‘external inputs’? Here on Lummi Island we have lots of different kinds of bees from orchard mason bees & solitary leaf cutter bees to various bumblebees (often ground nesting), as well as other pollinators like various flies (which pollinate my early plums) and wasps? So, why not follow landscaping (including ag) principles that support them, in all their diversity. While, of course, avoiding herbicides and pesticides that do a negative impact on the natural world (which is a truism, obviously, since herbicides and pesticides wouldn’t be used if they weren’t effective killers), as does monocultural ag practices that destroy native bee habitat.

    It’s not that hard for us to better support our native pollinators.The Xerces Society has several extremely informative articles on line, including “Farming for Bees.” http://www.xerces.org/bees/

    As I wrote last year in a different comment. I don’t get why this rather straightforward approach to protecting our island home and fellow critters like native bees seems to be so uninteresting to many people. It’s cheaper than importing honeybees, sustains part of the island ecosystem, requires no external imports, yields excellent pollination of human and non-human food plants, requires less human labor and $$$ etc.

    Personally, I find it very satisfying to go out in summer and watch all the bumblebees and other pollinators swarm on various flowers (including vegies I want to save seeds of) knowing that my beekeeping efforts are limited merely to reducing harm (or even enhancing) bees’ habitat, food and sources.

  3. Netflix offers to more Bee Films worth investigating
    colony http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Colony/70123597?trkid=2965513
    Vanishing of the bees http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/Vanishing_of_the_Bees/70166291?trkid=2965513


  4. Wynne,

    Why not do both?

  5. Bruce,

    I probably wasn’t as explicit as I needed to be about the films you reference. They are good but told from the POV of large, commercial beekeepers.

  6. Both keep honeybees and work to enhance habitats of native bees, you mean? For sure that’s better than ignoring native pollinators and their needs entirely.

    Here’s one reason to focus on native pollinators. We are finite beings, with limited time and energy. I see little to no value of spending my limited time, energy and $$ to bring in and coddle honeybees, which are island-external inputs, perhaps genetically limited and with potential to bring in new diseases with them that *might* harm pollinators who are already here, and could compete with indigenous bees for relatively scarce resources.

    Keeping honeybees isn’t needed to pollinate human food or seed production on Lummi Island. We (well, I) already have excellent pollination. I’m not motivated by a need or desire for honey. I find more pleasure in supporting our native bee populations. Importing and caring for honeybees just seems like a lot of work with no clear benefit.

    Also, to be honest (and no doubt politically incorrect), when I see pictures of honeybee hive operations, I can’t help seeing them as tiny feedlot operations, with bees instead of chickens, cattle or pigs as the humans’ captive critters. Certainly for BIG beekeeping operations that’s a reasonable description.

    I don’t object to small honeybee hive operations but my pragmatic question is, “Why bother?” Because people like to keep beehives and sometimes harvest honey? Nothing wrong with either reason, but neither compels me to take on the costs of paying for and coddling honeybees when I’ve so many wonderful native pollinators here already.

  7. Here’s the Xerces Society summary of science on neonicotinoids re: bees.


  8. According to research I did recently, honeybees themselves are essentially a monoculture. There were no HONEYbees native to North America. The only honeybees in North America are a very few domesticated varieties which were imported from Europe and Asia. Is anyone doing any work to introduce more genetic diversity (without GMO tampering)?

    Aren’t mason bees and some of the other species experiencing the same population declines? Probably for similar reasons as the honeybees? Seems to me one good reason to raise honeybees (for those people who do want to spend the time) is because they have already been so intensively studied. If we figure out how to save honeybees, we’ll probably be able to prevent die off of native species, too.

    Also, we’d better figure out how to replace monoculture gradually, or there’s going to be some major starvation issues to deal with. I think replacing it is the only way it will go away. We have to take the money away from food raised via monoculture. As people get educated about the harmful qualities of monocultured food, I think that will happen naturally. I think momentum is building in that direction but there aren’t anywhere near enough people willing to be small farmers. We should be preserving and reclaiming farmland for them to use, too, or everything else is pointless.

  9. There is work being done, actually, to breed a bee suitable to the Northwest weather.

    I don’t think backyard beekeeping can be considered monoculture any more than backyard chicken raising.

    Reading the Xerces Society website it appears that they work with and cooperate with beekeepers in every way. It seems to me that honeybees are to bumblebees as cows are to deer. One is domestic. The other is wild. One is easier to manage than the other.

    But to get down to business, the main purpose of beekeeping is to get honey, an important food crop that in a future where imports (sugar) aren’t easy to get may turn out to be crucial.

    The father of beekeeping, the Frenchman Abbe Warre wrote as follows:
    “Apiculture or beekeeping is the art of managing bees with the intention of getting the maximum return from this work with the minimum of expenditure.
    Bees produce swarms, queens, wax and honey…
    The production of honey is the main purpose of beekeeping, one that the beekeeper pursues before everything else, because this product is valuable… Honey is an excellent food, a good remedy, the best of all sweeteners.
    It is also worth noting that beekeeping is a fascinating activity and consequently rests both mind and body.”

    At the 2011 BeeKind bee symposium the many benefits of honey were discussed: Medical benefits through apitherapy. Definition of Apitherapy: The medicinal and therapeutic use of hive products.
    Benefits on human metabolism: Honey is uniquely metabolized in the human and can be differentiated from sucrose, glucose, and high fructose corn syrup in several ways. Theraputic: bee venom therapy as a treatment alternative for pain management, sports injuries, auto immune disorders, lyme disease. Brain food: Honey before bed will promote restful recovery sleep, immune system enhancements, memory consolidation and learning, and even weight loss. Details on the Beekind website http://www.beekind.com/annualbeesymposium2011.html

    So, while I can attempt to wax poetic on the subject of beekeeping, my real hope is to end up some day with hives healthy enough to supply honey for our needs and perhaps a few others.

    I do support domestic pollinators and, of course, our troops.

  10. I think I am just an onlooker in this discussion. I know next to nothing about beekeeping and bees, but I found Randy’s article and the responses to it fascinating. As a former biologist I have always argued that biological diversity is not only interesting and esthetic, it is essential to the preservation of life on this planet. Monoculture of any kind is the road to disaster. Just drive through the thousands of miles of dead conifers in Canada to see the tragic results of planting forests of only one kind of tree.

  11. I’d love to know how much honey islanders have gotten from on-island honeybees over, say, the last decade? Maybe Molly H would know. Any islanders reading this thread: How much do you get? Also, I’m curious about inputs (sugar) needed to keep honeybee hives going through the winter? Can you use honey for that, or does it need to be sugar from cane or sugar beets?

    Re: breeding honeybee varieties for the Pacific NW. (tongue in cheek, ironic answer): Why bother — just wait until climate change adds a few more degrees to our annual weather. Oh, but then the breeders wouldn’t be able to patent the breed (like seeds) and charge an arm and a leg for the new variety, would they? (or more maliciously, insert the New Bee with terminator genes that don’t have the New Bee, which would be designed to cross readily with current natives, wiping those ‘unprofitable’ (nonpatentable) little critters off the face of the face of the earth. Those would be an excellent marketing plans, eh? Just like what’s being done already with seeds, eh?

  12. typo in previous post corrected: ….terminator genes that don’t HARM the New Bee, ….

  13. It’s true that beekeepers often feed their hives, particularly new ones. That is, packages arriving from the bee yards of N. California. If everything is working right a hive should be sustainable, making enough honey to get through the winter plus some for the beekeeper, swarming in the spring and starting over. Then, of course, if everything is working right there would be no need to make an effort to create habitat for native pollinators, to keep mason bees in the fridge all winter or order bumble bees from Georgia. But, alas, things aren’t working right. We aren’t sustainable. We still all require external island inputs.

    Off to pick up some bees (honey bees). Will be installing them in two hives Sunday afternoon sometime if anyone has an interest in watching.

  14. Wonder how bees managed to live before humans started to work so hard to construct and maintain homes for them? And… do others really keep mason bees in the refrigerator? I’ve read about that but keep having this weird vision of Lummi’s wild mason bees pounding on people’s doors in the fall, demanding, “Let me in to your heated house and then put me into your refrigerator for a few months.” Never happened to me. I guess that those who import mason bees from off island in the fall would face the caretaking responsibilities of overwintering them in the fridge.

    Like everyone else, I often am very, very tempted by the lure of ads and store displays to buy mason bees or whatever. It looks so *wholesome*, so *green,* so *responsible.* I almost caved in a couple of weeks ago, in fact. Then I think, “Huh? Mason bees already live on Lummi Island. Why pay $$ to buy more?” If I feel compelled to ‘help’ mason bees, I can always build nesting boxes from scrap wood or drill nesting holes in logs, place them in reasonable places with a mud source close by and watch the holes fill up. Despite some expert recommendations, I don’t put them in my fridge to be artificially chilled (more time, personal energy & $). Figure good ol’ Ma Nature will provide the chill factor, rather than drawing on Power from the Plug.

    I’m coming to realize that I’m a much MUCH lazier gardener than many others. Kudos to those with more time, money, energy and ambition than I have.

  15. Queen of the Sun is one of the best bee movies I’ve seen so far. It was so dramatic that it has inspired me so much to help nurture bee populations.

  16. Wow what a conversation. Well I studied Latin in High School back in those 1968 to 1971.
    If I remember correctly a crazy war was going on! So my Latin teacher taught us the Plato and Aristotle
    method of raising bees in the years of Nosema But I learned as a teenager to collect swarms,
    to feed bees and extract honey all in the name of Latin. And I think Peace
    Now I am into learning to play harp for meditation, health and the dying.
    All my studies are around Rudolph Steiner and brings back alot of memories .While raising Bees as this teenager I also raised money to start Opportunity Village a model based on Rudolph Steiner. In my teenage year and now in my twilight years I seem to meet this philosophy. Wow this is really amazing!
    He must have been onto something Oh yes did I mention I visited Steiner’s work in Iceland. It doesnt end.

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