By Jeanne Janson, NFU Journalism Fellow
With honey bee populations declining at rapid rates, beekeepers, farmers and consumers alike are grasping for solutions that will tackle the big picture problems like climate change. Ang Roell, however, believes change starts on a much smaller scale – one the size of a thumbnail.
Ang is the author of Radicalize the Hive and founder of They Keep Bees, a queer-led bee farm focused on sustainability and raising resilient, adaptive queens. They believe that by shifting the focus of the beekeeping industry from migratory pollination to high-quality queen production, we could begin to tackle the growing list of problems at a base level.
“I want to push beekeepers to be bioregional, to be local, to be collaborative, to be small-scale,” said Ang. “That’s going to give us better bioregional pollination that’s not going to force our hand to be reliant on this mono-cropping system that’s not generative for the beekeepers or the earth.”
Migratory pollination services account for close to 85 percent of all hives in the United States. These bees start their season in California to pollinate the 1.3 million acres of almonds and then move through the U.S. via semi-truck trailer to pollinate everything from tangerines in Florida to blueberries in Michigan. Without the help of this one pollinator, the U.S. would effectively lose one-third of all its crops.
However, as Ang mentioned, this system is not generative for any of the parties involved – and for the past decade, we’ve been observing the devastating effects. Last year, according to a national survey by the Bee Informed Partnership, commercial beekeepers lost 33 percent of their hives, compared with the historic average of 22 percent.
There are several threats to honey bee populations including climate change, pesticides and Varroa mites. This system of constantly being on the move, chasing nectar producing plants is taxing on bees and does not allow for “contraction, rest or recovery,” Ang writes in Radicalize the Hive. With no time for the hive to recuperate, the bees are even more susceptible to these threats.
This is where They Keep Bees steps in with a different approach. With queen bees at the center of all their work, they have developed three strategies that leverage nature to strengthen the overall hive. The first thing they do differently is keep their hives in one location, either southern Florida or Western Massachusetts.
“The reason we’re doing that is because there’s a lot of research to show that queens who are from the bioregion or ecoregion where you are adapt to different stressors in the environment in that place. We’re helping to strengthen the genetic stock at that base level.”
The two other methods they employ are using the natural way bees swarm to raise queens and allowing them to have the breaks in the brood cycle they would have naturally, those periods of contraction, which allows the hive to build up resistance to disease and pests. Ultimately the goal of They Keep Bees is to take these three methods and develop a fool-proof recipe any backyard beekeeper could follow. Instead of semi-truck trailers crisscrossing the U.S., Ang imagines a vast network of bioregional beekeepers armed with healthy, adapted, resilient hives responsible for pollinating their own communities.
This March, They Keep Bees got one step closer to making this goal a reality when they were awarded a three year SARE grant which will allow them to offer online classes this fall and their first apprenticeship program for fifty beginner beekeepers next summer. Through this program each participant will learn the recipe and raise their own queens.
“We’re trying to really put these methods of queen production back in people’s hands,” And noted. “I want to see a diversified beekeeping world which is only going to happen if there’s increased access and education around beekeeping and how you can plug into different areas of the industry.”
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