Here in the North Fork Valley, healthy bee colonies continue to swarm and thrive. But there are threats. Back on March 6th, fourth-grader Noah McDaniel reported to iSeeChange that he’d seen his first bee of the season during recess at Paonia Elementary. Now, a few weeks later at Caren von Gontard’s farm on Lamborn Mesa, the bees are – well, busy.
“They’re gathering pollen, and they’re gathering nectar, and they’re gathering propolis,” says von Gontard. “The queen is probably very actively laying, so they’re having to tend to the larvae, and when they hatch, they have to go clean the cells, and take care of everything…”
Caren’s keeping her bees healthy and happy using biodynamic principles, developed nearly a century ago by Rudolph Steiner, founder of Waldorf education. The idea is to regenerate the earth, to create balance using the natural elements of the farm itself, working with seasonal and planetary changes. Even the shape of the hives invites the bees to do their natural thing.
“We’re trying to allow the bees as much as possible to duplicate what they would do in nature,” she says. “In a natural hive, if you’ve ever seen a wild hive, a feral hive, that’s out say in a big tree -- they love to go in the big cottonwood trees and if you look in there, you’ll see they build almost in a big heart shape. And when you open these hives, that’s what they’re duplicating, they’re making kind of a heart shape on that frame because they’re free to make it the size and shape they want.”
Commercial bees have been forced to build their cells in a uniform way. They have been hybridized, fed a mono-diet supplemented with corn syrup, subjected to herbicides and pesticides and genetically modified plants. They’re moved hundreds of miles by truck. The true queens have been supplanted by engineered queens. Their diverse habitat has disappeared.
“They say that 3 out of every 5 bites of food we take depends on a pollinator,” says von Gontard. “It’s not just the kept bees that are disappearing, the wild feral bees have been decimated by habitat destruction and the chemicals and all these things. So we’re in trouble.”
Add climate change to the mix, and the bees are challenged.According to von Gontard, “The seasonal changes are very confusing. One of the risks I think is that we have these real warming trends in the middle of winter. They wake up, they’re not kept quite so still in hibernation, they start flying around, they have more need to eat, and they can go through their honey stores. Because they go out and there’s still nothing blooming, there’s nothing out there for them to eat. So they’re expending energy to go out when it’s warm like that.”
“And the opposite is true as well,” she says. “When we get these brutally cold spells, they have to keep the hive warm. The hive is kept at our body temperature inside. And the way they do that is they disengage their wings and flex their muscles that are underneath. So they flex all those muscles and vibrate them, and that generates heat in the hive.
Well, that can be exhausting if it’s a long, prolonged spell. They can get to the point where they’re not able to get around in the hive to get to their honey stores. Their honey stores may be one comb back and it’s too cold for them to move there. All these climatic changes are obviously affecting the bees. And this is happening so fast. It’s not to say the earth, or the animals or even us, that we couldn’t adapt to these changes we’re bringing on. Maybe we could, but not this fast. It’s not normal for things to have to change so quickly…and they don’t have time to make the adaptations in their genetic code.”
Bees sacrifice for each other and the hive. They work cooperatively. They don’t waste time. They create our food through their work as pollinators. They make honey, which is
not only delicious but also antibacterial, antifungal and antiseptic. It builds organs and bones and fights allergies. We use their wax for candles and other items.
“They’re remarkable,” says von Gontard. “They’re the most fascinating creature. And we would learn a lot by paying attention to the way they live and trying to emulate them.”