A Colony in Crisis

Saving the honeybee depends on humans

Apr 27, 2011 at 2:06 pm


n a farm in Spring Grove Village, on a windy spring morning, a group of Baby Boomers, artists and organic farmers gather in a small structure known as the “puppet barn.” They swap stories of royalty over cups of coffee sweetened with local honey. They have come to hear the teachings of a master beekeeper.

Author, biodynamic farmer and 30-year beekeeper Gunther Hauk recently visited Cincinnati for a workshop at Homeadow Song Farm and a screening of the film Queen of the Sun, directed by Taggart Siegal, at Xavier University.

Interviews in the film with Hauk, writer Michael Pollan, physicist Vandana Shiva and others reveal the wonders of the hive. They also expose the practices which threaten to destroy the honeybee.

“More and more people are waking up to what we are doing to these animals,” Hauk says.

Beekeeping is an ancient practice and, like farming, it began organically. Industry has changed that. We know the Holstein cow is pumped full of hormones but what about the factory apiary? How is man exploiting his tiniest worker?

Hauk, who grew up in Regensburg, Bavaria, was inspired to begin beekeeping by the teachings of Waldorf founder Rudolf Steiner. In Germany, Hauk worked as a Waldorf school gardener for more than 20 years and for the past 30 years he has been working in service to the honeybee.

At Homeadow Song Farm, Hauk mystifies attendees with tales from the hive. Much of the wisdom he imparts can be found in his book Toward Saving the Honeybee. The Queen brings hundreds of thousands of lives into this world but she is in crisis. Honeybee colonies are dying at an alarming rate. The phenomenon, known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), has staggering implications for plant, animal and human life.

Hauk writes that bees pollinate approximately three-fourths of the food we eat. Our great dependence on the honeybee is, in part, why the species is in crisis.

“We import 300 to 400 thousand colonies a year from Australia just to pollinate our crops in California,” Hauk says.

Each year, a mass migration of semi-trucks, loaded with colonies, travel to an almond orchard in California for the world’s largest pollination event. Hauk says these practices place tremendous stress on our tiny friends.

No single culprit can explain CCD; many factors are at play.

Queens are artificially bred through instrumental insemination. They are fed a diet of corn or sugar syrup rather than allowing the hive to “overwinter” with its own honey for nourishment. In the film Queen of the Sun, we see a man heavily suited up, as if on a hazmat crew, pouring a grimy bucket of syrup into the hive. The bees also ingest the pesticides from our crops and gardens. The weakened hive is vulnerable to viruses including varroa and tracheal mites.

“I am grateful for the crisis,” Hauk says. “It will give us the opportunity to learn if we are willing. We need to have a deeper understanding for the spiritual side of this important animal.

“How can I work with the bee in a way that is honoring her needs?” Hauk asks.

Practically speaking, we can buy organic honey, plant flowers that bees like and stop using pesticides in our gardens. We can educate our children not to fear bees. Most stings come from wasps or yellowjackets, not honeybees.

In 2006, Hauk co-founded the nonprofit Spikenard Farm Inc. A donor purchased 610 acres of land in western central Illinois where Hauk and his wife built the facility.

“I had a feeling of urgency to start this biodynamic farm with a honeybee sanctuary at its heart,” Hauk says. Later, he moved the farm to a 25-acre plot in Floyd, Va. The land is smaller but Hauk says he is no longer surrounded by a sea of monocultures from agro-giant Monsanto, like he was in Illinois.

With the help of donors, Hauk would like to grow his farm. He hopes to purchase more land and build lodging for interns and workshops.

A movement of hobby beekeepers is spreading in the United State. Some work in their backyard or on rooftops; others, like the stewards of Homeadow Song Farm, have enough land to tend multiple hives.

Vicki Mansoor, a co-steward of the land, organized and hosted Hauk’s visit. Last spring, she invited me to the farm to help harvest honey. As we opened the hives, the buzz of the bees intensified. As I held the frame upon which the workers build their honeycomb, I felt this huge cluster of life, moving, breathing and working between my hands. The experience will always be with me.

For more information on local beekeepers visit South Western Ohio Beekeepers Association at www.swoba.org or Homeadow Song Farm at www.homeadowsongfarm.com.