Friday, July 27, 2007

Bees and a Global Issues Course

I teach a junior-level interdisciplinary course called Global Issues and every semester I am faced with the same problem: How do I engage students to consider important macro-structural global issues without losing them? An understanding of the problems (and benefits) surrounding economic and environmental globalization are a must for any informed citizen, yet, for many students, these issues are too abstract and distant from them. Their eyes glaze over with each discussion of IMF policy, or the impact of neo-conservative ideology. I do well enough on my evaluations so I could ignore this problem and coast to retirement, but I have this gut feeling, not found in any of the "positivist" assessment tools used to evaluate the course, that my students are just not getting it. Developmentally, my students are very concrete thinkers, so I am left with the problem of getting them somehow to ponder very abstract concepts.

One approach to my dilemma is to get my students to cultivate what we sociologists call "the sociological imagination": the ability to perceive that one's inner and day-to-day life is very much connected to the larger macro-structures we live within; the concrete mundane problems that we can easily grasp are very much related to those larger global issues and policies which we see as distant.

I've been pondering then whether all this research and hands-on activity I've been absorbing about bees and apiculture might be one such concrete activity that might get some of these global issues across. The problems (e.g CCD, organic vs conventional husbandry) that beekeepers face are not simply biological issues, but are impacted by macro structural forces as well, connected to a short term profit oriented global economy. While it is probably too late to add apiculture as a case study of global issues to my syllabus this fall, perhaps I can do something when I teach the course in the spring. Anyone want to give a guest lecture?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Bee Sculpture is Done

I've been following the artistic collaboration going on between bees and beekeeper at Hive Mind and it looks like the girls have finished their work. I'm very impressed with the results. Are there art galleries out their that would display this work?

And Another Article on CCD

I've been traveling a bit the last week. While traveling I came across this article.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

More On Encaustic Painting

My favorite contemporary encaustic paintings are created by an interdisciplinary artist named Monta Gael May. (Ms May is also co-founder of Magnetic Aesthetic Art-Cars.) Her bold, abstract paintings have this organic feel to them, almost as if they were painted from the perspective of some insect or ground-level forest creature. If you're interested in seeing some of Monta May's work, close-up and live, her new show "Interstices" will be appearing at the Saint Mary's University of Minnesota art gallery, starting in late August.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

This Just In...

Another article on CCD, this time in the New York Times.

The Research II: Top Bar Hive

I am really intrigued with what I've been reading about the Top Bar Hive (TBH) and am pondering how best to include this in my upcoming "game plan". Yes, I admit, part of my attraction to this hive design is its "exoticness" and uniqueness, but I think I am mostly attracted to it because it seems less intrusive and disruptive to the bees and this means less stress. Allowing the bees more leeway in the drawing of comb makes them more co-managers of the apiary with me as well. My step-son is also excited about the possibility of building me one. In all, it seems much more in keeping with my values of sustainability.

My real dilemma is at what point in my beekeeping journey does a TBH become a part? I am leaning toward beginning with a conventional hive like I discussed earlier in my "game plan" post and then adding a TBH in two years when I divide my original hive. Any thoughts about this from experienced beekeepers?

For any of you who are as inexperienced concerning TBHs as I am, should check out the many wonderful websites on this hive design. A good place to begin might be The Sustainable Beekeeping Project. This website contains a wealth of information on TBHs, plans for its construction, and links to other TBH sites on the web.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Beekeeping in Sichuan

I read an interesting blog post today concerning beekeeping in the Sichuan mountain region of southwest China. According to the author, Richard Spencer, many residents of this region have received grants to start beekeeping after logging was banned. Over logging and the consequent flooding all but destroyed an area that was once the natural habitat of the panda. Spencer ends his post wondering "if it (beekeeping) can ever meet (the) farmers' dreams."

I wonder whether Sichuan is just heading for another ecological disaster. If Phil Chandler is correct (and I think he is) that ecologically sound, sustainable beekeeping is only possible when done on a small scale, then these farmers' dependence on commerical, apiculture as a means of economic survival is a short term solution in which the bees may pay an ecological cost.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Collaborating With Bees

In a past post, I mentioned encaustic painting, an ancient art form in which pigments are mixed with beeswax, melted, and then painted on a board with a brush like you would do with watercolors, or acrylics. (See photo to the left as an example.) Sociologist Howard Becker would probably see this art, as not simply the work of an isolated artist, but the collaboration between artist, beekeeper, bees and all those other individuals indirectly involved in producing the tools and materials needed for this medium.

The people at the Hive-Mind blog have taken bee collaboration one step further, however. The bees not only produce some of the materials used but they also are involved in the creative process. The beekeeper there places beeswax-coated objects in their bee's hives and allow the bees to draw comb around the objects, building their own additions to the sculptured objects. This is truly artistic collaboration with the bees.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Peace-Keeping Law of the Community of Life

I had said I was going to write a post on Daniel Quinn's book Ishmael and it's relevance to natural beekeeping. I will eventually write that. (I promise!) In the meantime, let me leave you with two short quotes from the book today concerning what the author calls "the peace-keeping law of the community of life:

This law that you have so admirably described defines the limits of competition in the community of life. You may compete to the full extent of your capabilities, but you may not hunt down your competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food. In other words, you may compete but you may not wage war. [129]

Bees will deny you access to what's inside their hive in the apple tree, but they won't deny you access to the apples. [128]

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Game Plan

I'm no Eric Mangini but I still have a game plan for my backyard apiary. Like any game plan, this one is not written in stone but will change with any unforeseen circumstances. In general, here is what it looks like now:

  • Natural Beekeeping Without Ecological Fundamentalism - Whenever and wherever possible I will practice principles of bee husbandry that will help sustain the community of life rather than my own profit or convenience. This will make things more labor intensive for me and the occasional helper but, as an academic with more flexible summers, I can afford to do this.
  • Hive Location - As a backyard beekeeper living in town, I have chosen a location which is inconspicuous and safe for my neighbors and other passerbys, and convenient for my family's other activities. (see photos) Shubbery and, possibly, screening will be used to divert the bees' "flight path" above pedestrian traffic.

  • Hive Selection- I was fortunate to have read Flottum's book on backyard beekeeping because I hadn't really considered the full weight of different types of hives. Last October, I had major surgery and now am restricted from lifting awkward and overly heavy objects. Flottum has suggested that hobby beekeepers consider using 8 frame medium hives rather than 10 frame deeps in order to make lifting easier. So, with this in mind, I plan to order an 8 frame beginner's starter kit from Betterbee.

  • The Bees-I have decided to buy my bees from B & B Honey Farm of Houston, Minnesota. They are located about an hour away from my home. The plan is to purchase and pick-up a nuc of Minnesota Hygenic bees.

That's the game plan for now. I'll inform you if there are any changes or additions. In the meantime, I will continue my obsessive research.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Research

Whenever I start a new project, I research it obsessively. (Some people would say it's overkill!) I need to know exactly what I'm getting getting into so that all angles of the project can be anticipated. I take my responsibilities toward other living creatures seriously and do not want to be caught in a situation where I can't take care of their needs as well as my own and my family's.

Perhaps in the future, I'll discuss and review the wealth of information an aspiring beekeeper can find on the web. Today, I'll simply discuss some of the books I've read over the last few weeks.

  • John Vivian's Keeping Bees. I found this book at my local public library and it was the first book I read on bee keeping. This highly accessible book provided me with a general overview of the process of bee management and an introduction to some of the sensitizing concepts I'll have to keep in mind as I continue future research.
  • Kim Flottum's The Backyard Beekeeper. I have no plans to become a commercial beekeeper! I simply want one or two hives in my backyard which I can co-manage with the bees and observe their behavior. I don't want to extract large amounts of honey or beeswax and become a "bee tycoon". This book provided me with just that type of focus, especially in the areas of hive location and size.
  • Ross Conrad's Natural Beekeeping. I am committed to sustainable living and environmental responsibility and want my beekeeping practices to reflect those values. I want to approach beekeeping remembering that bees did not come into existence for the purpose of providing honey and beeswax to humanity but are "equal members" in the community of life. Someday I might write a post comparing the principles found in this book to those found in Daniel Quinn's novel Ishmael.
  • Langstroth's Hive and the Honey-bee. This is a "classic beekeeper's manual" written by the 19th century inventor of modern hive management, Rev. L.L. Langstroth. The love and enthusiasm Langstroth had for his bees is simply contagious and he still has many things to teach the modern beekeeper. His careful observations and scientific humility are great lessons often missing today.

I am currently in the middle of reading a few other books on bees as well and will include a short review of them as I finish each. In the future, I hope to read a few books on queen-rearing and will report back on those as well.

In the meantime, do any readers have any other suggestions for this novice beekeeper?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007


At the urging of my partner, I have begun this blog concerning a new journey in my life: beekeeping. When I begin any new endeavor I become a bit passionate about the subject and obsessive in my research. She seems to find this whole process rather fascinating I guess and thought it would be interesting for me to document it through a public blog.

I'm a sociologist by training and have been in this field for over 25 years. I still have a passion for the discipline especially in the areas of the sociology of religion and social movements. What I don't have a passion for is the increasingly McDonaldized environment I have to teach in, where "the appearance of learning" is much more important than actual learning, where the "friendly"suppression of individuality and humaness is done under the pretense of institutional survival. So, I have turned to beekeeping as an outlet for an occasional escape.

I have always been interested in insects. When I was a child in the Cypress Hills section of Brooklyn, NY, I became quite the amateur entomologist, learning to identify the countless insects I could discover in my small yard or up in Highland Park. I remember one week capturing foraging honey bees by hand in order to examine them more closely. I learned at that time how non-aggressive the species were. (I was stung only once!) This interest continued though admittedly remaining of secondary importance.

My current interest in bees came back to the surface indirectly through the activities of my partner. She is an artist who about a year ago took to painting in the ancient medium of encaustic. Encaustic painters mix various pigments into beewax. These beeswax bars of paint are then melted and used like oil or acrylic paints though with their own peculiar techniques, qualities, and results. Her need for beeswax has put us into contact with a local beekeeper who sells her supply of beeswax His passion for his bees has rekindled mine.

My plan now is to begin a colony next April. I will use this blog to both document my progress and, hopefully, dialogue with other more experienced apiarists. In the next few posts, I will write more details of my plans.