Monday, October 1, 2007

Organic Beekeeping?

A couple of months ago, I wrote a short piece on my thoughts concerning the terms: natural, organic and sustainable. Since that time I've explored what these words mean in the world of beekeeping and was surprised to find that they are such "contested concepts". Not only is there disagreement over what the concepts mean in the beekeeping world but it seems like there is something else at stake as well, the right to use the term as a rhetorical weapon and the right to call oneself an organic beekeeper.

Ross Conrad, in his book Natural Beekeeping, distinguishes between those beekeepers who espouse a liberal definition of organic to those who use the term much more conservatively. (p 38-9) The liberals would argue that an organic beekeeper is simply one who manages her/his hives without synthetic chemicals or antibiotics. The question of where one's bees forage would not be used to define whether one is an "organic beekeeper" or not. Conservatives, on the other hand,want the term organic applied to a much more "exclusive club" of beekeepers: those who not only manage their bees without synthetic chemicals or antibiotics but do not let their bees forage in areas where these chemicals are used. (Quite a difficult task!)

I have found recently that this is not the only front where beekeepers battle over the use of these concepts. There are some (like the leadership of the Organic Beekeeper email list) who apply organic only to those bees that are managed without any chemical interventions whether it be "hard" chemicals (e.g. antibiotics) or "soft" alternatives (e.g. essential oils). These beekeepers are opposed by others who believe that the use of chemicals in itself does not preclude a beekeeper from the label "organic" if the chemicals used are themselves organic as with essential oils.

The debates over these concepts in the beekeeping world fascinate me and lead me to ask a whole set of other questions concerning the capital used in fighting these battles. This seems to be one direction my ethnographic research will take.

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