Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bees In An Iron Cage? Part-V- Movements Against Rationalization

Weber suggested that the rationalization of Western society would not necessarily go unanswered nor without criticism:

No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals, or, if neither, mechanized petrification, embellished with a sort of convulsive self-importance. (Weber 1930:182)

In the present day beekeeping world, there are also voices who have questioned the trends of rationalized apiculture and have either resusitated old ideas and ideals, or attempted to re-rationalize beekeeping with honey bee health (over economic profit) as the bottom line.

Barefoot Beekeeping

British beekeeper, Phil Chandler, has become a leading activist questioning the ongoing rationalization of apicultural. Through his Sustainable Beekeeping website, his own top bar hive beekeeping manual, and protest activities against agricultural pesticide use, Chandler has developed a holistic approach in honey bee management. As far as rationalized beekeeping, Chandler has suggested:

  1. ...that honey bee survival depends on apicultural becoming a cottage industry again where each individual beekeeper maintains a few hives that simply provide for his/her own needs and those of the local community. Large factory beekeeping, and migratory outfits are unsustainable.
  2. ... that beekeeping techniques become less invasive and disruptive to the honey bees. Chandler is a big supporter of top bar hives which allow honey bees to build comb according to their own needs, as well as providing less disruptive inspections and honey harvesting by the beekeeper.
  3. ... that beekeepers put the survival of bees ahead of their own economic interests. For example, Chandler suggests that beekeepers make their primary honey harvest in the spring from the honey that is left over in the hive after winter. Honey is produced by bees as a winter food, and to harvest it in the fall may leave the bees without enough to survive. Chandler sees feeding bees sugar syrup, fondant or high fructose corn syrup in the fall, to make up for the beekeeper's harvest, as exploitative and not sustainable.
Warre Hives

Other beekeepers, like those who keep Warre hives, take an even less interventionist approach. To the non-beekeeping eye, Warre hives look just like the typical Langstroth hive popular in the U.S. However, they are constructed and managed very differently:

  1. The boxes do not contain movable frames, just bars across the top. The bees are allowed to build comb as straight or as wobbly as they so choose. Comb construction is left to the bees. (Note: the lack of movable frames makes this hive technically illegal everywhere in the United States.)
  2. The beekeeper never inspects inside the Warre hive. The only manipulation done is to add boxes to the bottom of the hive when necessary. The beekeeper monitors the health of the hive by watching bee behavior at the entrance. Warre advocates argue that in-hive inspections stress bees by disrupting their ability to maintain proper hive temperature.


Chandler, Phil. 2007. The Barefoot Beekeeper, 1st Edition.

Weber, Max (1930) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons. London: Unwin.

Bees In An Iron Cage? Part IV- Rationalized and Bee Health

On November 4th at 7:30 pm, I will be giving a presentation entitled "Bees in an Iron Cage?: The Formal Rationalization of 20th Century American Apiculture" at the Stark Auditorium at Winona State University. The presentation is part of Winona State's CLASP lecture series which has as its theme this year, Food. I will be collecting my thoughts for this lecture and writing my notes right here on my blog: Canaries In A Coal Mine.

How might the beekeeper's need for efficiency, predictability, and control conflict with the
biophysical needs of the honey bee? Let's consider a few example!

Varroa Mite Control

Recently, Randy Oliver, commercial beekeeper and “amateur” scientist, tested the efficacy of using two sustainable “folk” methods for controlling the varroa mite, a deadly honeybee pest that came very close to wiping out managed and feral honeybees in the early 90s. He discovered that by periodically pulling out and destroying frames of capped drone brood, and dusting bees with powdered sugar, the level of mite infestation can be lowered to a threshold that the bees own hygienic behavior and immune system can deal with. This management approach does not seem to produce any resistant mites as well. Overall, this management approach is quite sustainable for the bees. (Oliver n.d. B)

While such an approach might be regarded as an excellent option for sideline and backyard beekeepers and their handful of hives, commercial beekeepers see this technique as just too labor intensive and inefficient for their large scale operations. These sustainable techniques demand the opening and management of each individual hive on at least a monthly basis. From a short-term economic standpoint, it is much more cost effective to simply use one of the various miticides available to commercial establishments, and wipe out the mites in that way. Of course, in the long-term, even commercial beekeepers recognize, that this approach is not sustainable, and breeds “super mites” who are resistant to the miticide. (c.f. Hayes 2008: 786)

Swarm Prevention and Varroa Infestation

The second illustration also concerns the varroa mite problem as well. The only way unmanaged hives, as a “superorganism”, can reproduce is by means of “swarming”. To put it simply, if, in late spring/early summer, a hive becomes honey-bound, and reaches a critical density, the bees may begin preparations to swarm. The hive begins to produce dozens of queen cells, and both the old queen and close to half the workers prepare to leave in search of a new suitable home in which to start a new colony. Hopefully, one of the virgin queens in the old hive successfully mates and begins work re-establishing a thriving hive within the old colony. From the economic viewpoint of the beekeeper, swarming is something that should be prevented. (Horn 2005:139) A hive that swarms is set back at least a month in honey production. In some beekeepers’ eyes, not preventing swarming can be interpreted as poor, lazy, and neglectful management of a hive. So, beekeepers have developed various techniques and technology for preventing hives from swarming.

While economically unproductive, it does appear as if swarming has some real positive benefits for the future sustainability of the honeybee, however. For one thing, a hive that swarms breaks up the lifecycle of the varroa mite, keeping the level of infestation down.

The eggs of varroa mites are laid in brood cells, and their larvae feast on bee larvae. Until a swarm finds and/or builds new comb, the old queen cannot lay eggs, and without eggs there are no larvae on which the mites can live off. In the old hive, it will take around a month before a new queen is laying eggs, so again, the life-cycle of the mite is disrupted. The reason, then, that African hybrid bees seem resistant to mites has much to do with their tendency to swarm incessantly.

Honey Comb Re-Use

The final example conerns the re-use of drawn comb frames by beekeepers.

The comb that bees create is one of the most fascinating 'organs' of the honey bee colony. Comb is a collaborative construction of worker bees produced from the wax secreted from the wax gland in the worker's abdomen. The comb serves many functions in the hive including: nursery, food storage facility, 'dance' floor, insulation, and 'cell telephone'. (Tautz 2008)

The production of comb by honey bees takes both time and material resources away from other activities that the beekeeper often deems more important. Beeswax contains a good deal of nectar which might be used instead for honey. Until comb is produced, the queen cannot lay eggs, and workers making comb cannot be involved in other activities like nursing larvae, fanning nectar and the like. From the viewpoint of the beekeeper, then, comb production is a wasteful distraction that keeps bees doing productive things.

For this reason, the "rational" beekeeper may save and reuse the same old comb built in the brood nest for decades, "saving" the bees the effort and materials for rebuilding comb. If you examine the managed hives of many older beekeepers you might find blackened, rigid comb 30 years in age. While old comb may be worth it's weight in gold to the beekeeper, it presents a health hazard to the bees. Comb, in some respects, is equivalent to the liver in mammals; it accumulates the environmental toxins used inside and outside the hive and disease spores brought into the hive by the worker foragers and the drones. A thirty year old comb has accumulated thirty years worth of toxins and spores. Only recently have beekeepers begun to recognize the health risks old comb poses to the bees and it is now suggested that beekeepers dispose of comb every 3 years and have the workers rebuild.

Works Cited

Hayes, Jerry. (2008) “The Classroom.” Bee Culture September:783-7.

Horn, Tammy. (2005) Bees in America – How the Honeybee Shaped a Nation.
Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky.

Oliver, Randy.( n.d.) B. “Tactics: Biotechnical Methods I.” . . Accessed September 12, 2008.

Tautz, Jurgen. 2008. The Buzz About Bees: Biology of a Superorganism. Translated by David C. Sandeman. Berlin: Springer.

Bees In An Iron Cage? Part III-Origins of Rationalized Beekeeping

On November 4th at 7:30 pm, I will be giving a presentation entitled "Bees in an Iron Cage?: The Formal Rationalization of 20th Century American Apiculture" at the Stark Auditorium at Winona State University. The presentation is part of Winona State's CLASP lecture series which has as its theme this year, Food. I will be collecting my thoughts for this lecture and writing my notes right here on my blog: Canaries In A Coal Mine.

Rationalized beekeeping in the United States began in the mid-19th century through the inventions of a number of innovative apiculturalists who were able to disseminate their ideas throughout the country through such publications as The American Bee Journal and Gleanings of Bee Culture (both still in publication). Laidlaw and Page (1997:9) describe this period in beekeeping history as a time when the "Essential tools of beekeeping were discovered that made it possible to fully exploit the economic value of honey bees. Without movable-frame hive, comb foundation, the honey extractor, or the bellows smoker, beekeeping would indeed be at the same stage of advancement it was in the first half of the nineteenth century." Two important innovators were Lorenzo Langstroth, and G.M. Doolittle.

Langstroth, a semi-retired minister, is credited with inventing the box hive with movable frames, still the most common manner of maintaining bee colonies in the United States today. Langstroth's approach allowed beekeepers a neat and efficient way of managing many bee colonies by giving beekeepers a way to move inter-changeable frames of comb from one hive to another in order to strengthen weak hives, and begin new ones from scratch. Using frames also produced less defensive bees, making the control and manipulation of honey bees easier for the beekeeper. (Langstroth 2004)

G.M. Doolittle (2008) invented a system for the mass production of honey bee queens, allowing the industrious beekeeper to multiply the number of hives in his/her possession without having to capture swarms or feral bee colonies. His system also allows the beekeeper to choose what larvae are suitable for queens, rather than leaving such a decision in the "hands" of the bees as would be done when beekeepers simply split hives. Coupled with a selective breeding plan, the beekeeper could easily produce a line of bees exhibiting such "desired" characteristics as honey productivity, disease resistance, and gentle behavior. His basic techniques are still followed today, and are taught, for example, at the University of Minnesota during their summer queen rearing extension course (Spivak and Reuter 2006).

While the rationalized techniques used have allowed beekeepers to efficiently run a greater number of hives in a very productive and controlled manner, this rationalization has probably had costs for the honey bees, even after setting aside the negative effects of rationalized pesticide-use on the bees. The beekeeper's need for efficiency, predictability, control and profit often conflict with the biophysical needs of the honey bee colony.

Works Cited

Doolittle, G.M. (2008) Scientific Queen-Rearing. Kalamazoo, MI: Wicwas.

Laidlaw Jr., Harry H. and Robert E. Page Jr. (1997) Queen Rearing and Bee Breeding. Kalamazoo, MI: Wicwas.

Langstroth, L.L. (2004) Langstroth's Hive and the Honey-Bee: The Classic Beekeeper's Manual. North Andover, MA: Dover.

Spivak, Marla and Gary S. Reuter.
Successful Queen Rearing- Short Course. St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bees In An Iron Cage? Part II- Formal Rationalization

One stream of my current research in environmental sociology is the examination of the formal rationalization of bee management and its possible effects on the health and ongoing sustainability of the honey bee population. This stream of research is informed by the thought of Max Weber, 19th century social scientist and German jurist, as well as the work of Raymond Murphy, who has adapted Weber's ideas for his own work in environmental sociology.

My research uses Weber's concept of formal rationalization. (Weber 1968:85-6).The concept refers to action guided by calculability, efficiency, predictability, technological manipulation of the biophysical sphere and human control oriented toward the goal of producing a surplus or increase in goods or profit. (cf Ritzer 2007) Weber found such action the basis of the modern bureaucracy.

Weber argued that the increasing formal rationalization of modern society would inevitably lead to irrationalities, unforeseen consequences that actually contradict the ongoing rationality of the rest of society. Weber was concerned that the growth of bureaucratic organizations, techniques and actions characterized by formal rationality would place human beings in a situation that robbed individuals of many of the qualities (e.g. creativity, mercy) that made them human. In Weber's terms, formal rationalization would place people in iron cages, enclosing them with bars made of bureacratic rules and techniques which would keep them from full human potential.

Sociologist Raymond Murphy has applied Weber's ideas to issues of the environment and sustainability. Murphy contends that formal rationality does not simply produce irrationalities that harm human beings directly, but also irrationalities that do harm to the ecosystem as well. Underlying formal rationalization are two assumptions: [1] that nature exists for the purpose of fullfilling human needs and wants, and [2] that nature is totally plastic allowing human beings to manipulate nature in any fashion that benefits us, without any serious negative consequences. It is these two assumptions of formal rationality that produce the irrationalities detrimental to the biophysical realm. To quote Murphy (2002:81),

Machines and technology in general, are the means by which humans manipulate the processes of nature in the course of their purposive action, often disrupting self-regulating mechanisms nature has constructed, thereby unleashing unexpected processes of nature. Machines do not imply nature mastered. Their development can, if it disrupts the ecological equilibrium constructed by nature, lead to the iron cage (italics are mine) of a degraded ecosystem incapable of sustaining human society.

The biophysical environment finds itself in an iron cage where its own self-regulating processes are interfered with.

Over the last 150 years apicultural has become increasingly rationalized to the detriment of the honey bee in many ways. The goal of beekeeping has always focused on either increasing honey production or increasing the pollination of some of the food crops human beings consume. The long-term survival of honey bees as a species takes " a back seat" to these "primary" goals. (As one 1970s beekeeping manual reminds the budding apiculturalist: "Honey is Money".) The attitude has been that honey bees exist simply for the benefit of human beings.

The rationalized means toward these goals follow the bureaucratic ethos of efficiency, and cost-effectiveness especially for the commercial beekeeper. The technology, and management techiques developed over the last century and a half are often concerned with the beekeepers' convenience and profit, and only secondarily with the sustainability of the honey bee. But what is efficient and cost-effective for the beekeeper may not healthy or sustainable for the honey bee. In a sense, these rationalized management techniques place the honey bee in an iron cage where the bee cannot live healthy within its own biophysical environment.


Murphy, Raymond. 2002. "Ecological Materialism and the Sociology of Max Weber." Sociological Theory and the Environment. Edited by Riley E. Dunlap, Frederick H. Buttel, Peter Dickens, and August Gijswijt. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.

Ritzer, George. 2007. The McDonaldization of Society 5. New York: Pine Forge.

Weber, Max. 1968. Economy and Society- An Outline of Interpretative Sociology. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Volume I. New York: Bedminster.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Quilt Boxes On

The cold, cloudy wet spell continues, so my focus has become preparing my hives for winter. Last year, my hives died, not because of lack of honey, but for other factors. I believe, all associated with the brutal month of January we had. The winter clusters in all hives were unable to move up to honey just inches away.

This year I took some precautions to lower the probability of that happening again. First, this year's bees just seem healthier than last year's. There were less bees crawling around the ground, dangling from blades of grass. Second, I opened up each hive less this year. This did mean one hive swarmed, but this probably would've happened anyway. Third, I was more deligent in monitoring for varroa mites and, used powdered sugar and drone brood culling more systematically. Lastly, I moved the hives in Beelandia so that they would receive more winter sunshine than they got last year.

Now that fall is here, it's time for me to consider my approach to winterizing the 5 hives. Since dampness might've been an issue last year, Monta and I have designed and made quilt boxes for both the top bar and langstroth hives. Those of you who keep Warre hives are already familiar with quilt boxes. Simply put, it is a box, fitted with a fabric bottom and filled with sometype of absorbant, insulating material. For the langstroth, I simply took a shallow box, stapled some material to its bottom and filled it with recycled paper pulp. I placed these boxes on top of the inner cover of each langstroth I have.

The quilt boxes for the top bar hives had to be made but the design was pretty much the same as for the langstroth. In this case, Monta designed and made long and wide shallow boxes that would fit over each top bar. This boxes had fabric bottoms and were also filled with paper pulp.