Over the past year, I've gotten lots of good information about the nuts and bolts of top bar hive beekeeping and natural beekeeping practices from Gary Piantanida's excellent Hirschbach Apiary website. Gary's been a patient and generous online mentor, as well—so it's a pleasure to feature him in this, our second installment of Beek-Speak, a series of interviews with individuals who practice environmentally sound beekeeping.
Gerry Gomez Pearlberg: Tell us about yourself—including how and when you got started in beekeeping.
Gary Piantanida: I am a 44-year-old on active duty in the U.S. Army stationed in Vilseck, Germany. I have lived here in southern Germany (Bavaria) for the last 11 years and will soon retire here.
I assisted my grandfather with his Langstroth hives as a child in Peoria, Illinois. He kept all his hives facing out over the lake he would take me fishing on. Eventually we moved to New Jersey and I never went back to beekeeping—I was more interested in motorcycles.
I grew up the oldest of four, working in my Dad’s construction company operating heavy equipment. In the late 80’s, early 90’s, construction dropped off and we scaled back the company; I saw my opportunity to finally get out on my own, so I enlisted. Seven years later I found my wife and best friend here and decided to stay.
We have a house built into the side of a mountain; my back yard disappears into the forest. Thinking about my Grandpa shortly after he passed sparked the idea to set up some beehives; it had been so long I hit the Internet and found James Satterfield’s web site and was hooked. Here was a hive a guy who was handy with tools could build and it didn’t cost too much—so I built four and went out and bought 3 packages of bees!Gerry Gomez Pearlberg: Can you describe the environment/habitat in which you keep your bees?
Gary Piantanida: I keep my bees in a small town called Hirschbach (“Deer Creek”) 45 min. due east of Nurenburg. Our seasons are very similar to the northeast coast of the U.S.
We have two [nectar] flows here: the first starts in spring and ends beginning of June and is called blumen (flower) because the forage is primarily wildflower and fruit trees followed by the Wald (forest) fall flow wild flowers and nectar-producing bushes and trees.
The reason they distinguish between the two is because toward the end of June, all the fields are cut down and harvested into bails or rolls for winter feed for livestock—so the only place left [for the honeybees to forage] is the forest.
Gerry Gomez Pearlberg: How has your beekeeping approach changed over time?
Gary Piantanida: In the last seven short years from research to today, I have to say my approach to beekeeping has changed 180 degrees. I was first shocked while reading George Imirie’s Pink Pages, I found a comment that said something to the effect of, "There are beekeepers, bee 'havers' and bee killers and anyone who does not feed syrup and medicate for a dozen different things is NOT a beekeeper." I don’t remember this well because I dismissed it—it clashed with my idea of beekeeping so much that I use it as an example of archaic thinking because it is that kind of thinking that got honeybees into the predicament they are in today.Gerry Gomez Pearlberg: On your website, you say, “To return to a natural state of harmony with the honeybee, Man must change his entire approach and abandon bee keeping altogether and adopt a practice of bee handling.” Please describe your beekeeping philosophy in more detail.
Gary Piantanida: Sadly, George Imirie left out a category: bee handlers. I take the term from my days as a Military Police dog handler. If I could imprint this “philosophy” on all beek’s minds, it would go something like this: You can “keep” goldfish—for example—because YOU are providing EVERYTHING they need to survive; ignore them and they will perish; there is no interaction except, feed them and they eat. In other words, a goldfish is “kept” in the sense that you keep their whole environment within yours—totally dependent on you for survival….Therefore, you are “keeping” them like you keep a trophy on the mantel.
As dog handlers, we provide 90% of what the dogs need, but if mishandled, they let you know in ways that usually result in stitches. If a dog leaves, it has survival instincts and will fend for itself, but there is a high level of interaction between the handler and the dog.
It is the same with bees; if anyone has any doubts, go out and abuse a beehive and see what happens! We provide, at most, 10% of what the bees “like,” NOT NEED: a hive and maybe syrup. Bees have more survival instincts, as they are not domesticated and do not need us AT ALL.
In that respect, we don't "keep" bees at all—they come and go as they please and we pray that they stay and don’t get sick and that they make enough honey so we can have some. So who's depending on who? All we do that is "good" for the bees is to supply a container we hope they like as a house. Everything else we do to them goes against everything natural! Think about it. They do not need us at all to survive. If there were a disease that wiped out man tomorrow, your goldfish would eventually die, but bees would be fine—probably better off!
It is not the proper keeping of bees that allows us to take honey from a colony—it is the proper handling. The word “keeping” implies total ownership, period. With the word "handling" comes a certain implied respect for the creature being handled. This respect is the first step to restoring the honeybee to a state of sustainability. If you do not respect them—well, then, you are just a bee "keeper"!Gerry Gomez Pearlberg: I like your philosophy, and I especially appreciate your point about how the language we’re using to describe our relationship with the bees is symptomatic of the many problems we—and the bees—are experiencing today. That’s a good segue into top bar hives (TBH). Tell us about your experience with this form of bee-handling.
Gary Piantanida: I first thought, “I will make the hives and throw the bees in and the rest will take care of itself.” It did just that, but not how I pictured it. I learned that bees will do whatever is best for survival, and if that means crossing four or five bars, so be it. I really do not like it when a hive gets cross-combed; I would go in and cut comb and push it straight and they would cross it up again and eventually they left for greener pastures. It was not the bees that were not on my sheet of music it was me who was not on theirs. I learned to listen to the bees and what they said was, “We will work with your comb guides”—so comb guides it is!
I went with TBH hives because they are as close to the natural thing as I can get. The Army has taken the better part of my back and I can no longer lift supers otherwise I would add Abbe Warre hives to my apiary. I also enjoy working with wood. even though I make a considerable pile for the fireplace now and then.
There is nothing more satisfying to me than building a hive and having bees actually use it—or finally getting a working dog to let go of the arm he is chewing on, on the first command! Working as one with nature, giving back to the environment as you take what you need. I love the fact that the top bar hive is a major player in the sustainability of such an important part of the food chain.Gerry Gomez Pearlberg: How do you deal with the Varroa mite?
Gary Piantanida: When we speak of the Varroa mite, the first thing we should realize is that we are not going to eliminate it.
We must handle this parasite simultaneously [with handling our bees] so all can live in harmony. That harmony comes when the mite population does not overcome the bee population; a point commonly referred to as the “economic threshold.” You must manage the host/parasite balance below the economic threshold.
To do this requires daily monitoring of the natural mite fall, as this is a key indicator of the mite population. To do this, I use a sticky board and powdered sugar treatment only when necessary. [Ed Note: Powdered sugar is one option in the arsenal of relatively non-invasive, non-toxic treatments available for reducing the Varroa mite population in a colony to a level that can be managed by the bees. In short, sprinkling the bees with powdered sugar loosens the mites attached to the bees’ bodies, making it easier for the bees to remove and control the mites.]
I watch a new colony and record the daily mite fall; there will be a steady average and as the colony grows and moves toward fall, the mite population will increase—the sign that the mite population is starting to overcome the bee population. A rise in mite population can occur at anytime for a number of reasons (some still unknown). Will powdered sugar alone do the trick? NO—another contributing factor is the size of the cells that are in a natural nest.
A top bar hive (TBH) allows a colony to construct the comb in the nest however the colony sees fit. This is called a natural nest, just like a nest you would find in a hollow tree out in the forest, save for the vertical and horizontal positioning difference.
The Lusby’s came up with the small cell theory and found mites had a hard time reproducing in the smaller cells. You will have to research the theory if you are not familiar with it—it’s very extensive. Let’s just say it worked! Well, not exactly….If you took a natural nest out of a tree and measured the cells, you would find that there are smaller cells there—cells considerably smaller than the foundation being produced [by sellers of this product] today. OK, you say, Then it works….No, not if you keep measuring that natural nest: there are a variety of cell sizes according to what the colony needed!!!Meanwhile, back on the farm, bee supply companies are producing this small cell size onto foundation as fast as they can because they have found the silver bullet cure to the Varroa problem! Here we go again; have you ever heard the saying “History repeats itself”?
In the early 1900’s, larger cell foundation was stamped out on mills with the idea that “If we make the bees build bigger cells, we will get bigger bees and more honey.” NOW we are making the same mistake on the other end of the spectrum! When does the madness end?
It ends here and now with the TBH: this hive and the natural nest contained within it, combined with regular monitoring of the daily mite fall supporting a treatment as necessary with sugar program is the cure. By “cure,” I do not mean the Varroa mite will be eliminated—I mean the mite will be handled at a level below the economic threshold. It is NO silver bullet, BUT we will still have a chance to undo about a century of damage due to greed.
Gerry Gomez Pearlberg: Let’s turn our attention to sweeter themes. Do you think the taste of honey has changed for you now that you know honeybees so well and are aware of how hard they work to make every drop of honey?
Gary Piantanida: Yes, the taste of honey for me has absolutely changed for me, because I understand the honeybee better having them here to study. But even more because the natural honey supply is threatened. If the honeybee disappears from the face of the earth, there won’t be anymore honey to taste—along with a number of other foods dependant on the honey bee as a pollinator.Gerry Gomez Pearlberg: What is your favorite beekeeping experience or story or adventure?
Gary Piantanida: In my first season here in Germany, my in-laws were very excited to have bees and are very supportive. My father-in-law loved the beehives and always wanted to help.
The first hive to throw a swarm came as a surprise; it was about 20 feet up in a tree on a steep hillside. I rigged a plastic crate onto a pole and got suited up. Dad got a ladder and put it against the tree and as I started up I could see the swarm was not in a good position to be jamming a crate screwed to a pole under it. They had spread out wider than the top of the crate. No matter what I did I was not going to get them all on one shot.
Meanwhile, Dad is still holding the ladder in a tee shirt and shorts. I went down to try to tell him bees were going to fall right on him! Well he did not understand any English and back then my German was not that good. He just said “Ya ya,” and pointed up the ladder, so back up I went.
I aimed for the center and hit the branch as hard as I could. About a fist size ball of bees came down right on him! I could hear my wife laughing from the window. I could not look down I had lowered the crate and covered it with a screen and was balancing the whole contraption as I climbed back down. Dad was nowhere to be found; my wife said she never saw him run so fast!! He only got stung once on the arm and we still laugh about it today.
Gerry Gomez Pearlberg: What advice would you give to someone who is just beginning to keep bees?
Gary Piantanida: To the new beek, I say, Do not take the advice of a beek who lives in Florida if you live in Maine. Find a sustainable system that works for you, don’t get discouraged too easily and watch the bees. If you handle them right they will show you everything you need to know. If you want a leg up, join us at the International Top Bar Beekeeping Forum.**
Below: An old military foot locker Gary re-purposed for hiving a swarm. A sweet example of RRR (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) in action, no?
Gary's homemade feeder.
A swarm moving into its new home.
Set of three bee hives by Tomoko Azumi
Inhabitat—which is fast becoming my favorite go-to space for beauty/brains/wit—has unearthed yet another trove of design-y eco-gems. Inhabitat's motto: Green Design is Good Design/Good Design is Green Design. I couldn't agree more.
Herewith: bee, bird, and bat houses constructed of recycled materials. By artists, of course.
Bee Hive by Henry Krokatsis
Dracula’s Four Season’s Bat Hotel by Rolf Sachs / Bird House by David Harrison
Bee hive by Michael Sodeau / Bird House by Max Lamb
Read all about it @ Inhabitat.
Fascinating piece on the American Museum of Natural History website summarizing the findings of recent studies showing 2,000 more bee species than were recognized in the most recently published tome on bee species. From the AMNH website:
"Scientists have discovered that there are more bee species than previously thought. In the first global accounting of bee species in over a hundred years, John S. Ascher, a research scientist in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History, compiled online species pages and distribution maps for more than 19,200 described bee species, showcasing the diversity of these essential pollinators. This new species inventory documents 2,000 more described, valid species than estimated by Charles Michener in the first edition of his definitive The Bees of the World published eight years ago."
Read the full article or head straight over to the World Bee Checklist at the scary-sounding but benign Integrated Taxonomic Information System. The ITIS released the bee checklist to coincide with National Pollinator Week.
It's in Slovenia. And you can read all about it (and see more pics) @ Inhabitat. In a cleverly bee-like twist, the structure includes solar shading and natural ventilation to regulate interior temps.
It's National Pollinator Week, so please do what you can, this and every week, to support our insect allies, our songbirds, and the rest of the gang.
One thing we can all do is wake up and smell the coffee (which is, as it happens, pollinated by bees, along with ants and other devalued critters).
Coffee-whiff Part 1:
Press release 5/21/08 Coalition against BAYER Dangers (Germany); "The German Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) has ordered the immediate suspension of the approval for eight seed treatment products due to the mass death of bees in Germany's Baden-Wuerttemberg state. The suspended products are: Antarc (ingredient: imidacloprid; produced by Bayer), Chinook(imidacloprid; Bayer), Cruiser (thiamethoxam; Syngenta), Elado (clothianidin; Bayer), Faibel (imidacloprid; Bayer), Mesurol (methiocarb; Bayer) and Poncho (clothianidin; Bayer). According to the German Research Centre for Cultivated Plants 29 out of 30 dead bees it had examined had been killed by contact with clothianidin. Also wild bees and other insects are suffering from a significant loss of population."
(And that's probably putting it mildly.)
Coffee-whiff Part 2 (as reported by the folks at Bee Culture):
Sierra Club Wants Treatments Stopped, NOW!
From Alan Harman
The Sierra Club accuses the U.S. Department of Agriculture of caving in to lobbyists over massive bee deaths and compares this with Germany taking a major step to keep their bees pollinating crops.
In light of the mounting evidence that new seed chemical coatings are deadly to bees and action by Germany calling for their immediate suspension, the Sierra Club reaffirmed its call for a U.S. moratorium on specific chemical treatments to protect our bees and crops until more study can be done.
It cites Germany's federal agricultural research institute as saying, "It can unequivocally be concluded that poisoning of the bees is due to the rub-off of the pesticide ingredient clothianidin from corn seeds."
At issue are the neonicotinoids, including clothianidin, being used in a new way - as seed coatings.
For years, farmers have been spraying neonicotinoids onto their crops to stop insect infestation. Now Bayer, Syngenta and Monsanto have acquired patents to coat their proprietary corn seeds with these neonicotinoids.
"Part of the equation in the U.S. is genetically engineered corn, as more and more corn seeds are being gene spliced with a completely different species -- a bacterium," says Walter Haefeker of the German Beekeepers Association Board of Directors. "Bayer and Monsanto recently entered into agreements to manufacture neonicotinic-coated genetically engineered corn. It's likely that this will worsen the bee die-off problem."
A Sierra Club statement says American Beekeeping Federation former president David Hackenburg has been urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to do more study.
"Look at what's time based,” it quotes Hackenburg as saying. “The massive bee decimation started when regulatory agencies rubber stamped the use of neonicotinoid spraying and coating."
Sierra Club genetic engineering committee chairman Laurel Hopwood says the club joins the concern of beekeepers.
"It's unfortunate that regulatory agencies are using double speak,” he says. “They claim to protect our food supply - yet they aren't doing the proper studies. The loss of honeybees will leave a huge void in the kitchens of the American people and an estimated loss of $14 billion dollars to farmers. We call for a precautionary moratorium on these powerful crop treatments to protect our bees and our food."
Like I said, Happy Pollinator Week.
Cecropia moth a.k.a. Robin Moth, largest moth in North America. (Learn more about this exquisite deity-like creature and be prepared to be totally blown away by the pics.)
Periwinkle in the woods.
Chow has posted a nicely done video about a thoughtful beekeeper named Serge Labesque in Sonoma County, California. It's a 7-part video, so stay with it! Serge's comments about beekeeping are sensible and well informed. Highly recommended.
So pleased to run guest-blogger Eva Yaa Asantewaa's take on Dušan Týnek Dance Theatre’s latest offering, Apian Way. Info on opportunities to see Apian Way this summer are provided at the end of this review and here.
Herewith, Eva's commentary:
Týnek’s Busy Bees
Once a public bathhouse, Brooklyn Lyceum–conveniently located right above Park Slope’s Union Street subway station—remains appealingly unvarnished and down-to-earth. So much of New York is steadily succumbing to sky-high glass. So we’ve got to cherish these old structures–low to the ground and brick-based and all-embracing. Brooklyn Lyceum hosts cultural events of all kinds, including dance, and Dušan Týnek Dance Theatre’s recent season could not have been better placed.
A little café tucked by the front door. A friendly staff. An intimate house with great sightlines from every seat. Hey, maybe you could ask for more, but then the Czech-born dancer-choreographer Dušan Týnek would be the guy to give it to you. Like the Lyceum, Týnek keeps things low, maintaining a comfy relationship to the ground. What his choreography lacks in aerial fireworks, it makes up in clean yet intricate design and performances with real oomph and focus. He and his exquisitely-trained dancers–including Alexandra Berger, Ann Chiaverini, Matthew Dailey, Eden Mazer, Elisa Osborne and Aaron Walter–achieve the sure freedom of well-crafted, expert movement minus the arrogance of Icarus.
The program, continuing on Tuesdays and Thursdays through June 26, reprises the 2007 ensemble piece, Fleur-de-lis, set to music by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, and offers the world premiere of Apian Way, set to Bach sonatas and partitas and inspired by the social interaction of bees. Týnek, a student of the natural sciences who strayed and got snared by dance, has been following reports of the disappearance of commercially-raised, crop-pollinating honeybees. The work doesn’t really get into that conundrum; Týnek is the kind of fellow whose work shows rather than tells. But it is perhaps the blending of his dancers’ humble humanity and their bee-like energy, moves and clusterings–arranged with Týnek’s sharp vision–that give the work its power to touch the heart. One is reminded that bees, our hardworking neighbors, do fly but not like raptors. They love the flowers of the earth, and–like Týnek’s performers--they keep it real.
See Dušan Týnek Dance Theatre at Brooklyn Lyceum, June 17, 19, 24 and 26. All performances are at 7:30pm. Subway: M/R to Union Street.
For further information and advance ticketing, visit www.brooklynlyceum.com. For more information about Dušan Týnek Dance Theatre, visit www.dusantynek.org.
Eva Yaa Asantewaa
InfiniteBody dance blog
Reprinted here with kind permission from the author, is an essay I relished and am delighted to to share. Thanks, Sam, for bringing this gem my attention. The photo below is titled "Bee Yard, Jan 1979," and shows the hives kept by Sam and Jason's dad. Location: Near Mount Vernon, Iowa.
I WAS STUNG ONCE
I was stung once, but only once, in the five-plus years my father kept bees. I was ten, and my face was at most three feet from a swarm clustered on a sapling. Bees are fairly docile when swarming, so the problem wasn't my location but my reaction to an errant bee landing on my cheek. I slapped it, even though I knew better, and it stung me. Then I panicked and ran, even though I knew better, until my dad stopped me and scraped out the stinger. I was fine by the next morning, of course, and had no hard feelings toward the poor creature who had died in the act of stinging.
There were no real dangers in living so close to so many bees—my tree house was fifty feet from at least 20 hives. Instead, sharing that space offered rare pleasures, privileges I hope to earn again one day.
The most obvious was the abundance of excellent honey. We had gallons of it—more than our family could ever enjoy, even though we enjoyed honey more than most. Dad sold some, and we gave much of it away as a gift. Relations, friends, teachers, and bus drivers were at least annually given beautiful, dusky, amber quarts of a honey that in some years united the tang of alfalfa and the smooth sweetness of clover. In our basement were sometimes scores of gallon milk jugs full of it. (The last harvest from those hives was, I think, in 1983; I finished the last jar I had from that year in 2001.)
Another pleasure was the extraction of the honey and comb from the hives. I was never involved in bringing the honeycomb in from the hives, but I sometimes helped, while my patience held, in the removal of the honey itself. My mind will always carry the gleam of the stainless steel centrifugal extractor; the aroma of honeycomb yielding in the warming tub; the taste of a mouthful of honey-laden comb straight from the hive; and the hum of bees flying confused circles in our garage as the sun went down.
All around the culture of beekeeping is an air of humility before these small creatures. The life of the hive is extraordinarily complex, and every beekeeping book I've ever read is quick to point out how apiculture often becomes about much more than maximizing honeyflow. Even a straightforward introduction to the discipline like Keeping Bees is full of passages like the following, about getting acquainted with a newly-acquired bees:
Once they've had a cup or two syrup, they'll be happy and you can play around with them for a bit to get used to having bees in your life. A little familiarity will eliminate the fear we all have of stinging insects.
Pour a puddle of syrup through the screen and shake some bees into it. . . . Watch their little tongues go at the syrup. Touch the feet and antenna of bees crawling inside the cage wire. They can't sting through the wire. Blow on a cluster and see what it does. Poke a broom straw through the wire and into the bees. Stir them gently. Fast movement will meet with antagonism. Slow, gentle movement won't be noticed. You are learning two major skills of bee handling: do nothing until you feel safe—have confidence born of know-how—and do everything in a slow, gentle, and deliberate manner.
Try to decide your top priority [in keeping bees]. Are you keeping bees primarily to harvest the honey, or is the honey a justification (if you need one) for keeping the bees? If you pick the former, I look forward to reading of your 500-pound record in the coming issue of the bee magazines. If you pick the latter, that's two of us.
Here's a passage typical of the very fine The Queen Must Die:
There are said to be at least five thousand species of wild bees in North America alone, but little is known about them. When creatures have little or no commercial value, if they are neither especially harmful nor useful and not strikingly beautiful, fascinating, or bizarre, they are largely ignored to go their own way. This also holds true of most people of little or no distinction.
Growing up among bees, and with a beekeeper, has given me many gifts, even if I am a little late in appreciating some of them. I'm endlessly grateful for the chance I had to watch my father and a few hundred thousand bees work together.
—by Jason Streed
If you know anything about bees, you know they like to dance, though they probably use another word for it.
If I were in Brooklyn on June 12th and thereabouts, I'd go see the world premiere of "Apian Way," a new piece by Dusan Tynek's Dance Theatre premiering this week at the Brooklyn Lyceum. Here's the blurbette from the Lyceum website (love the Lyceum, hate their website!):
"Apian Way" is inspired by the social interaction of bees and the mystery of their modern day disappearance. The dance is a narrative fantasy that addresses the role of the individual within a utopian social structure, be it among insects, animals or humans.
From what I hear, this dance company is excellent, so learn more about it and get your tickets here.
My friend, Tarot consultant, metaphysician, and cyberbuddy, Eva Yaa Asantewaa (dance critic par excellence) will be guest-blogging for us here at GSH after she sees, and reviews, the performance. So stay tuned for that treat from the heavens.
Also, if per chance yer Catskills-bound in mid-August, you'll have another chance to see Apian Way at the Mount Tremper Arts Summer Festival—a cool place for cool people.
As part of its Help the Honeybees campaign, Haagen-Dazs aims to distribute 1 million packages of wildflower seeds this summer.
The seeds are free to anyone with access to some dirt and the desire to stick some seeds in the ground.
We did our part. Now it's your turn. Just send your request (including how many packages you want and what you plan to do with them) to: firstname.lastname@example.org
By the way, I asked what was in those packages and was told they contain the following mix:
- Cosmos bipinnatus
- Zinna elegans (single flower variety)
- Shasta Daisy
- Baby Blue Eyes
- Rose Mallow - Lavatera trimertris
- Purple Coneflower
- Lobularia maritime - Sweet Alyssum
An example of what Gary Snyder might call "the larger sanity":
A man with vertigo scales the 52-story New York Times building without rope, harness, or parachute to make a statement about the urgency of global warming.
Thank you, Alain, for popping over from Paris to remind us of what we already know and aren't yet doing nearly enough about.
Alain Robert: The Solution is Simple