Thursday, May 09, 2013

Urbana beekeeper promotes healthy hives through sustainable, humane practices

Urbana beekeeper promotes healthy hives through sustainable, humane practices

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Even people who don’t take a special interest in insects have probably heard something about the troubles afflicting honeybees in recent years. And many people are aware of the name that has been adopted to describe the rise of an especially alarming phenomenon that was recognized in 2006, “colony collapse disorder,” or CCD. In hives stricken by CCD, the worker bees simply all go missing, and they’re presumed dead.

The press has tended to treat CCD as a crime story, and has wrongly pointed the finger at one “smoking gun” after another as the cause of it, for reasons about which I won’t speculate here.

The scientific community, meanwhile, has been moving toward a consensus that attributes CCD to the interaction of a variety of factors: agricultural pesticides, poor feeding practices, parasites and lack genetic diversity chief among them.

From an ecological perspective, points out Maggie Wachter of Urbana, it might be more of a mystery if the bees kept according to an industrial model to support large-scale agriculture were doing well.

Wachter is proprietor of Second Nature Honey, which sells products at farmer’s markets and through Strawberry Fields Grocery and Common Ground Food Coop. She is also accredited by the University of Florida as a Master Beekeeper and an accredited honey judge.

She began keeping bees in 2009 with just a single hive, but she has steadily added to her operation since then and now maintains 45 of them. Wachter seeks to redress the problems that beset beekeeping on an industrial scale by treating her bees in a humane fashion.

What, you might ask, is humane treatment for bees?

Allowing them to live at a fixed location, for starters. “Trees don’t have wheels,” Wachter likes to say, “and bees evolved to live in trees.” Bees experience an enormous amount of stress when they are loaded onto a truck and driven from place to place. On top of that, bringing bees together from far-flung places promotes the transmission of diseases from one hive to another. Wachter’s hives are set up at locations scattered around her Urbana home base, which allows her to travel to them.

[Photos. Maggie Wachter, left, with Michael Douglass and Terry Harrison checking on the health of a hive in her back yard, by George Sinclair. Below, a honeybee foraging for pollen on Jacob's ladder in a planting of native woodland wildflowers on the U of I campus, by author.]

In addition to keeping her hives at fixed locations, Wachter also seeks to keep her colonies strong by feeding her bees a high quality diet. This means leaving them more of the honey they make for their own use in the winter—and having less to sell—but from her perspective the investment in a healthier colony is worthwhile.

When problems such as parasites come along, and that’s an inevitable part of beekeeping, Wachter employs a system of integrated pest management rather than turning immediately to chemical fixes. She has found, for example, that she can control varroa mites by sacrificing a select number of the bees that the mites use in their own reproduction.

Although Wachter takes great pleasure in the hands-on aspect of beekeeping, she is also interested in the work of promoting small-scale beekeeping as a way for people to reconnect with the environment and the sources of their own food.

One thing that Wachter suggests everyone can do to benefit honeybees and other pollinators is to put more flowers in their landscaping, with a preference for native plants.

I'll conclude today by adding it’s a perfect time to do that, since the local conservation group Grand Prairie Friends is conducting its annual native plant sale on Saturday. The sale takes place at Lincoln Square in Urbana, and runs from 8am to 1pm. Further details are available through the Grand Prairie Friends Website at