“We’re catching the queens and putting them in cages,” Les Crowder tells me as we wander around the beeyard, somewhere south of Taos, N.M., wearing bee helmets. Puffy white clouds float in a Georgia-O’Keeffe-blue sky that matches the color of Les’s eyes. “By the way, standing right in front of this hole is probably the least good place to stand,” he says. “It’s like standing over the runway at the airport right where all the planes are trying to land,” he says, huffing smoke over the bees swarming toward the hive with an oilcan-like device to redirect bees angry at my intrusion. Too late.
I slap the back of my knee. How dumb to wear a skirt to a beeyard. “The sooner we get that stinger out, the better,” he says as he efficiently pulls it out.
Les has been a beekeeper for almost 35 years, including five as a New Mexico state honeybee inspector. As a boy, tagging along with his grandfather, an organic farmer, he became passionate about keeping bees. After getting a degree in biology at the University of New Mexico, he went to work for commercial beekeepers and quickly became disillusioned with the amount of chemicals they used. So he went into business for himself – raising queens for sale, selling honey, and teaching sustainable beekeeping. He’s remained committed to raising bees without chemicals, which has meant putting off a lot of short-term profit to keep his bees healthy and his conscience clear.
Beeyards, beehives – really the whole bee world – are fraught with peril, and not just for the reporter who inadvertently blocks the path of homeward-bound bees. Most of the menace has come to the bees themselves. Between 1945 and 2006, the number of bee colonies in the United States dwindled from almost six million to about just over two million.
And six years ago, bees began disappearing in dramatic numbers, with some large commercial beekepeers reporting between 30-90% of their hives suddenly empty. Newspapers and scientific journals were full of theories – ranging from cyclical pestilence to cell phone signals – to explain “Colony Collapse Disorder.”
Some of the decline, scientists agree, is the result of parasites and disease, but Les thinks that “bees know how to make bees better,” and when we intrude – with the use of miticides, and pesticides on the crops our bees pollinate – we usually make things worse.
Stir in industrial waste products and genetically modified organisms, and it’s no wonder bees aren’t showing up for work. Les sees the bee story as a cautionary tale. “Bees – we’re not keeping them. Really, they’re keeping us,” Les says, reflecting the widely accepted belief that bees are perhaps the most crucial link in the food chain. “They’re keeping us alive. They’re like canaries. If something’s wrong, they’re going to show us. And obviously, lately, they’ve been showing us.”
So what’s a beekeeper to do? Especially one who’s got kids as well as bees to raise? For Les Crowder, it has meant doing things the hard way.
Take the miticides.
“Basically when the [Varroa] mites first came,” he says, “I was told I wouldn’t have bees if I didn’t use a chemical miticide.” He did– briefly– and realized in the long term, it wouldn’t work. So he set out to solve the problem organically, encountering initial dismal results. “One year,” he says, “I lost 98 out of 100 hives.”
Eventually, he found success using smoke from creosote bushes and juniper trees to kill the mites. He also discovered the timing of this application in the breeding cycle was critical to success. It was a painstaking process. He had to find every queen in every hive and remove her to keep her from laying eggs while he smoked the hives. Finally, free of mites, he rebuilt the colony with mite-resistant queens from a foreign country, which required a long quarantine.
His colleagues – many of them clients expecting to buy queens from him – thought he was nuts, and tried to convince him to use the chemicals. “‘It works!’ they kept telling me. And I said it wasn’t going to work for long. Four years later, their bees were dead, and full of mites. And mine were fine,” he says, and they still are.
“Nature’s always going to resist,” he goes on. “Bees are going to find a way on their own to resist mites. And mites are going to eventually resist whatever chemicals we give them.” If we’re using nature’s resistance, instead of fighting it, he says, we’ll win.
It’s just that winning can take a long time, and a lot of short-term pain. Not something that industrial agriculture has so far seemed willing to support. In agriculturally rich California, native bees have become so scarce that beekeepers bring hives cross-country to pollinate crops. Almonds and apples, peaches and plums– all those seeds are pollinated by bees. Beekeepers can make a lot of money this way, Les tells me –maybe $20,000 a year per crop.
“It’s really tempting to take your hives to the almonds, and I did that for 10 years. But they started coming back more and more sick, and getting the other bees in the hive sick. Anything you put in the hive, they all get. If you give the queen slightly radioactive food, within 15 minutes, every bee in the hive has a little bit of radioactivity. The money in the almonds was good, but the bees are more important,” he says. “So we quit going.”
Les’s patient approach of letting bees be bees might be best understood visually with a look at the “Top Bar” hives he uses – a system of wooden top bars, under which bees build combs to their own liking (Crowder recently published a book on the Top Bar system along with his wife Heather). Most commercial beekeepers use Langstroth hives, which are constructed (with less-sustainable plastic) to force bees to build their combs within a rigid framework, on identically sized templates, which in the short-term produces more honey (and more money). “But the thing about bees,” he says, “is that if you let them build their own comb, they build all different size cells. And the size of the cell actually changes the physiology of the bee raised in the cell.
“So why sweat it? Let the bees build whatever sizes they want. If we have different kinds of bees in the hive, that means certain bees are better at certain jobs, so the hive is healthier. Why don’t we figure out how to adapt to their world,” he asks, “Rather than forcing them into ours?”
Les Crowder might not have singlehandedly solved Colony Collapse Disorder, or gotten industrial agriculture to stop using pesticides on their crops, but he’s getting his point across. Five years ago, he quit the New Mexico Beekeeper’s association. At the time, only he and one other beekeeper were using Top Bar hives.
Recently, he went back to the association. “Right away,” he says, “they wanted me to be president. I said I’d prefer vice president.” He reminded them that he was a Top Bar beekeeper, and weren’t most of them Langstroth? Hands went up. In five years, Top Bar beekeepers had gone from two to 60. Add to that the thousands of students to whom he’s taught Top Bar beekeeping, and you have a lot of keepers letting bees be bees, at least in New Mexico.
“People thought I was crazy,” he says, “But I guess not any more.”
Jamie Kageleiry Stringfellow is a freelance editor and writer who has written on everything from baseball to brain science for Yankee Magazine, Westways, Continental Airlines, Spirituality & Health and The Boston Globe. She also co-edits the website Weekend Walk.