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Join Nicole and Michael Joshin Thiele of Apis Arborea as they talk about rewilding honey bees for preservation.
What You’ll Learn
- How did Michael become a beekeeper?
- What is honey bee rewilding?
- Why is rewilding essential for bee preservation?
- What Michael believes to be the biggest threat to honey bees
- Adapting hives to better suit honey bees
- Ethics and morals of beekeeping
- What is a Locapiary and why you should start one
- Michael’s tips for new beekeepers
Michael was born and educated in Germany. He combined studies in Philosophy and Anthropology at the Freie University in Berlin with pursuing work as a somatic practitioner and Naturopath.
He changed residency from Berlin, Germany to the Bay Area, CA in 1997 for an 8 year-long residential Zen Buddhist study program at San Fransisco Zen Center. In 2005 Michael moved with his family to Sebastopol, CA and works as an independent apiculture consultant.
Michael has presented his work at Harvard University, at New York University, consulted in the Dominican Republic for the USDA and developed the organization Gaia Bees to advance biodynamic practices in apiculture. In 2007 he co-founded one of the first honeybee refuges in the US.
In 2017 he founded Apis Arborea (www.apisarborea.com) to preserve the life and resiliency of honeybees through rewilding, that is, the restoration of habitat and natural hives, and the use of a holistic ecological and science-based framework in working with bees. He offers workshops and training in apiculture practice in the U.S. and internationally (Hungary, Denmark, Netherlands).
Michael’s pioneering approach to apiculture as a platform for global renewal has appeared in national and international magazines, books and films (Queen of the Sun). Most recent publications are in the Atlas Obscura Magazine (June 2019), and a report by Reuters News US.
Resources & Links Mentioned
- Apis Arborea on Instagram
- Apis Arborea on Facebook
- Apis Arborea on YouTube
- Apis Arborea Website
- Ratios of colony mass to thermal conductance of tree and man-made nest enclosures of Apis mellifera: implications for survival, clustering, humidity regulation and Varroa destructor
- Goldenrod Protein Study
- Email us! [email protected]
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Announcer: Welcome to the Backyard Bounty Podcast from heritageacresmarket.com where we talk about all things backyard poultry, beekeeping, gardening, sustainable living, and more. And now here's your host, Nicole.
Nicole: Good morning everybody, and thank you for joining us for another episode of Backyard Bounty. I'm your host, Nicole. And today we are joined by Michael, founder of Apis Arborea, and he's here to talk to us about the amazing honey bee. And Michael, thank you so much for joining us today.
Michael: Thank you so much for having me. It's a pleasure.
Nicole: I'm so excited to have you on the show today. I know that I've been reading a lot of your works and you have a really amazing viewpoint and philosophy on honey bees. So can you explain to us a little bit more what Apis Arborea is and how you got into beekeeping?
Michael: You start with two huge questions.
Nicole: I apologize.
Michael: So maybe I'll start with your second question, how I ended up living with bees. And that really happened about 20 years ago after going through a winter with lots of dreams, bees really came to me in dreams during that one winter. And they made me wonder whether this would be the time to invite them into my life in this world. And what happened was that I knew about a beekeeper in my area and I just asked him whether I could borrow an empty box, an empty bee box. And he said, "Of course." And I placed it behind my house. It was spring and swarm season. And then one midday early afternoon, I was literally living on a farm at that time. People were calling my name and said, "Oh, there're so many bees around your house."
Michael: And so I ran to the house and a swarm had of course found that empty box and was trying to move into the box. But it was so tightly closed that they really couldn't all the way. And I remember to this day I ran over there and just moved the lid a little bit to the side and gave them a bee space or two. And I just watched the genie going into the bottle. That's how it felt that moment. And that was the beginning of my life with bees.
Michael: From there, lots of things happened. And in regards to your second question, what Apis Arborea is about? Well, Apis Arborea was founded in 2017, it's one of my youngest projects, so to say. And beginning with a name, I felt that the Latin name, Apis mellifera, the honey making one, was an unfortunate name we had given this being because the focus on honey is at least partially responsible for the high mortality rates of honey bees. The focus on honey just made us blind to other things. And I felt like I wanted to shift the focus on other things like habitat for example. And so I just renamed Apis mellifera into Apis Arborea, the one who is connected with trees and lives in trees and has been living in trees really for many millions of years has evolved in an arboreal framework really.
Michael: And so that was one reason why we end up naming it Apis Arborea to shift the focus and to help doing so by using a name for it. And then of course, this century has began with what has been called colony collapse disorder. When was that, in 2003 or five? I'm not all the way sure. But that was a very rough beginning. And in addition to that, then mortality rates really increased in the US. As we probably all know, the annual mortality rate is around 42% of all the hives in this country are dead after one year, which is about a million of registered hives plus an unknown number, which is not registered flying under the radar. In other words, one could say that the time we live in has radically shifted in a way where it really encourages us to think outside of the box literally, but also pertaining to all other dimensions of apiculture and research and apiculture practices and such.
Michael: And I felt that Apis Arborea could hopefully be a resource for stepping into a different kind of territory, researching other ways of being with bees. And also I see Apis Arborea as a resource platform for developing cutting edge programs which focus on conservation and preservation of Apis Arborea, of Apis mellifera.
Nicole: So you mentioned that the focus on honey production being one of the major impacts to honey bees, what do you think are some of the other threats that honey bees face?
Michael: Oh boy. I think there are so many, and we can definitely name a few. It begins with modern agricultural practices and the usage of pesticides, all kinds of pesticides, not only neonicotinoids, which are talked about a lot, which have been already banned in Europe, and I think Germany has just phased it out for good now forever, ever, ever. So that's a big one. But also other insecticides and fungicides have an impact on resilience and survival of Apis mellifera, of honey bees. So that loss of habitat is a really huge shift in agricultural usage of landscapes. Then we have to list commercial beekeeping as a framework of an industrial approach to animal stewardship.
Michael: So we have to look at commercial beekeeping and how commercial beekeeping operates completely outside of any kind of regulations. There's not a single regulation in any of the 50 states which grant any sort of rights to honey bees when it comes to commercial beekeeping applications and operations. But chickens have rights, dogs have rights, honey bees don't really have any rights. We all are familiar with the concept of animal feedlots. That's a good introduction for the description of what commercial beekeeping really is. It's an operation which is really driven by profit and some sort of commodity thinking, which is really driven to the edge.
Michael: I would say it actually... commercial beekeeping, how it is practiced in this country includes animal torture and does not respect, does not follow ethics nor moral, plus commercial beekeeping in this country is responsible for the spread of so many diseases and parasites.
Nicole: And what are some of the practices that commercial beekeepers participate in that you feel is detrimental to the honey bee, just maybe for those that aren't familiar with some of the practices of commercial beekeepers?
Michael: It's everything. So the first thing I would say is that it is not science-based, it's profit based. Most of the practices are outside of scientific research and knowledge, that being it's not recognized as ascensioned being. It is treated like a car engine with interchangeable parts where the leg of a cow is put on another cow and the head is cut off and put on another cow. It's really the equivalent of that kind of practice. There's a good film out there. It's called, More Than Honey. It accompanies some commercial beekeepers in this country and it shows their practices and it will make you cry.
Michael: It will break your heart when you just see how bees are treated and it even breaks your heart without being a beekeeper. So it's a good film to watch, More Than Honey.
Nicole: I did see that on Netflix and not having any firsthand experience with commercial operations, I was really shocked. Even if not all of the commercial operations are like that, the fact that there's even one that made it onto the film was incredibly appalling.
Michael: Yeah, it is appalling. And what I find really surprising is that there is this fundamental question of why are honey bees dying? Why are there in such a procure situation? Why is their health so fragile? When one looks at those kinds of practices, it's pretty obvious why. To a large extent, mortality rates are due to all those practices. Here it gets really interesting because, let's see, if... I want to tell a little story, okay?
Michael: Imagine one would go into the zoo as an entomologist, as a researcher because one wanted to study the nature of tigers and elephants. So here we go, we go to the zoo and we observe tigers and elephants in the zoo. How they live in the zoo, what they do. And you will see the tiger pace all the way back and forth in front of the fence and you will watch the elephant looking really depressed. And that field research then is your foundation of everything you want to learn from these animals and also how... and then you write manuals, how to take care of animals, how to take care of tigers and elephants. So in the 20th century research of Apis mellifera, of honey bees was just done in white boxes.
Michael: That was so to say, the zoo, the zoo where Apis mellifera was studied. And in the 1970s, very few researchers, very few entomologists began to actually go back into the natural habitat of honey bees, which is the forest, into wild conditions and started collecting data. And what they found was that honey bees are doing extremely well, are very resilient, very healthy, and also they live much longer. Their mortality rates are way down. Survival rates are very up. The worst it got for commercial beekeeping, the more interested people became in studying Apis mellifera in the wild. And now in the last 20 years, I would say it really has taken off because it's quite compelling.
Michael: People want to find out why are they surviving when the conventional paradigm says without us humans at this point in time treating honey bees and keeping them alive, we would lose them. So the survival of honey bees depends on humans, as crazy as that may sound. What I'm saying is the researchers left the zoo and are now getting real data on honey bees. And that is one big part of Apis Arborea, to incorporate that kind of research data on wild honey bees into programs, into preservation and the conservation of honey bees. And that's why I like to call it rewilding. We are rewilding honey bees. We are rewilding nest habitat and we are rewilding the outer scape as well.
Michael: So what I'm trying to say is that we have so much data, which is a fundamental resource for us to shift our ways in beekeeping and unfortunately commercial beekeeping. And I would say mainstream beekeeping in general has not woken up to the science and it's still practicing in those very old ways, which do not reflect really who that being is we are trying and hoping to take care of.
Nicole: So when you say bee rewilding, what kind of shifts do you think need to be implemented to support the bees and implement the rewilding practice that you suggest?
Michael: There's an entire range of parameters we could say. One definitely starts with the actual nest habitat. So instead of calling it hive, I like to refer to it as a nest. So the nest of wild honey bees has a certain kind of volume. And Thomas Seeley from Cornell, he has done lots of research. He's one of those researchers. He has done lots of research on wild honey bees and he looked at natural nest volumes and found out that it's relatively small in comparison to what we are used to in our beekeeping paradigm, conventional beekeeping paradigm. And so in terms of numbers, it's really only around 30 to 40 liters, research is metric. So let's say 10 gallons max, that's only one Langstroth box.
Michael: And if you talk to beekeepers, they would laugh at you to say one box is the end. Because, I mean, everybody is teaching, you put as many as possible on top and then all of a sudden there may be four or five or six or you call the number. So it's a small volume. And now once we could identify one of those parameters like nest volume, now what Thomas Seeley did, he started a study. He compared that natural nest volume to those very enlarged volumes of hives in regular beekeeping operations. And that's all he did. That was a study, small 40 liters hive, and then compared with the quadruple of that and that's all he did.
Michael: And then at the end of the study, it was very powerful to look at the outcome because the mortality rates of the larger ones were way higher. The number of mites was just mind boggling in the larger one. So it was very clear that by maintaining natural nest volume, it just changed the entire situation for honey bees in a way where their health was more robust and they lived longer. All the health parameters were up, very powerful, extremely powerful. So you see, that's why it's so powerful to identify instinctual preferences and natural nest parameters and study them and compare them and see what's the difference.
Michael: So nest volume is one feature we incorporate in our work at Apis Arborea. Then the next one is also an interesting one. It has to do with insulation values of those nests. Imagine honey bees living in a tree and so they're in the core and the center of a tree trunk surrounded by five to eight inches of wood with a small opening versus a Langstroth hive or any kind of manmade hive which uses three quarter inch thick lumber. When you look at those, when you compare those two different hives and look at it with an infrared camera which shows where the heat escapes, it's amazing to see that. It's very obvious how much heat is being lost in those thin-walled hives.
Michael: And then this English guy, I think his name is Mitchell, he wrote a paper about this. Several people actually have been now focusing on that, but Mitchell, what he did, he looked at clustering. So bees, when it's too cold, all the bees start cluster. And what that means is a lot of metabolic processes come to a halt and where bees typically would move freely everywhere in the nest on comb in darkness when it's getting so cold, that it's not possible anymore. They cluster, they all contract, they're all like, they're just cuddled, they're huddled together to maintain a minimum threshold, a minimum core temperature.
Michael: And in thin-walled hives, that onset of clustering can be already around a 45 degree Fahrenheit versus the onset of clustering in tree hives is around minus 25 Fahrenheit.
Michael: So in other words, clustering is a symptom of an extremely stressful situation. Clustering symbolizes an attempt to survive extremely cold conditions. In the conventional ways of beekeeping, clustering is just part of the vocabulary we think as if that is within the very normal behavior of this animal, when in fact it's a stress position, one could say. You see what I'm getting to?
Nicole: I do.
Michael: In other words, that stress then will affect that being on all levels, in their physiology, in their metabolism, immunity, health, emotionally, on all levels. In thin-walled hives, that clustering is normal. It's a normal occurrence where in tree hives, it's rare. You see? And that has to do with hive humidity and dewpoints. You probably know that topic, people talk about wet hives and growth of fungi but wet comb and that then it's a struggle for beekeepers to keep those hives dry and not wet. Because what they know is water running down outside combs, especially in winter and early spring, and then what is done is people set ventilation hives so air can run through the hive treating this like a house, not like the inside of a being.
Michael: And now I want to pick up that word I just used, dewpoints. So the dewpoint is the place where a certain kind of temperature meets a certain kind of percentage of humidity and all of a sudden humidity in the air, water in the air condenses. And that's where the dewpoint is. In tree hives, that dewpoint is if we have, let's call it a six inch thick wall, that dewpoint is somewhere in the middle of that wall. In a thin walled hive, in a Langstroth hive, the dewpoint is actually two frames inside. Because of the lack of proper insulation, we have placed the dewpoint inside the hive and that creates problems whenever we look, and it creates stress for honey bees. But we see it only as condensation and then we come up with all those ideas.
Michael: But it is missing the point because we never treat the true root cause for the condensation inside, but we always try to tamper with it and make it better. But in the long run we are making it worse.
Nicole: So for those beekeepers that have Langstroth hives, and let's say they're not open to changing their hive style, is there anything that they can do to modify their hive or anything to help support the bees and eliminate or reduce some of these issues?
Michael: Of course we can insulate. We can give it lots of insulation and not only during winter, but throughout the entire year, in all seasons, insulate. There are different ways of doing it. One would be to... I work with... well, let's see. There are different ways of doing it. One possible choice could be cork panels, thick cork panels, or sewing pillowcase like containers, sacks. We can sew pillowcases and fill them with wood shavings. Some people use straw bales, whatever works for you. But I would say it's key. It's key to grant honey bees that warmth, and it works also both ways. It protects from heat and from cold.
Michael: This being said, I do want to make a case here for creating completely new ways of housing honey bees. And I'm saying it because one has to remember that the Langstroth hive was invented at the peak of the industrial revolution, at a time where people explained life in terms of mechanics. And within that context, the Langstroth hive was just the utmost expression of mechanics. I mean, you look at it and it's all interchangeable. It doesn't follow bees. It follows a mechanistic thinking. The Langstroth hive stands for a completely different zeitgeist and time and space on this earth. We have entered now what people call the sixth extinction. We have entered the Anthropocene.
Michael: Just two days ago, a report was published about birds in Canada and the US and the 30% decline between 1970s and now. Earlier this year you probably have seen the headlines and they read, The Insect Apocalypse, where we are getting data of this huge shift on the earth where we see species going extinct and honey bees are some of them, which are, I would call them endangered. We are running out of time. And I'm saying it this moment because I think we are beyond the Langstroth system. Look, there was a time where we used DDT, it was destroying the world and we are now at a time when we cannot afford this anymore.
Michael: We are being called to take radical steps to preserve not only honey bees but to preserve life on earth. And in that context that I think it would not serve honey bees to wrap up and insulate Langstroth hives. I mean, who am I to say that? And maybe I'm not right, but what I'm trying to say here is that the larger picture is so different from 1875 or whenever it was invented and we have entered the sixth extinction and we have to let that sink in. And then we have to decide how can we respond. And to me, it is a question of ethics and moral. And I want to say something else here in this context, which has to do with the ways we look at honey bees and the ways how we study them.
Michael: Because what we think is worth studying can be affected by our paradigms, by our limited understanding of life for example in particular when it comes to honey bees because we may think of them as insects, coldblooded insects and yet they are a mammalian being. This entomologist, Juergen Tautz from the University of Wurzburg in Germany called tiny bees, the mammal in a thousand bodies. So even though they appear as insects, they're actually mammalian. Even though they look like they're cold blooded, the truth is they are warm-blooded. Their body temperature matches more or less our own temperature range. honey bee in its oneness can generate fever just like humans can.
Michael: So you see, we call them social insects. There are dynamics of life in this being we are still not sure how to understand it. And I want to make now a connection to contemporary life sciences because for biology and entomology and many other disciplines, something is right now happening. They're going through a fundamental shift and I want to give you a few examples what this is about. It is centered around the notion of an individual that we take it so for granted that you as Nicole, you an individual and I as Michael, one as well, and of course the bees are an individual. Where we are in life sciences is right now that life sciences are not able anymore to make a case for individuality. So on an immune level, it's not true anymore that there is such a thing as individual immunity.
Michael: Genetically it is not true anymore to think that my genes are independent of the world but more and more what comes into the foreground is something called simple aces and what that is is the realization that all living beings are so entangled with each other that they all move together as if the whole world would be one interdependent web of life and everything is felt throughout that web. And one area affected will affect the whole. We have to rethink biology, we have to rethink entomology. We have to rethink apiculture because we still call it colony, which is not correct. It's not a colony. I find myself not knowing anymore what it is. But honey bees hold this, they seem to follow this quite unique matrix of being quite different from us humans actually and as if they were holding answers really important for our own future.
Michael: So coming all the way back to the box, the wide square rectangular box, it is an old, old way of thinking and that thinking constructed that box, but it is time for us to let it go. It does not reflect reality really. It reflects a belief system, but we don't have time for that anymore.
Nicole: So what do you think is the answer?
Michael: I think it requires of us to think... That's a big question, right? I mean, you're asking me, okay, so how are we solving this? We got into this mess and can you tell everybody how to get out of it.
Nicole: Simple answer I'm sure.
Michael: Simple answer, yeah. Okay. All I can tell you is what I can see with my limited knowledge. And maybe we can identify a few areas where we could change things. I started rehabilitating hives and nests in 2007 and in the beginning I thought, oh, the moment they have a bee centric nest, everything will be good. It's a silver bullet. But pretty quickly it became clear that's not it. It is more complex than that. And where I am with that today is that I do believe that it requires all of us to work together. I currently really believe that we need to come together and pool resources and move together.
Michael: And just to give you an example of how that could look like, there's a program I developed, I call that LocApiary. It's a play with words on locavore, someone who eats locally. So LocApiary is a local watershed apiary. And what it does is it takes beekeeping out of the backyard where we all have our hives, our bees, and reshifts the reference frame in a way that it mimics wild conditions in forests. And that begins with providing nest habitat. Similar to old boxes in vineyards, you set up log hives and allow swarms to move in. So the habitat is there, bees move in. And then all the people in the watershed come together and identify where are the best places for those bees, how far away do they have to be? Who all of those people in that watershed has bees? Can we talk together and unite behind those instinctual natural preferences of Apis mellifera and then we can integrate politics?
Michael: Can we lobby our County officials to write ordinances which regulate commercial beekeeping? Where I am here in California, you wouldn't believe how many commercial beekeepers are placing their hives here for the winter. Thousands of them. So we are being surrounded by commercial bees, they're all traumatized. They're all spreading viruses, and you name it. And so that we would rewrite the narrative of beekeeping. We would rewrite it into a new narrative, one which considers honey bees to be like light and air and warmth. We do not own it, but we can take care of it. We are all the recipient of the benefits of honey bees, but we cannot own them. We can take care of them together.
Michael: So that's in a nutshell what LocApiary is as a program. There are more details to it, but I would say to sum it up, I think it is essential for us to collaborate and to develop communal programs of stewardship, of conservation and preservation programs, communal programs of rewilding. What I also see is while we create new ways on being on the earth, while we are creating a new framework of apiculture, it also creates a new notion of us and the way we see ourselves on this planet. It allows our relationship with nature to evolve in a new way away from mechanics and more towards entanglement and belonging.
Nicole: Do you feel that in an effort to support the honey bee and your rewilding and your log hives, which I'd like to talk more about in a moment, do you feel that the best thing to do would be to move away from harvesting honey and just supporting the bees and their environment?
Nicole: Do you think there's room for both?
Michael: There's room for both and yet I would suggest to take a break. It's the equivalent of you grew a lot of corn for several years on your farm and now the land needs to rest, so now let's have honey bees rest because remember what we said in the beginning, 42% of all honey bees are dead every year, of all hives, two and a half million hives. That's one million hives every year. We lost the foundation of apian health, and still to focus on honey, in some ways it really misses the point. I always say to people, instead of harvesting honey, let's harvest some health for a while. And once we are good at that, then let's see how can we do both together at the same time?
Michael: It is like any kind of land stewardship program and those kinds of situations would close it off and say, don't enter. We need 10 years for this to regrow. We need 10 years for all those fragile dynamics to resurrect and be rehabilitated so that after 10 years we have a foundation we can work with. You see? And at the same time I want to come back to the Anthropocene, to the extinction. There are so many things happening we have no idea that they're happening. How will the world look like in 10, 20 years? Nicole, don't get me wrong, I'm not going to doom and gloom. I'm just saying we have to wake up.
Michael: There's a study which looked at protein content of pollen of Goldenrod and they had pollen in the museum from 1870 and compared it to Goldenrod pollen from 2016 I believe, and found that the most recent pollen contained 30% less protein and that was related to the increased levels of carbon dioxide in the air. I think we are at this moment in time where we have to wake up, we have to wake up to the world and we cannot continue all the narratives. And that's why you're interviewing me and really all I'm saying is, let's rewild those honey bees. Let's go all the way back to how they lived for millions of years and let's do it in a collective communal way. Let's integrate all the scientific research, all the data. Let's mirror that.
Michael: And it cannot all the way happen in Langstroth hives. And that may sound radical and maybe it is radical or maybe you do both. Maybe you have a Langstroth hive, but also you experiment with something else. You give back the birthright of honey bees to be themselves. Like you said earlier, Nicole, let the bee be a bee. And to grant that right for bees to be a bee. I remember after years of witnessing honey bees in framed hives, I remember to this day when I saw for the first time bees in a log hive and how I could witness that swarm to grow. And I remember to this day I opened the lid and I looked inside and I felt like Armstrong stepping onto the moon.
Michael: It was something I had never seen before and it felt as if I was entering a completely different world, as if I was entering the world of honey bees where I had been moving in the world of humans before in framed hives. Once you have seen it, you know, you just know better. So that's what I wanted to say.
Nicole: Okay. No, I absolutely agree with you. Like we were talking before we started recording, I was lucky enough to be gifted. It wasn't given to me as a gift. It was given to me as labor that somebody else didn't what to do. A local member of our bee club collected a very large colony that was in a old, I believe it was an Elm tree that was cut down and they brought me the log with the intent of cutting the log open and removing the nest and placing it into one of my other traditional style hives. And I had been dragging my feet on it because I'm still only about a year out from shoulder surgery. So chainsaws and stuff aren't really something I'm comfortable with currently. And this log is massive. It's the same size as my 500 gallon propane tank.
Michael: Oh wow.
Nicole: It's probably six foot long and eight foot in diameter.
Nicole: It's gigantic. So I had just been letting it sit, obviously they're their logs, so there wasn't a huge hurry to get them out of there. And the more that I procrastinated, the more opportunity I got to watch them and to observe them and their behavior and watch them build from afar and get to interact with them every day as I walked out to my car in the morning and just my daily activities around the property. And it's been really interesting and insightful. Over the last couple of years, I've spent my time beekeeping trying to modify my Langstroth hives as best as possible to support the bees in the way that they want to live instead of expecting them to behave in a certain pattern, I wanted to try it to alter my behavior to best support them.
Nicole: And it was obvious that the Langstroth is not ideal. But it's what most people have and it's what's easily accessible and a lot of times it's what's affordable and customary. But in the last couple of months that this log hive has been in my life, it's really changed my perspective. And that's one thing I like about the bees is they're always changing my outlook just on the world in general.
Michael: Yes. They're really, they open our eyes in all directions inside and outside, who we think we are in relationship to the world and in relationship with ourselves and also they open our eyes for us to see and understand them even with greater depth.
Nicole: I'm often asked by people, especially non-beekeepers, somebody wants to know what's the best way to support the bees. Maybe they don't have the time or the finances or the education or knowledge rather to become a beekeeper, but they want to help the bees. So they always ask me, "What kind of flowers should I plant or something?" But it sounds like supporting this bee rewilding concept would be a fantastic way for somebody that wants to support the bees to be involved.
Michael: Yes, it's very true. And that style of apiculture is very hands off. It sometimes breaks my heart when I hear people, they say, "I want to become a beekeeper." But then they go to beekeeping meetings and they come back home saying, "Oh, I need to study first. I need to do this and that, and it's all too much. And it's too much money. I don't have the time." Really when it can be so simple as just putting a log hive in the tree and you're done and then you just watch and wait for bees to move in. And you know what else is such a heart break, Nicole? There are so many people who want to do good and want to support bees. And some of them say, "I will become a beekeeper, I will support bees and I will really provide for them. I will become a steward and I will become a beekeeper."
Michael: And then they are facing an infrastructure they don't understand all the way. And so they order a so-called, bee package and order it and pick it up in the spring and put it in the hive and think, oh, I'm doing so good, so well and I'm just supporting them. And yet by buying those bees, they're supporting the conditions which kill bees. Those bee packages, most people begin with a bee package and they're Frankenstein bees, they're coming out of, we can call them feedlots, they're coming out of very, very toxic environments, fed with all kinds of insecticides, with high fructose corn syrup. They're tortured bees.
Michael: And at the end of the season, at the end of the pollination season when they're all done with pollinating almonds in California, they just put them all together, all the hives and throw bees from different hives, all that package, plug in an artificially raised queen, and that's what people buy.
Michael: It's so heart wrenching and yet it is this tremendous opportunity to create new infrastructures in your own local watershed to join other people and do it differently. And I think that's where we are right now worldwide. We are in this crisis and I think where the power is is to focus on the opportunity, not on the crisis, not on the doom and gloom, but on the opportunity to do it differently and to mobilize ourselves and others in finding ways which are more life supporting and less antibiotic but probiotic in a time of accelerating extension rates.
Michael: And I feel a little bit bad to have this interview with you today, but this is all happening right now. Last Friday was the climate march, today is the climate action meeting at the UN. We are all awakening to a new awareness of being on this planet. And if we want to save it and keep it livable, we have to move and create completely new ways of being with honey bees. It may be radical in a beautiful way, in a completely life embracing way. This is not about tweaking beekeeping management practices. This is about rewriting beekeeping. This is about exploring and discovering a way wider richness of the life of honey bees and our own richness of life. And it is about survival.
Michael: You see, let's give honey a rest. Let's survive first and then think about ways we could allow honey bees to share honey with us. How about that?
Nicole: I think that sounds wonderful.
Michael: Yeah, anyway. I don't know whether you can use this interview for a podcast, but maybe you will.
Nicole: Of course.
Michael: But I do really... it's so strong here right now, this call on all of us to shift. We have to shift.
Nicole: I agree.
Michael: And we have all the data. That's the crazy thing, Nicole. We've all the data and the research. It's just like with climate crisis, it's all there and no one wants to move because that would entail and will entail to let go of our profit driven thinking-
Michael: ... and to reorient our lives towards new values. Life embracing values and not to live at the cost of others. And here's the interesting thing. There is not such a thing as others because our lives are so entangled with everything else alive. Our life is so dependent on all life that by not taking care of what is called others, we are not taking care of ourselves. By damaging what we call others, we are damaging ourselves. And that is the new truth of the 21st century. And with bees, it's just like that. You have to discover bees in a very new way and then let that discovery and let that experience be the foundation of a new paradigm of apiculture. One which allows bees to be bees and which just follows bees.
Michael: I just spoke with Marianne Fraser, she's a well known entomologist here in the US and she's studying bees in Kenya. I spoke with her on the phone. She said, "Beekeeping in Kenya is just so different than here." And I said, "What do you mean, can you say it in one sentence?" And she said, "Well, what they do there, they're just following the behavior of bees where here bees are forced to follow our blueprint of being." And what she could see in Kenya is how healthy bees are. So there're certain practices in countries with not many resources where it was just easier not to get addicted to all this stuff, but just to stay connected with honey bees and to allow them to be bees and to follow their gestures because bees know what is best for them.
Michael: And if we really follow them fully, then we will be able to build an infrastructure which leads to the resilience and a very solid health of honey bees.
Nicole: So what is your thoughts on the Varroa mite?
Michael: So that poor Mr Varroa, who was a Roman scholar 2000 years ago, and I don't know why they named that mite after him, maybe she brings wisdom, the mite. We'll find out maybe in a hundred years. But Varroa mites have been living in a well balanced symbiosis with the Asian honey bee, Apis cerana. And through global trading, that mite came in contact with the European honey bee, Apis mellifera. So there we have a host and a parasite and they just met. It's kind of, they went on a dating trip and they don't know really how to be with each other and they have to find out how.
Michael: But we don't allow them to get to know each other because it doesn't make sense for the parasite to kill the host only which initially the Varroa mite does to the honey bee because if that's the end of the story, then it's the end of the dating experience and there's no one to date with, and actually it would be the death of the Varroa mite too. The initial parasite host encounter is very rocky and it takes time for that relationship to balance for the benefit of both. The problem is that once the Varroa mite arrived in the West, it was targeted with allopathic treatments up to this day. And the targeting of the Varroa mite had a devastating effect on the honey bees.
Michael: Thomas Seeley and others have all the data which show that untreated, left alone in wild ecosystems, that relationship will settle in a way where all of a sudden Varroa mite will not kill honey bees anymore. But as long as we target Varroa mites, we will prevent this rebalancing process from happening. So it's on us. We perpetuate it as stressful, deadly condition by treating against the Varroa. Varroa mites are not everywhere, I think in, there may be very few exceptions, but it's present everywhere. And I always like to think in terms of Varroa mites as like a Varroa ocean. We are all connected as beekeepers through this Varroa ocean. The question is, how are we surfing the Varroa waves? So much more to say about that topic, right?
Michael: But in a nutshell, the best approach is to create conditions which then empower that rebalancing process between Varroa and tiny bees. That's, I think the only scientifically based approach. Everything else will perpetuate that devastating situation and make it worse because we will also, by treating, you will favor the weakest. It's like endless. There's really nothing good in treating honey bees, treating against mites. So the mite is not the problem, it is our limited understanding of dynamics. That's the issue. That's the challenge. That's where we have to learn. That's my 10 cents on Varroa.
Nicole: I appreciate that. I think it's worth much more than 10 cents. So you mentioned that of course one of the best ways to support the bee in the rewilding was the log hive and I was just wondering if you could touch on that for a brief moment just to better understand what the log hive concept is.
Michael: I mean, the log hive one could say is a powerful link to native nest conditions of Apis mellifera. The log hive stands for millions of years of co-evolution between trees and honey bees. The log hive exemplifies a healthy natural nest habitat. So that's in general terms, the log hive then because of all of that rehabilitates the nest of, one could say the hive conditions of honey bees. It returns also the birthrights of honey bees to live in a natural environment which mirrors the instinctual preferences and needs. A log hive provides harmoniously what honey bees need to be happy and healthy. Log hives mirror all those basic nest parameters, and we spoke about nest volume earlier.
Michael: They are just small and represent the natural nest volume of honey bees. They provide a very well insulated nest. Log hives are typically mounted far above the ground. So between 10 and 20 feet off the ground because that is where honey bees belong. The people in Kenya, they follow the gesture of honey bees. If you do this here and give them options, they will move in to the highest hive they can find. And I've seen it over and over again, there are hives on the ground and then there's a hive up in a tree. They're not even looking at the hive at the ground. And that is just a way to study bees and preferences. And the more we know of those, the better we can provide by matching those preferences.
Michael: So log hives are mounted up higher off the ground. And another thing about log hives is that the comb, that bees are not forced to build within a foresighted frame, but rather are, excuse me, but rather they're rewilded. The bees can grow their body tissue in an extremely harmonious and natural way, just the way they need it. Imagine when we are in utero, someone would come and insert frames in our liver and other organs and say, "Okay, so now the liver and the heart, you better grow within those frames." Anyway, maybe it's a silly way of comparing it, but you get the message.
Nicole: I do.
Michael: And all of a sudden you'll see that comb actually never grows completely parallel, but it wants to underlay. It wants to be uneven and have all the variances in it. And let's look for a moment at what comb really is. Comb is many things, many organ-like functions are happening on comb. It's the skeleton, it's a communication organ. Juergen Tautz refers to it as the comb wide web because so many communication features are happening on comb, only as long as it's not within a four sided frame, then it's a location for so many metabolic processes. It also constitutes a uterus. And he, again, I'm quoting Juergen Tautz, what is also known as the brood nest. And that's the conventional language.
Michael: He refers to that brood nest as a social uterus. And I'm asking often people, I say, "Imagine you have the choice to move frames in the brood nest or to move frames in the uterus. Where would you move frames or where would you not want to move frames?" And to call it a social uterus gives us an idea of what it really is. It reveals different functions and meaning, but it also, by calling it uterus, it also instills a sense of respect and dignity. And also it instills a sense of wanting to protect. You see the difference?
Nicole: I do.
Michael: So that's what log hives do. They completely support the growth of all tissues inside of this being. Another really interesting part is, everybody talks about propolis. Bees forage for many things, they forage for plant resins, bring it home, and inside it becomes propolis. You can imagine it's very sticky and has a very strong scent and it belongs to this being on so many levels. It becomes this essential constituent for immunity and many other things. Now a hive environment with frames will prevent certain dynamics, certain propolis dynamics from unfolding because it's impaired. So many processes are impaired through frames. And I've seen it in one of my first log hives.
Michael: It was a brand new log hive. It was the first occupation of bees, and one could just see how the swarm was in this really explosive way, you know how it is, so quickly and fast will comb grow in the first two or three weeks. And I could see that initially the inner walls of the log hive were all just wood, there was nothing applied onto it at all. But the moment this wall moved in and comb started to grow, I could see it was so obvious that with comb penetrating more and more volume of the log, that the so-called propolis envelope was just in sync with the growth of comb. In other words, as comb was growing one way alongside on the nest walls, the propolis layer was also growing. They were just like, almost like twins. They belong to each other.
Michael: And this is very important. This so-called propolis envelope is so important on so many levels and it cannot evolve and grow freely in a framed nest environment. Those are just a few examples about log hives. That is my long answer to your question about log hives.
Nicole: No, I appreciate that explanation. Is there any other topics that you would like to touch on?
Michael: It is important to pair the technical side, so to speak, the data and the research also with something called sentience. The meaning of sentience really is not limited to human beings. It's not even limited to animals and maybe it's not even limited to plants. There're so many studies coming out showing that plants think and feel and this princess flower, I'm sitting next to it. She not only knows that I'm sitting here, but she knows the color of my shirt. So that is the world of sentience, the world which allows us to discover that all living beings share the striving for happiness, but also that all living beings have a sense for pain and that there's awareness, awareness of oneself in a specific environment.
Michael: When it comes to honey bees, I find it really important not to limit oneself to the talk of hive systems and management and programs, but also to allow time and effort for the discovery who this being is in front of us. Who all those beings are in front of us and how to develop ways to communicate with each other. In particular, honey bees, they have such a strong connection to the heart. It's not by accident that people feel drawn to honey bees. And even though they have a stinger, I mean, generally, everybody loves honey bees and it shows, it reflects that warmth and that heart quality of honey bees.
Michael: And I do believe it's really important to pay attention to that heart and to practice and develop a friendship like with other humans, but in this case with honey bees and to not only perceive oneself as the one who looks at honey bees, but also to allow a sense of being perceived by bees, that it is a two way street. The interesting thing is that other mammals like dogs and cats and horses, they have something we call a face with eyes and facial expressions and such things, which is so powerful and literally is an essential interface for communication. I mean, you look into someone's face, whether it's a human or a dog or a cat and you pretty much know what's happening. Is that being happy? Does it need something?
Michael: There's so much communication flowing just through faces without language. In the case of honey bees, we don't necessarily have a regular face and here it is an opportunity to be creative and to search and most of all, to just allow moments without thinking, to allow moments without knowing, to be in such a way that for a moment we don't know anything, and this is maybe how I can wrap up sentience. It will inform us as beekeepers and give us an additional dimension which will be such an asset. And I would it's say essential for us to move forward. And this place of not knowing, I would say has relevance to where we are in this world because we are all trying to figure out how to live on this planet in a wholesome way and to practice those moments of not knowing can be such a tremendous resource in our effort to find new ways. And often it begins with not knowing.
Nicole: I think those are some incredibly powerful words.
Michael: Historically in the culture of our ancestors, honey bees held this unique and utmost important position as the keeper of space and time, as this sacred being holding the essence of life. And we forgot that, and I think it is very important to reconnect with the wisdom aspects of honey bees. And there're many different ways of doing it, but it is very, very important.
Nicole: I absolutely agree. So for those that have listened to your words and you have maybe inspired something in them and they would like to learn more about your research and your perspective on honey bees or the Apis Arborea, how could they get more information?
Michael: If you're interested in learning more, you can go to apisarborea.com. It will give you an impression of what we do. We have a bunch of videos listed, there're classes under the events section. Oh by the way, we have several online interactive live streams coming up this fall, which cover different topics. And the idea of live stream is nice so people don't have to burn carbon, it really lowers the carbon footprint by being able to meet like this. And the other really good resources when it comes to arboreal apiculture, there is a strong movement in Europe and they call themselves Tree Beekeepers or Zeidler's, Z-E-I-D-L-E-R. I think that's just in a nutshell places. And people can always email me.
Michael: If you have a question and you're looking for other resources, send me an email. My email contact is on the website. I'm more than happy to help there and be a resource for others as well.
Nicole: Wonderful. Well, I think that this will hopefully be a resource for others as well. And I know that I've certainly learned a lot and certainly I'm going to walk away from this episode with a lot to think about. And Michael, I really appreciate you taking the time with us and sharing some of that experience and that knowledge with us.
Michael: Oh, you're so welcome, Nicole. And I'm so grateful that you contacted me and that you want to dedicate some time towards that and I hope it is helpful. Sometimes I'm just rumbling around and I'm just someone like you. I'm just searching. I'm learning every day and being so grateful to be able to live in the presence of honey bees and, yeah. Anyway, so again, thank you. Thank you very much for your time and for your questions and your interest.
Nicole: Of course. I very much enjoyed it and I very much appreciate you returning my request to join us. And for those of you at home, thank you so much for listening to Backyard Bounty and we'll see you again next week.
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