By Diane Dunaway –

In Part One of my report about the Bee Audacious gathering held last December in San Marin County, California, I related the experience as part travelogue. Once home, processing the conference was surprisingly challenging. At the best of times expectations can be unrealistic; compound that with words like “audacious” and the pressure’s on. I suspect that most change is gradual and insidious. It sneaks up on you!

Honey bee worker on an apricot blossom. Photos: Diane Dunaway
Honey bee worker on an apricot blossom. Photo: Diane Dunaway

How, then, to relay the messages of the Bee Audacious conference with sincerity and action? There was much agreement about the state of bee and pollinator affairs before the conference. What did we accomplish? Did we simply go through the motions? Did the conference make a difference?

There’s so much grey area in what we do as beekeepers, so many variables. Beekeeping is as much an art as a science. Recent statistics show the dropout rate is up to 80 per cent within the first two years of keeping bees. Folks come to it with best intentions that don’t always align with the amount of time they can devote to education and husbandry. How do you broach this with a new or “wanna bee” beekeeper who is super keen yet already slightly lost? As an apiary inspector, how do I tow the party line, while at the same time responsibly share themes from the conference that include survival of the fittest?

Over the holidays I mulled over what we’d accomplished at Bee Audacious and what’s needed to see this through. For sure things weren’t perfect. Human nature has a way of rearing its complicated head. Unlike democratic, altruistic bees, we did observe bias creep in the focus groups; there was a hierarchy among participants, and agreement wasn’t absolute. At times, we felt rushed. Due to this, dialogue, on occasion, felt superficial. We were reminded that even if we lost faith in the format, themes would emerge. Indeed, like honey bees we were encouraged to look at matters with the thought that our shared knowledge was equivalent to that of a super organism, a colony of bees.

As part of our connectivity, each participant departed with a signed commitment—something to enact towards the goal of sustained bee, beekeeper, and pollinator health. Some of my assumptions were turned upside down. In agricultural extension work, we talk about Best Management Practices or BMPs. How does one integrate these when diversity in management is considered a strength? One way is in changing the phrase to: Beneficial Management Practices.

More answers came in the New Year. A friend and I decided last fall to develop an Intermediate Beekeeping course for those who had the basics down but wanted to advance their skills. Between the two of us, both Bee Masters with over 60 years combined beekeeping experience, we collaborated to distil umpteen hours of professional development through conferences, lectures, and courses.

You’d think putting a course together would be easy. Wrong! There’s so much information out there, much of it contradictory. A seasonal approach seemed a sensible place to start. To get away from textbook, cookie-cutter, instructions, we endeavored to weave climate-specific experiences into the curriculum. As another layer, I included written material that invites change, like Mark Winston’s Manifesto that sets out to challenge how we perceive our relationship to bees and how we manage them, plus Tom Seeley’s Bee Audacious musings. Seeley’s summary about a Darwinian approach will be published this spring in the American Bee Journal, our industry standard for research publications. I also included Marla Spivak’s TED Talk, “Why Bees Are Disappearing” in my two introductory courses to shore up new beekeepers with a backgrounder for the inevitable queries they’ll have from friends and family once they announce their entry into this pastime.

Bee Master John Gates lifts frame with bars of grafted queen bee cells from a hive as students look on. Photo: Diane Dunaway
Bee Master John Gates lifts frame with bars of grafted queen bee cells from a hive as students look on. Photo: Diane Dunaway

And as part of the delivery of the Intermediate Beekeeping course we had the opportunity to present alternatives to common practices. The Bee Audacious conference proved there’s plenty of room for improvement in what we’re doing. It encourages dialogue and exploration, and reminds us not to be dismissive of diverse approaches. I added a section about pollinator advocacy to the curriculum. For instance, a reminder to encourage the planting of untreated pollinator-friendly plants and trees.

At the end of March the Final Report was posted on the Bee Audacious website:

“The perspective that evolved during the meeting was that it is not business as usual today for bees, beekeeping, and pollination, and current challenges will require some novel solutions,” says the report. “In that spirit, the conference attempted to develop audacious ideas that would not only inspire discussion among all those interested in the health and welfare of pollinators, but also respect the diverse interests and perspectives in the bee-related community.”

In my home apiary, I continue to monitor for disease and pests, observe hygienic behavior, and look for natural resistance in my bees. Several years ago, I turned to organic beekeeping. Now it’s time to step up and look for genetic traits that hold hope for sustainable, locally produced bee stock. These, in addition to qualities like overwintering ability, temperament (set by the queen), and honey production. I intend to make time to breed from my best bees this summer. I’ll evaluate the offspring over time and if they’re expressing desirable traits will eventually offer this stock within our community.

It’s not realistic to expect every trait in one line of bees; there will always be trade-offs. For example, the USDA identified a particularly fierce bee with extreme Varroa Sensitive Hygiene (VSH) abilities. These bees were fondly called ankle-biters, as they’d tear apart mites from limb from limb. However, the very same ankle-biters proved notoriously lacking in the honey collection department. Fortunately, science is working to find biomarkers that will take some of the guess work out of stock selection. This, combined with keen observations in the field, gives us hope. There will be less reliance on chemical interventions and fewer susceptible bees.

Since coming home from San Francisco in mid-December it’s been a non-stop immersion back into bees and beekeeping—something I hadn’t anticipated, but wouldn’t trade for the world. Teaching demands even greater attention to detail; it makes you examine the whys and hows with a fresh perspective. I have a renewed respect for those who teach for a living.

In May, we hosted 21 beginner beekeepers along with their families and friends on our farm for a hands-on field day. I’m acutely aware of how impressionable these students are, and how they long for black and white answers. This is balanced with the need to set them and their soon-to-be acquired bees up for success. Whether or not these individuals become lifelong beekeepers, they will be armed with an appreciation of the complexity of our little winged friends and how incredibly rewarding the gentle art of beekeeping can be.

Diane Dunaway has kept bees for over 20 years. A bee master since 2001, and apiary inspector since 2015, she’s run up to 100 colonies from her Bee Happy Honey farm in the Soda Creek Valley of the Cariboo. A believer in lifelong learning, Diane is active with bee-keen neighbourhood kids, her local bee club, and educational opportunities from afar. When she’s not chasing swarms around the countryside, Diane can be found at home with Dave – her husband of 25 years – and their menagerie of dogs, cats, horses, chickens, ducks, and donkey, Fanny.

You Can Make a Difference!
Here are ways to support local efforts and our pollinator populations:WR-dandelionUse honey in place of sugar as your sweetener of choice.
Buy local honey and hive products at a fair market price.
Learn to love dandelions.
Add bee-friendly plants to your garden.
Differentiate between honey bees and wasps.
Provide clean water for bees and other pollinators.
Reduce lawn mowing, and setting your mower at a higher cutting level.
Advocate for bee-friendly by-laws.
Educate others about honey bee pollination; a third of our food supply needs it. Pollination is worth ten times the economic value of honey.
Don’t use pesticides. If you must, please use fast-acting, short-residual options, and apply at dusk when pollinators are least active.
Become a beekeeper, if you can commit to a lifetime of learning and have the time.  Thank you!

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