Virginia farm seeking ways to preserve bees

By Tonia Moxley The Roanoke Times © June 23, 2013


The bee sounded angry.

But after a few moments, she gave up looking for someone to sting and flew away.

It had not been a good day to open the honey bee hives at Spikenard Farm Honey Bee Sanctuary, said Gunther Hauk, executive director of the organization.

There had been too many clouds and the possibility of rain. Even after the hives had been closed up, one bee remained disturbed.

Hauk, 71, is the farm’s lead beekeeper, and he said he doesn’t wear the characteristic bee-proof veil most other beekeepers employ. No gloves or bee-proof suits, either. Even a recent sting in the nostril couldn’t make him put a protective layer between him and his beloved honey bee colonies.

At Spikenard, they do beekeeping and farming their own way and work to pass it on to the about 300 students who come annually to Floyd County for courses in a kind of sustainable agriculture called biodynamic farming.

Hauk and wife Vivian Struve-Hauk came to Floyd from Illinois about three years ago, after appearing in two national documentaries, “Vanishing of the Bees” in 2009 and “Queen of the Sun” in 2010. In those films, the Hauks talked about a new way of beekeeping that focused not on agricultural production, but on attention to honey bee health.

The films explored both scientific and philosophical opinions about colony collapse disorder (CCD), a largely unexplained syndrome affecting primarily commercial beekeepers who transport colonies across the country each year to pollinate crops, such as almonds in California and wild blueberries in Maine.

At the same time, hives owned by commercial and hobby beekeepers alike have been beset by an infestation of the Asian Varroa destructor mite traced to the 1980s. The mites vector more than a dozen known viruses that can also cause healthy colonies to dwindle and die out.

A rise in annual losses experienced over the past winter and spring across the country has refocused attention on the plight of honey bees and people’s economic dependence on them.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about a third of the fruits and vegetables sold in grocery stores are pollinated by honey bees provided by the commercial beekeepers who truck them across the country from crop to crop.

Declines in honey bees and other pollinators, such as native bees and butterflies, could cause crop failures and sharp increases in the prices of food, some experts say.

“People are not aware that we are going to hit a food crisis,” Hauk said. “But for me a crisis is a blessing.”

Crisis, like a circle, turns people around, he added. And a crisis might lead to a less industrialized food system.

“CCD is not only about one pesticide or two,” he said. “But is about how we farm and how we keep bees.”

Hauk, who established the nonprofit Spikenard Farm first in Illinois, saw that food system up close.

“We were surrounded by corn and soy; once in a great while you would see a wheat field,” Hauk said. “For hundreds of thousands of miles you have only one crop, and it’s dead.”

Not the crop, but the landscape was dead, Hauk said – eerily lacking in insects and animal life. Hauk said crop dusters sprayed chemicals right on the borders of the sanctuary, forcing him to leave a 600-acre property there and re-establish as a working farm, apiary and educational center on 25 acres in Floyd County. Today the sanctuary is surrounded by forests and organic farms.

Since “Vanishing of the Bees” was released in 2009, the Hauks have used their film appearances to promote an approach they practiced in Illinois, based on the teachings of early 20th century European philosopher and social reformer Rudolf Steiner, who believed that without a natural and spiritual focus in agriculture and education, Western civilization would destroy itself.

In that mold, Hauk said he eschews conventional methods and equipment used widely by commercial and hobby beekeepers for hand-made hives in which bees build the size and shape comb they choose. To fight mites, Hauk said he researched recipes for “biodynamic preparations” to help the bees fight them on their own.

Biodynamic farming relies in part on recipes for homeopathic remedies to enrich soil, boost honey bee health and contribute to overall agricultural fertility without artificial fertilizers or pesticides. Many of these same principles are used in modern organic farming, which is widely practiced in Floyd.

At Spikenard, much attention is also paid to the spiritual aspects of farming and of beekeeping. Hauk talks openly about encouraging “vitality” and “dynamic life force” in the hives. This approach encourages eye-rolling from some mainstream beekeepers, but their reaction doesn’t bother Hauk.

“Some crazy nut has to be out in front,” he said.

While his homeopathic approach turns off some, experts do cite some of the same of problems and solutions Hauk talks about.

Michigan-based Larry Connor is a former extension apicultural entomologist at The Ohio State University in Columbus, who also worked as a commercial bee breeder. Today he is an author, publisher, lecturer and educator for beekeepers.

Connor numbers the loss of pollinator habitat in the vast fields of corn and soy beans often termed “monoculture” as a top issue facing honey bees and beekeepers. The widespread use of herbicides with genetically modified crops has eliminated weeds that honey bees once used for food, Connor said.

Bees that forage in industrial fields of sweet corn can come in contact with pesticide residues that may cause behavior changes. Together with disease and weakness from Varroa mite infestation, these problems can cause significant colony losses, Connor said.

“But the Varroa mite is the overriding pressure,” he said.

Connor said fighting the mite relies not on miticides used for decades by beekeepers, but on mite-tolerant strains of bees developed by researchers to keep his colonies alive. Connor said he believes to stay afloat, other beekeepers will eventually have to do the same.

Meanwhile, Hauk said, he will continue to build up the grant-funded sanctuary and its programs, and help move it to greater self-sufficiency.

The farm’s board of directors purchased the property last year. And, earlier this month, the organization kicked off a capital campaign to raise $30,000 in 30 days to build an outdoor pavilion needed to establish an educational and retreat center.

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