Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Beauty of Bees And Self-Reliance: A Conversation with Author Susan Brackney

Hello Local Food Readers,

Local Food Bloomington is delighted to introduce our readers to Becky Holtzman.  

The Beauty of Bees And Self-Reliance: 
A Conversation with Author Susan Brackney

At the very start of her funny and fact-packed 2009 book, PlanBee: Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About theHardest-Working Creatures on the Planet, Bloomington author Susan Brackney asserts her interest in self reliance. It was this desire for self-reliance that led to home ownership and fueled a hankering for chickens, which in turn became a path to beekeeping.

For ten years, from the mid-90s to mid-2000s, Brackney moved every single year. As a student earning her Bachelors in English at IU, the annual moves were not so unusual. But after graduating, she still found herself moving from one awful rental to another. Landlords aren’t typically amenable to allowing renters to dig garden plots, so she had abundant—but unsatisfying—container gardens; her spare time was spent reading about homesteading. As Brackney says, she was “pining for land.” Her first homestead was an 850 square foot house on a half-acre inside the city limits.

“My realtor explained that a property like this was only a step above camping, but there were these huge old walnut trees….” (You can hear affection for those trees in her voice.) Family helped build a 144 square foot greenhouse, which was cozy on snowy winter days. Brackney started growing much of her own food, canning, and cultivating loofah gourds.

“Because,” she says, “why not?”

Brackney really wanted chickens, but a civic battle was raging at the time: chickens were personae non gratae inside the city limits. Honeybees, however, were considered to be “invertebrate livestock.” When a friend gifted her the beekeeping equipment he found at a yard sale, a beekeeper was born.

Brackney has an  of her great-grandfather and grandfather peering into a hive, knee-deep in summer grass. She’s not sure that any beekeeping skills were passed down to her, though. In fact, she ruefully laughs about being beehive-less this winter, following major bee challenges last autumn.

“Have you ever experienced laying workers?” she asks, laughing. “That was a hot mess of a hive.” Laying workers are an unholy disaster, in which the female worker bees decide the queen is no longer up to the job of laying eggs, and start laying their own—unfertilized—eggs. This results in a bunch of (mostly) useless drones, and spells the demise of the hive. Brackney tried the “shake out and forget” trick, dumping the laying workers away from the hive, but to no avail. February 2016 finds Brackney bee-less, but planning for spring.

“My beekeeping mentor was very old school—he had many, many tricks up his sleeve for ‘working the girls,’ as he put it, to maximize honey production. I’m more hands-off.” Brackney says she’s not in it for the honey, and that she’s more likely to put her ear up to one of her hives and give a it a gentle knock, listening for the bees inside, than she is to open it and start poking around.

“Opening a hive is like cracking open a chest for heart surgery. I really don’t want to, unless absolutely necessary.”

Bees boast a social structure that’s both fluid and organized, with most bees having the chance to work at different jobs during different life stages. The youngest bees care for brood, graduate to housekeeping, serve a stint as an undertaker hauling out dead bees, and then move on to foraging in the wider world. Some bees become entrance guards. A honeybee sting means death for the insect, and it’s their last resort when feeling threatened; a honeybee will typically buzz an intruder several times before stinging.

Brackney maintains that discretion is an important skill in beekeeping: while immediate neighbors absolutely should know there’s a beekeeper at work, ideally the bees are managed so efficiently that nobody even knows it’s happening. Checking bees during the week, when neighbors are at work, is a great way to stay on the down low. If one diligently keeps the hive from swarming, and gives away plenty of honey, chances are good that bees will be welcome in the neighborhood.

The pollination of local gardens and orchards is an added benefit of keeping bees. Large commercial orchards—think the acres of almond trees in California, or the orange groves in Florida—truck in mass quantities of beehives seasonally, paying thousands of dollars for pollination services. In fact, this is how many larger-scale beekeepers make their primary income; honey and beeswax are secondary products.

I once heard an older beekeeper, one of the gentlest men I’ve ever met, insist that the way to restore the honeybee is to train thousands more hobby beekeepers, and not have so many giant commercial beekeepers. Who knows if that would do the trick, but many scientists do think that large-scale commercial beekeeping has helped contribute to honeybee decline, by encouraging the spread of disease to already-stressed-by-travel colonies.

Small is sweet.

The more we can do for ourselves and our communities (human and ecological), the better, and everyone benefits when we invest in our local foodshed Brackney points out that the expensive spinach trucked in from California has lost some of its nutritional value by the time it gets to our plates. Paying a bit more for locally grown food that is in the prime of its nutrient-rich life might save us more in the long run, from the fossil fuels used for transport, tothe value of keeping our dollars in local circulation, to the personal well-being we support when we eat the freshest food possible.

As for the honeybees: you don’t have to keep a hive to support these hard-working pollinators. You can plant blossoms that bees love, in large swaths of your yard. Honeybees practice flower constancy, which means that once a bee finds a flower variety she likes, she’ll work it until there’s nothing left, to the exclusion of other plants. Make it worth her while to visit your yard. Susan created this awesome garden map to give you ideas, and it’s great for welcoming pollinators of all

kinds, including native bees and even hummingbirds. You can also provide a water dish – a shallow saucer with small pebbles for bees to perch on will do. And naturally, you’ll want to stay away from herbicides and insecticides that can harm bees.

Beekeeping is a humbling art—the “right” answers are sometimes elusive, and often you just do the best you can, that moment. Brackney confesses she’s not religious, but when she looks inside a beehive, with its order and systems, she feels awe.

“It’s hard not to believe something powerful is at work,” she sighs. By supporting the bees in their efforts, we all can participate in that “something powerful.”

Find Susan Brackney:

Other Great Books about Bees:
HoneybeeDemocracy, Thomas D. Seeley (Princeton University Press, 2010)
Top-BarBeekeeping: Organic Practices for Honeybee Health, Les Crowder andHeather Harrell (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012)

Becky Holtzman is a painter and Reiki practitioner in Bloomington, Indiana. A keeper-of-bees from 2011-2015, she hopes to have a beehive or two in the near future. You can find her art at beckytomato.com and her Reiki practice at orangeflowerhealing.com.

*NOTE:  Read More about bees in the Food News