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How to Create a Honeybee Sanctuary

By Carol Davis

Photography by Mark Mosrie

Gunther Hauk crouches at the base of one of his wooden beehives to get a closer look at the honeybees returning from their pursuit of pollen — the lifeblood of their existence.

It’s easy to see that their search has been very successful, despite chilly temperatures that had enveloped Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains for several days. “Do you see all the yellow pollen on their legs?” he asks with a broad smile.

Hauk’s delight isn’t about the amount of honey — and money — that the bees’ pollen-gathering is capable of producing. He’s pleased that his hives are thriving despite catastrophic losses of honeybees across Europe and, for about 15 years now, in the United States.

As founders and caretakers of Spikenard Farm and Bee Sanctuary, in Floyd, Va., Hauk and his wife Vivian are devoted to restoring the honeybee’s health through sustainable biodynamic beekeeping.

For Gunther Hauk, it’s not what the bees can do for him; it’s about what he’s trying to do for the bees.

Devastating Losses

The state of the honeybee’s peril was revealed after The New York Times published a 1996 story headlined, “The Hush of the Hives,” that revealed devastating honeybee losses ranging from 55-80 percent in various states because of the varroa mite.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a phenomenon in which an entire colony of bees abruptly disappears from its hive, sometimes leaving behind food and developing bees (larva), which is completely contrary to a bee’s nature. Hauk’s theory is that when stress, chemical poisoning, unhealthy food, and procedures unhealthy for the bees all reach a certain unbearable level, they leave.

Losses from managed honeybee colonies nationwide have hovered around 30-34 percent for the last five years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The expected — and sustainable — loss average among beekeepers is 13-15 percent.

Lots of theories abound about what’s making them sick: pesticides, a virus, a mite, inadequate food supply, stress. Millions of dollars are being spent to figure it out.

Hauk, a beekeeper for nearly 40 years, believes he knows: it’s not one, singular thing causing the honeybee devastation, but rather all of the above, he says.

His theory: over the last century, such increasing pressure has been put on honeybees to make a profit that they’re worn down and their compromised immune systems now threaten their existence.

For 100 years, Hauk explains, beekeeping has evolved into an ever-increasing industry where bees are handled like industrialized livestock:

  • Entire colonies with thousands of bees are trucked across the country to follow the nectar flow to increase honey production
  • Queens are artificially raised from worker larvae and some are artificially inseminated to be sold and then shipped under what can be very difficult conditions.
  • All, not just the surplus, of a hive’s nutritious food source — honey — is taken and replaced with syrup made of corn or sugar which does not contain the vitamins, minerals, fats, and proteins that bees need throughout winter. “It’s like if we could eat only broccoli and bread,” Hauk says. “ We wouldn’t be very healthy.”
  • Hives are so overmanaged that the bees’ own nature is altered. “We prevent swarming and, instead of letting bees make their own honeycomb, we put a grid in the hive of a recycled wax foundation, reinforced with metal or plastic,” Hauk says. “Instinct is tremendous wisdom, and we have gone against the instinct of animals.”

Such practices, along with exposure to pesticides, have stressed honeybees and made them vulnerable to bacteria, viruses, and parasites, Gunther says.

“It’s the same as us. Bacteria and viruses are all around us, but we don’t get sick unless our immune system is worn down,” he says. “The bees’ immune system is worn down.”

Consequently, natural enemies — viruses, bacteria, mites — gain a dangerous foothold.

His concerns have been considered by others, including the USDA.

“A perfect storm of existing stresses may have unexpectedly weakened colonies leading to collapse,” the USDA has written. “These stresses could include … poor nutrition due to apiary overcrowding, pollination of crops with low nutritional value, or pollen or nectar scarcity; and … migratory stress brought about by increased needs for pollination.”

“Why is the mite coming?” Vivian asks before answering her own question. “Nature has an instinct to take care of what is not healthy because it’s bad for everything. Parasites go where something is weakened.”

“Through 100 years of beekeeping, we have weakened the bees,” she says.

Commercial beekeeping must be examined and altered to save the staggering loss of bees, Hauk advises. Indeed, some of these beekeeping methods have been entrenched for so long that beekeepers don’t even realize that the bees are being harmed, the Hauks say.

‘I Strengthen the Bees’

Hauk founded the bee sanctuary not only to nurture honeybees, but to show that making the necessary changes can create an environment that will reverse the bees’ current decline. His own healthy hives are evidence that it’s working.

“I strengthen the bees and they take care of the viruses and bacteria,” he says.

Hauk’s beekeeping methods reflect his work in biodynamic farming, a method that goes beyond organic gardening.

The Pfeiffer Center, a biodynamic gardening and agricultural training center in Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., that Hauk co-founded, explains biodynamics this way: “Rather than aiming for mere sustainability, we in the biodynamic movement study and follow practices that actively heal and enliven the earth as we work it.”

Hauk now lectures and provides workshops on biodynamic farming and beekeeping, and in 2002 his book, Toward Saving the Honeybee, was published.

Hauk originally founded a bee sanctuary in 2006 in New York and then moved to Illinois where a generous donor purchased a 610-acre farm and invited him to develop the sanctuary there. Though he had managed to obtain organic certification for the farm after just two years, herbicides distributed by air on other nearby large farming operations threatened the project.

“That was when I realized that it was not safe for the bees,” he says.

So when he and Vivian searched for a smaller property in an area away from large commercial farming operations, their search led them to Floyd, Va. It was there in fall 2009 that landowner Terry Brett offered 25 stunning acres for sale in the Blue Ridge Mountains — next door to an organic farm.

They began work by planting perennials and annuals early the next year and strengthening the soil to provide abundant blossoms for the bees to collect pollen.

“The landscaping effort has been geared totally toward the bees,” Vivian says. “Everything is about, ‘what do they need?’”

The sanctuary provides water, protection from pesticides and other chemicals, an abundance of many varieties flowers, and protection from honey-loving bears that wander the Blue Ridge. A nearby pasture contains white clover and plantain, which bees love.

The sanctuary holds 25 hives, which is the limit for that size of property, Hauk says. New hives are formed through the natural process called “swarming” —when the queen bee leaves the hive with a little more than half of the worker bees to congregate in a tree for two or three days until scout bees find a suitable place to build a hive.

If the swarm is reachable, Hauk captures them and gives them to trusted local beekeepers. “We don’t ship them away,” he notes.

The Hauks see the sanctuary evolving into a learning center where visitors and students can learn about beekeeping methods that help the honeybee recover from its catastrophic losses and begin to thrive again.

“A sanctuary for me is a place to let a being that is being endangered be safe and you take care of it,” Hauk says. “You don’t demand anything from it, and in fact you ask, ‘What can I do to raise the health, vitality, and immune system of this being?’”

How to Start Your Own Bee Hive

Find a local beekeeper and ask him or her when they have a swarm so you’ll have a nucleus colony created with a natural queen, Hauk advises.

How to Help Honeybees

The best action you can take to benefit honeybees, according to the USDA, is to not use pesticides indiscriminately, especially not at mid-day when honeybees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar.

You also can plant and encourage the planting of good nectar sources such as white clover, foxglove, bee balm, and joe-pye weed.