On the 20th of March, I attended a beekeeping workshop at Zenger Farm in Southeast Portland. The class was taught by Tom Lea, one of the founders of Zenger Farm's Community Bee Group.
The workshop was a good introduction to the practice of urban beekeeping as an element of “home economics,” or the set of skills by which households can meet their own needs. There were also a couple of facts mentioned that have a huge bearing on agriculture in general and the relationship of Americans to the food they eat. First, it was said that a majority of Americans kept bees from the time of the Revolution until just after World War Two. Beekeeping was an art handed down through the oral transmission of “bee lore” and through apprenticeship. Then modern industrial factory farming arose and wiped out the large-scale practice of keeping bees, as people traded their skills for the convenience of the supermarket. Only in recent years, as the weaknesses of the industrial food system have become widely reported, have people begun to revive their interest in things like beekeeping.
And that brings up the second point. Mr. Lea mentioned the threat of colony collapse syndrome, and placed the blame for this syndrome squarely on the large-scale agribusiness practice of shipping bees hundreds to thousands of miles each year to pollinate crops at various farms. (This is also mentioned in a Wikipedia article that describes the practice of “migratory beekeeping” and the fact that it artificially boosts crop production on farms.) In his words,
When you're dealing with smaller scale agriculture, you don't have the pests that you have with agribusiness, because you don't travel as much. With beekeeping, the bees are being transferred down to, for instance, orchards in California for almond pollination, and all the diseases are transferred from one hive to another, and then they're taken back to their homes. So diseases are spread around like nobody's business...But this [colony collapse] is just the canary in the coal mine. All agribusiness is like this; everything is moved around much more, and on such a large scale that the pests, viruses, diseases and stress that we see in honeybees are now being experienced in every area of agriculture.
It's not something that can go on forever. At some point, different areas of agriculture will collapse as we are seeing with honeybees. It's a perfect storm... [Emphasis added]
In other words, the very practices of industrial agribusiness generate consequences that threaten the very existence of industrial agribusiness. And colony collapse, along with the rapid spread of plant and animal disease, are consequences of large-scale, fossil fuel-driven industrial agriculture and the transport of plants, animals and insects over thousands of miles.
Mr. Lea held out hope that small-scale agricultural practitioners can provide a defense and remedy for the dangers posed by industrial agribusiness. Toward that end, his workshop offered a number of resources for people who want to get into urban beekeeping. Some of these are:
www.orsba.org, the Oregon State Beekeepers' Association
www.biobees.com, a website by Phil Chandler in the United Kingdom
www.beesource.com, the primary U.S. based beekeeping website and forum
www.Anarchyapiaries.com, by Sam Comfort of upstate New York
www.bushbees.com, by Michael Bush of Nebraska,
and www.beethinking.com, by Matt Reed from Portland, Oregon.
I also made a video of excerpts from the workshop. You can watch it on YouTube at this address.