Honey Bees in the Vineyard

If you learn only one thing from studying a honey bee colony it is probably that a hive functions as one organism. You cannot separate any one part of it from another. It is all interdependent. Then you’d do well to extrapolate that out to realize this is a microcosm of nature. In this light, so-called colony collapse disorder, which refers to the disappearance of bee hives on a global scale, is a major cause for concern.

Who’s to blame? Genetically modified seeds and plants, chemical pesticides and mono-crops are all suspects to be rounded up for questioning. And, in truth, they are probably all working in concert to cause the current problems.

Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher and scientist and founder of biodynamics, warned during a lecture in 1923 that if we continued our path towards industrial agriculture the honey bee population would be in danger by the end of the century [you can read all of Steiner's honey bee lectures here]. Chillingly, colony collapse disorder has proved Steiner’s words prophetic.

Honey bees are vitally important pollinators. In fact, as much as 40 percent of our food is pollinated by honey bees. Cries about their disappearance are much more than a liberal whine about the injustices man has committed against nature.

“There are many attractions to mono-culture. It’s efficient,” says Michael Pollan in Queen of the Sun a documentary about honey bees. “But from the point of view of nature, it’s insane.”

When we talk about sustainability too many people think we are talking about “green” practices like recycling waste water, or using those silly pressed biodegradable sporks instead of plastic ones. But there is a much more fundamental sustainability being missed. For example, the 600,000-acre mono-culture of almonds in the Central Valley is simply unsustainable. Why? Because the almond tree needs to be pollinated by bees. The trees bloom for two weeks a year. That means for 50 weeks out of the year there is nothing around for a bee to eat for 600,000 acres. That is simply unsustainable. And the current solution, to truck in millions and millions of bees from all over the country (and even from other countries) stacked on semis is equally unsustainable.

Think about the next time you are congratulating yourself for purchasing “local” almonds. Then multiply by the acres upon acres of soy and corn field across the country that are essentially deserts.

The more sane and sensible solution, of course, is to return the honey bees into balance with nature. So you will see many farms beginning to practice some degree of biodynamic techniques where bee-attracting wild flowers and other crops are planted alongside what had previously been mono-culture.

Here in wine country we certainly know a thing or two about mono-culture. Grapevines are self pollinators, so they don’t need the honey bees to grow, but when you see honey bees around it is a sign of a heathy ecosystem.

So when you hear about some winery or the other introducing a bee-keeping program think of it as more than some eccentric quirk.

The above images were taken in a lavender field at Ceàgo, a biodynamic vineyard in Lake County. It’s a funny fact that honey bees are attracted to many of the same colors and smells as humans are. And as you can see, these bees really took to the lavender just coming into bloom.