For the Love of Honeybees
Interview with Michael Thiele
Michael Thiele grew up on a farm in a tiny village in central Germany. He has been deeply influenced by the German biodynamic beekeeping movement and now teaches classes on natural and holistic beekeeping in the United States. He worked for seven years as the beekeeper at Green Gulch Farm, a Zen center just north of San Francisco. He takes care of the hives at The Melissa Garden, a honeybee sanctuary––including several “alternative” hives. Melissa Garden utilizes biodynamic methods and will seek Demeter certification. By extension, their beekeeper, Michael Thiele, is practicing biodynamic beekeeping methods according to the standards put forth by the international Demeter Association. Michael was interviewed over the phone by LILIPOH editor, Christy Korrow.
LILIPOH: Please introduce us to the concept of the bien. What does it mean, and how is it related to beekeeping?
M. Thiele: It’s interesting that, let’s say, maybe 150 years ago, before the introduction of modern beekeeping, beekeeping was not something special and not performed for any agro-industrial production. The crops, so-called crops, were not really the focus of beekeeping. It was just part of agriculture. Part of regular life. Culturally, the bees have always been important to humans. But it was not about the crop itself. Then, at a very interesting time, when modern beekeeping emerged, meaning the Langstroth hives (square boxes), some people started raising their voice and said “wait a moment.” The tendency of the modern human mind is to approach the world through reduction and to look only at certain aspects of the bee hive. Due to this, the notion of the one-being was created ( Einwesen, in German) also called the Bien (bee in German is: Biene)
The concept of the bien reveals itself as an undividable entity. As something which is beyond the sum of its small and many parts. The modern equivalent to bien could be called super-organism. More like the biological term for this. A super-organism is something which goes beyond individual organisms, so this is what the beehive is. It’s something which goes far beyond its individual parts. So that is the basic understanding of bien.
LILIPOH: If we are to approach the hive with this in mind, then it affects the choices we make on how to prepare their home, where to place them, and in general how we treat our bees.
M. Thiele: Once you approach the honeybees with this kind of understanding, everything gets turned upside down, beginning with how we name the individual parts. For example, “worker bees.” Calling them this is so limiting to the female bees, and I always feel it doesn’t do them justice. These names we have for bees were derived from our own intention, the paradigm with which we approached them. So it is a worker bee when we take all the parts apart, and limit our understanding by calling the female bees, worker bees.
The same is true with the drones. The word drone does not have a very good connotation. To use that name for the male bees makes it even more challenging to see the value in the drone. In commercial beekeeping, there are almost no drones present in the hive. Foundations are given, mostly plastic, which provide only smaller cells, making it almost impossible for the bien to create drones, male bees, because they require larger cells. We see these tens of thousands of single bees and we know, to some extent, what each of them do at different times in their life span. But then there is something which makes all 50,000 into one complex, huge being, which is far beyond each individual sub-unit.
The bien is one whole being. Through the Bien we can experience the miracle that life is. We may sense the communal, non hierarchical form of life, an attitude without greed, hate and delusion. Deep within we may feel the extent of selfless serving to the whole – like Rudolf Steiner says: the hive is permeated with love. So the beauty of the concept of bien, is that it can open our minds and stretch our understanding, because it’s not only what we can see with our eyes, it’s something those 50,000 honeybees are creating together. It can help humans to learn, to relearn, to remember the bigger picture of the underlying interconnectedness of everything.
This beautiful entity, the beehive, this super-organism, is only one-half of an even larger being––the flowering world. In being with the bees, we not only touch the bien, but we touch the entire flowering world. Whatever is done to one, can be seen in the other. There is a beautiful message in this for us because it can remind us that we, too, are part of this one whole being of the earth, of the universe. At the same time, the honeybees are so fragile.
LILIPOH: It sounds as though the bees can teach us lessons about social life and how we treat each other.
M. Thiele: Yes, Rudolf Steiner talked about how the hive is permeated by love in one of his lectures on honeybees. I think he really brings it all down to the essential message, to the essential understanding that the bien is so much about love. So much about service, too. In the beehive itself, everybody serves everybody. Even though there is a “queen bee,” she is not a queen in a human sense. It is the bien that directs the life of the colony. In the hive, there are smaller cells and larger cells. The larger ones are for the male bees, and the smaller ones are for the female bees. Depending on the size of the cell, the queen will lay a fertilized egg, which will be a female bee, or an unfertilized egg, which will be a male bee. The cell size tells the queen what kind of egg to lay.
Well then, who decides which cell size to build? Many bees are part of constructing one little cell, but the next cell to that cell, another set of bees are involved. So it’s not yet completely understood how all this information is passed. Scientists are trying to understand that, and it’s very complicated, and partially understood, but mainly people say “we don’t know.”
Prof. Juergen Tautz, an entomologist in Germany, started looking at the bee as a mammal, because he found so many parallels between mammals and the bees. Mammals raise their offspring by mother’s milk, by something out of the body of the mother. That is very typical to mammals. Well, with the bees, Tautz says that the nursing bees are feeding the little larvae “sister’s milk” because they are not feeding only pollen and nectar to the larvae, but they actually produce a kind of milk in their head-glands. He also compares their reproduction. A hundred years ago we had ten or twelve children, but with other mammals, the numbers are quite small, compared to frogs, or other animals. With bees, you may think, “Wait a moment, there are 50,000 bees in there!” but, the offspring are swarms. My colony just swarmed in the last two weeks; they swarmed twice. So they had two babies.
In conventional beekeeping, swarming is the last thing you want to happen for your bees, because you lose bees, and you won’t have as much honey so there are so many swarm-suppression techniques in place. It’s amazing.
LILIPOH: Staying with the suggested metaphor, swarm suppression is a form of birth control, and we know what kinds of effects that has on women’s bodies, so it must certainly have an adverse effect on the bien.
M. Thiele: Yes, swarming is a very powerful and necessary part of their wellbeing. To suppress it affects the health of the bien. The other similarity between mammals and bees is body temperature. Ours is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and the bees keep the temperature of their colony around 95 degrees. It’s very close.
And then that brings us to the comb. Comb is basically an inner organ of the bien. It’s a communication organ, a nerve system, it’s the immune system. It’s storage for pollen and nectar, but also the place for the processing of nectar. Nectar, as it comes from the flowers, needs to be processed. It has a high water-content, that the bees reduce down to under 20 percent. And they add enzymes. The comb also serves as the cradle and the womb. All the bees are raised in the comb. The bee itself spends about 90 percent of its life on the comb. The comb is built according to gravity. The comb is part of the immune system of the bien. It’s covered with propolis. Bees have collected propolis which has antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. The rim is covered with propolis, and so are the insides of the cells.
It is a memory and communication system too. Combs are marked with many scents from different flower essences and pollen. Interesting studies were done with vibrations, and while the bee does its famous waggle dance, it vibrates at about 250 hertz. That vibration is transmitted by naturally built comb, so that it can be felt by other bees without having to be very close to the dancing bees. And the beauty is that the comb itself transmits vibration. The optimum expression of vibration is happening on warm wax comb at 250 hertz.
When I started beekeeping, I didn’t have a problem with changing frames within one hive, moving frames from one side to the other, but this is now a big issue for me. Do I want to move my heart out of my chest? I haven’t found a complete solution to that but it changes everything; it puts everything upside down. And plus, the bien builds comb downwards. Bees don’t build comb upward. They start and build down toward the earth. In conventional beekeeping, it’s always supered. Every new box is put on top. It’s so difficult for them, because the bees have to make this huge leap to go upward; they want to go down again. So we don’t super, we lower. The addition goes underneath where the bees can just continue their natural movement and build the comb downwards. I feel this is their birthright to build natural comb. It’s a huge part of their being. In light of the challenges the honeybees are facing, we can support the bees by giving them back to their birthright––allow them to build their own comb (many people do not know that conventional honey producers usually use plastic comb foundations).
That then brings us to those square boxes. I grew up with this image of square boxes as being the normal natural house and environment for bees. One hundred and fifty years ago it was the skep, which corresponded more with the natural life-forces of the bees.
Sometimes I’m a little bit hesitant in saying that square bee boxes are not good anymore. Many good things can be done with those boxes. But in the long run, I believe we have to change that. That’s part of this big paradigm shift that needs to happen. We need to change bee-housing. But, I think to say that you have to throw everything away, and start with something totally different is too much to change. So that’s why I say, it’s better to let them go with natural comb in those square boxes.
LILIPOH: We have been in biodynamic agriculture for many years; you can’t just expect a chemical farmer to just go organic overnight, but it can happen gradually. Maybe they would just start using their cow manure as a first step and that would be a huge stride. So I certainly agree with you; that makes a lot of sense.
M. Thiele: When you look at the bees, when you look closely, you will see it’s all about a round or oval shape: wild comb built on trees, the brood nest, the arrangement of honey, pollen and brood on the comb. The round form is so much more conducive to regulating warmth and humidity, whereas corners trap cold. You want to try to come up with a design where the form would match the life-forces of the bees. With the one exception––we would still be able to have frames in it. There is a hive developed in Germany called Weissenseiferner Haengekorb, which literally means “hanging basket.” It’s like a double-skep. This hive is placed higher than normal box hives. Bees naturally want to be six – eight feet above the ground. They are not creatures of the earth. They are out of a different sphere––they belong to the to the air and fire element. Bees only touch the ground to collect water or to die. Other than that, they are not touching the ground much.
LILIPOH: Are you optimistic about the future of the honeybee?
M. Thiele: For eons, the earth has provided for us; we are her children. But now, with all the bee diseases and many other things happening on earth, it seems life has changed dramatically; we have to take on the role of being the steward. That is our task, our duty. It looks as if human beings have become essential for the survival of the honeybees. Besides many, many other species. That makes me think of that Chinese character for danger. The character for danger contains two characters: challenge and opportunity. For millennia, the bees were the messengers; for example the Greek Oracle of Delphi assumed the name of Queen Bee. And it seems that when it comes to really important issues, the bees are there. Again they are there. The vanishing of the bees is the wake-up call, they are shaking us.
Michael Thiele’s tips for non-beekeepers
• Do not buy anything with royal jelly. Royal jelly has a wonderful reputation, but when you look into how it’s produced, it’s terrible. Hives are decapitated, made queen-less, and robbed of the royal jelly over and over again, until the hive collapses and then they start all over again. It’s total exploitation.
• Buy local honey, and be willing to pay more for honey; honey is not cheap. Look at farmers markets and find out who your local beekeepers are and get to know them.
• The bien and the flowering world are one being. In order to support the bees, leave wild areas in your gardens, providing for honeybee nectar and pollen forage for pollinators. Farmers know about the need to provide enough flowers for pollinators. Don’t mow your lawn all the way, let some grasses and weeds flower, and create flowering spaces for bees in the garden. Visit www.themelissagarden.com for a complete listing of plants for honeybees.
Copyright © 2007 Lilipoh | All Rights Reserved
This interview originally appeared in Lilipoh.com