Beekeeper talks intersection of honeybee crisis and politics

Sunday, November 6, 2016 - 8:24pm

At an environmental lecture in Palmer Commons Friday, biodynamic beekeeper Gunther Hauk examined the ways in which the honeybee crisis intersects with the modern political and economic realm to a crowd of nearly 70 students, faculty and staff.

The lecture was organized by the Germanic Languages and Literatures Department along with LSA and the Graham Sustainability Institute and the Office of Research. Biodynamic beekeeping is a practice that involves minimizing stress factors, such as pesticides and artificial materials, to allow bees to behave naturally and instinctively.

Andrew Mills, a lecturer in the Germanic Languages and Literatures Department, said Hauk also met with a group of students studying German and planned to host a beekeeping workshop for students Saturday.

“There’s a German language beekeeping group and he’s German, so that’s an obvious connection,” Mills said. “Beekeeping is so important to Germany as a society. Its relationship to bees and honey is very strong. That’s not obvious, and I don’t expect it to be obvious to people.”

During the lecture, Hauk said because of the cultural connection to beekeeping and excellent natural conditions, all countries in the European Union practice beekeeping. Hauk, who has four decades of experience, now serves as the executive director of Spikenard Farm, a honeybee sanctuary in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

“The honeybee crisis touches something different in us, and not just because of the honey,” Hauk said. “This is a very significant animal. Not only for the fruit and the veggies (they help provide), but more than that. The crisis has been coming and we wonder, ‘How did we get to such a crisis?’ ”

He attributed the honeybee crisis to a conflation of the laws of agriculture and industry, pointing to policy makers like Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack who have been associated with ardent support of genetically modified food and seeds. He said the expansive goals of companies like Monsanto and Bayer are detrimental to the laws of nature, but inherent and inevitable to big business.

To further illustrate this point, Hauk asked a person in the front row if he could hold their arm and began to stroke it while addressing the audience, expressing the idea that to get the most out of anything, it must be treated kindly and gently.

“What we do in agriculture, we get the most of the land, the most out of the bees,” Hauk said while he caressed the arm. “What we have to do is to get the most. Do you see it? We have to stroke the earth. We have to ask the bees, ‘What do you need? What is your instinct?’”

Referring to the upcoming presidential election, Hauk said there was an unexpected convergence of the spheres of politics and beekeeping.

“What does politics have to do with beekeeping?” Hauk asked. “Nothing very good. We have to rely on people in their right minds, in their revolutionary resistance and rethinking. That’s what’s going to help us. No matter who gets into office, don’t wait for any solutions from top down.”

He also advocated for a grassroots effort to help the bees, encouraging all citizens, not just beekeepers, to become involved. Since 2006, honeybees have been dying at higher rates, which has been attributed to harsh winters, parasites and an increase in farmers’ use of pesticides and herbicides. Hauk listed several activities that he said would help bees and potentially solve the crisis.

“Everybody can do something for the bees,” Hauk said. “You can write a little letter. Not to kill the dandelion. You can plant things on empty lots. You can support organizations that do the work for you.”

He also emphasized the extreme environmental reactions that would occur if the honeybee crisis was allowed to continue without action by both beekeepers and citizens, and said the honeybee crisis causes a domino effect in which, if the honeybees go extinct, humans will as well.

“If the bees go, then ants go and we are out of here,” Hauk said. “We will not be able to evolve. This is a crisis more important than global warming. This is the crisis. And it asks us to not only work differently with the bees but to work differently with the land and each other and everything.”

Rackham student Austin Martin, who is studying conservation ecology and environmental justice, said the lecture contributed to the way he looked at biodynamic agriculture in beekeeping. As the president of UMBees, a beekeeping student organization at the University of Michigan, he said he spends lots of time examining the relationships between bees and their natural environment, and enjoyed learning about another perspective with which to explore his passion.

"I don't know much about biodynamic agriculture in general, so it was nice to hear about his ideas and that as a whole," Martin said. "My master’s thesis involves both social science and ecology but one of the ecological aspects I'm incorporating involves native bees."