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Interview with Les Crowder Top-Bar Beekeeper

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    Rob McFarland

    I had a chance to interview Les Crowder, master beekeeper and author of Top-Bar Beekeeping: Organic Practices for Honeybee Health this week at the 2014 California State Beekeepers Association Conference in Valencia, CA.

    In partnership with One Strong Hive, we had Les out for a queen rearing workshop this Spring, and I’ve been kicking myself ever since for not getting him on camera. Fortunately, I got another opportunity at the Conference, as Les was brought in to give his perspective on Top-Bar & Treatment-Free Beekeeping. Les is a tremendous beekeeper and all around nice guy. I really appreciated him taking the time to answer a few question and share his thoughts.

    Here is the full-length interview along with 5 segments for more bite-sized viewing opportunities:

    Full Length Interview:

    Part 1: Top Bar Beekeeping

    Part 2: Role of Urban Beekeepers

    Part 3: Advice for New Beekeepers

    Part 4: Advice for Experienced Beekeepers

    Part 5: Beekeeping in Jamaica



    susan rudnicki

    Thanks for these videos, Rob ! I listened to them and am especially pleased that he emphasized the need to be dedicated to gaining knowledge and facility if you want to keep bees. There are ways to be supportive of bees without having a hive. The county office of apiary inspection is turning more attention to the backyard beeks as I have learned recently. Conrad Burton is the current inspector and called me to ask for a visit to my place to discuss management of urban bees, so I will be meeting him on Tuesday. He has already visited some of our other members. In the past, the registered hives were primarily commercial outfits, but now those comprise only 30 and backyard registrants are 109. Conrad is personally motivated, it seems, to learn more about this larger group (though his primary job is monitoring small business hazardous materials) Therefore, it is incumbent on us to put the best face forward to urban bees. Already, he tells me there are some really sketchy folks out there keeping hives (no suit, afraid of the hive, never inspecting, etc) and this kind of keeping will not serve the craft well in moving our efforts to a acceptable position. My opinion is—there is great need for a verifiable course in basic beekeeping that results in granting a certain level of expertise and knowledge of facts. This is what Les has mentioned is available in New Mexico, and I know some other parts of the country, New York, CT, PA have them too.

    Rob McFarland

    The issues you mentioned were hot topics of debate at the CSBA Conference, and without question part of the discussion about legalizing beekeeping. The inspector’s POV is of course informed by the pending code amendments, and it’s his job to report back on his findings. To your point, this makes it imperative that we welcome him to visit our managed colonies and show two basic things: 1. our hive(s) have moveable frames which can easily be inspected for disease (basic rule of beekeeping in America), and 2. that our bees are not aggressive and a potential danger to our neighbors, pets, etc.

    Ruth and I sat on a panel at the Conference on building a better relationship between urban and commercial beekeepers. The points that were repeated again and again, in the panel and in the hallways, were in line with the inspector’s two main concerns. There was a fair amount of alarm and fear conveyed to me surrounding the use of feral bees, and the potential for a stinging incident to ruin it for everyone. We were all in agreement that no one should keep overly aggressive bees, especially new beekeepers in densely populated areas. The problem with feral bees is you don’t know when you are going to get the 5-10% which are too fierce. This is especially problematic for new beekeepers if they don’t keep up with learning and maintenance that goes into keeping bees. Without regular inspection hives can become ‘cross-comb’ which can make it much more difficult to inspect. These situation quickly get to a level new beekeepers aren’t equipped to deal with on their own.

    Poor management can make any honeybees angry, so when new beekeepers get in over their heads it can cause a real problem in an urban environment. Again, that is regardless of the variety of honeybees – none of them like clumsy beekeeping. So when you add the uncertainty of ferals into the equation, it just requires that beekeepers of all experience levels continue their educational process and mentoring so they have the skills and knowledge to deal with any situation. Urban beekeepers have even greater responsibility to be smart and safety-oriented. My position is to let people know the facts and let them make up their own minds, however I don’t gloss over any of the realities of beekeeping. HoneyLove can’t and shouldn’t say which bees you can and can’t use, all we can do is educate and present the fairest set of facts as possible. Education, education, education.

    The criticism from the commercial beekeepers was that people don’t take the responsibility seriously enough, and become what they call ‘bee havers’, who they argue only contribute sickly bees which spread pests and disease. While I think that is harsh and an unfair assessment of urban beekeepers generally, I have seen people fall into the ‘bee haver’ category early on in their learning process. The only antidote is to provide education, and to inspire people to stick with it. HoneyLove was created for this very reason: to educate and inspire urban beekeepers. It is a tall order, but education is the only way forward. Our goal is to make learning about bees fun and engaging so that people are more likely to stay out of ‘bee haver’ territory and practice this exciting hobby in the safest way possible.

    My experience has been that it takes 2-3 years for it to really start clicking, if you keep learning and pursuing mentorship. A certain amount of beekeeping is just learned by doing, through hours and hours of experience. I don’t think it is fair to expect that every new beekeeper is completely competent before they get a hive, but I do agree that, mandatory or not, beekeepers should complete a full beekeeping 101 course during their first season. We’re working on developing curriculum for exactly that, however we keep tripping up on the fact that we need somewhere in the city where we could conduct these classes with hands-on beekeeping experience.

    Thanks Susan!


    susan rudnicki

    Thanks for the information on the conference, Rob. Of course, if folks were thinking logically, the issue of ferals would be addressed with the facts of what we already know—there are LOTS of ferals living in the urban environment now, so if they were generally as fierce as portrayed by conventional beeks, there would be constant attacks reported. The “vectors of pests and disease” argument also bears scrutiny—package bees can’t survive without treatments, and ferals don’t get treated so naturally select for the survivor stock. Who has the weak bees?
    I have learned (the hard way as a mentor) to keep up with my students and insist from the very beginning that if they are going to be competent and confident, they MUST maintain a regular relationship with a mentor. I have taken hives back after long periods of neglect by some students, and with others, had to arrange “rescue operations” with the aid of other experienced beeks in our club due to their failing these principles. This is a VERY unpleasant, not to say dangerous, situation to be pushed into and I do not like it. I have learned “through the grapevine” of really unsafe and irresponsible situations of former swarm box takers handing off hives to completely unprepared people and giving no mentoring—just dumping the bees on site. Now, I am just much more careful in assessing the actual interest level before getting into it too deeply. So, I am sensitive to the concerns of the conventional beeks in this regard. They are NOT completely wrong in their fears. On some level they must know, though, that it is better to be out in the open to educate wisely than to drive the craft underground.
    I agree with you that 2-3 years is about right for becoming confident and this is part of the message I convey when people express interest in learning beekeeping. They must not be led to believe it is a quickly acquired skill.
    I have seen that part of this misunderstanding is a side-effect of our too busy lives and sometimes very distracted “plugged in” habits. Beekeeping is a SLOW YOU DOWN thing, and does not work if you are in a hurry. The bees won’t like it and you won’t like what they do to you. This is part of the information students should hear from their mentor. One of the first questions newbees ask is “how much time does it take?” Though it is not as much time as keeping a dog—walking, cleaning up poop, vet visits, grooming, obedience training, flea control—at certain times of year it is very intense. And more importantly, the acquisition of education and knowledge cannot be timed—it is a deep subject. As a example of this, I tell students that getting together the “toolbox” of remedies you need as a beek allows one to address many problems that come up and that may have more than one answer. This “toolbox” building brings confidence but it is complex, and it takes quite awhile to see how different remedies interlink on the flow-chart of a problem analysis. So, one thing they can work on right away is memorizing Bush’s “Bee Math” chart.
    Well, the problem with siting a Education Apiary is frustrating—I suppose we have to find somewhere with liability levels that are acceptable, eh? I wonder how other clubs have managed this?
    Thanks again Rob

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