Monthly Archives: February 2014

Nissan Leaf: The Snow and Ice Report

Leaf in snow cropped

For those of you that have been following along, in the past year I’ve posted a number of times about owning the Nissan Leafs, and I’m pretty sure that an objective person would have to characterize them as glowingly positive reports. If you happen to be new to the blog, here are some links–

Turning Over a New Leaf” — My first ideas about possibly getting a Leaf.
Leaf Economics” — The test drive, and thoughts on the economics of driving an EV.
Leaf Charging” — Figuring out how EV charging systems work.
Leaf Day One Top-Ten List” — Our first day with the car.
We’re Not Actually Rich” — Leasing the second Leaf, and my first real review of the cars.
and, “Leaf Update: I Cannot Lie” — My unvarnished reflection after six months.

So, now it’s almost March, and we’ve had a fair amount of snow, a fair amount of ice, and we’ve had many, many nights that were well below zero, including one night approaching 20 below. But, though winter isn’t over by any means, we probably are on the slow and gradual warmup that leads to spring, so I feel confident in issuing my wintertime report. I’m still extremely happy with the cars, but for the first time, I do have some caveats. This isn’t a “good news / bad news” report, but perhaps a “good news / things-to-keep-in-mind” report.

On the good side, it’s the same great car in the winter that it is in the summer. In some ways, better—while the two gas-mobiles both failed to start multiple times at 15 below, the Leafs (obviously) have no engines to crank, just a button to push. The car makes a little chime, and away you go. In that sense, the car doesn’t care whether it’s 15 below or not.

In terms of handling on snow and ice, we need to back up a hair here. My previous daily driver was an all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza with studded Hakkapelitta snow tires. In terms of winter driving, this is just about as good as it gets—the Suby could go virtually anywhere, and chew through 12 inches or more of snow. So, compared to that, the Leafs are front-wheel-drive only, and, as a cost savings and curiosity experiment, I decided to see how they would do in the winter without the expense and effort of buying and switching to snow tires twice a year. (Why add maintenance to a maintenance-free car if you don’t have to? Snow tires for two cars would have been well over $1,000, plus $60 per car per change to put them on and take them off). One Leaf, the red SL, came with all-season tires. The black SV model came with “summer tires”. I was really curious, first of all, about the difference between the two. My verdict—as best I can tell, absolutely no difference, even in below-zero temps. Both cars are amazingly “grippy”; I think it’s due to their slightly-heavier-than-normal weight, and perhaps modern tires do better in cold weather than they did decades ago. Even on solid ice covered with water, the cars do better than I would have expected. In the very worst of conditions (during heavy snow, before roads were plowed), I’ve found hills that I barely made it up. But, in these same conditions other vehicles were having trouble, too, and tractor trailers were jack-knifing. All told, I’d put the Leafs on par with other front-wheel-drive vehicles, or even slightly better. If I had put studded snow tires on, I think they would have rivaled the Suby.

Charging at the first Level 3 charger in Vermont, at Freedom Nissan in Burlington. Level 3 chargers will fill a Leaf to 80% in about 30 minutes, though it was taking a few minutes longer in near-zero temps.

Charging at the first Level 3 charger in Vermont, at Freedom Nissan in Burlington. Level 3 chargers will fill a Leaf to 80% in about 30 minutes, though it was taking a few minutes longer than that in near-zero temps.

Related to traction, the cars also have computerized traction control. It kicks in at the obvious times, on ice or snow when accelerating, whereupon it limits motor power until the tires grip. This is really effective, and I think it’s part of what enables the cars to climb hills fairly well in the snow even without studded tires. But, here’s the part that surprised me—when driving fast down our ice-slick and curvy driveway, I purposely put the car into a drift/slide. In a split second, the traction-control somehow activated the anti-lock brakes on select wheels to immediately jerk the car back into a non-sliding orientation. I’ve played with it multiple times since then, and it nearly always fixes the skid. In fact, between the ABS brakes and the traction-control, it really feels like the computer is working with me to drive the car, like we’re double-teaming it. Or, like I have an R2-D2 in the copilot’s seat. It’s really impressive; and a glimpse of self-driving cars in the future.

And, also related to traction, the “B-mode”, which is enhanced regenerative braking, works fantastic when going down icy hills. It puts a nice steady drag on the car when you take your foot off of the accelerator, without the traction-breaking effect of actually applying the brakes. In fact, not once all winter have I slid going down a hill. Comforting, as it’s one thing to not make it up a hill, and an entirely other thing to start sliding whle going down.

In the end, the try-to-avoid-winter-tires experiment has been a success, I think (though not particularly related to Leafs, specifically). Here in Vermont they’re Johnny-on-the-spot in terms of plowing the roads, so if you can’t quite make it on unplowed roads, you can just wait an hour or so and then go, or take a route that avoids steep uphills. It’s not quite like having studded tires on, but hey, I didn’t have to spend the $1,000. Even my wife, who was pretty leery of the no-snow-tires plan, seems to have gotten completely used to driving the Leafs without them. I might buy some quicky strap-on “emergency” single-loop tire chains, they can be put on in minutes, and at $50 a set they would enable the car to handle just about anything. Peace of mind for way, way less money than snow tires, in case we absolutely had to get to the hospital in the middle of a blizzard (though in reality, if that happened I’d just take the four-wheel-drive pickup with the plow). Mr. X has some of these chains, and likes them.

 

The Level 3 CHAdeMO connector. Currently there is a bit of a standards war going on with Level 3 chargers, with some manufacturers using a modified Level 2 fitting called a "Combi" plug.

The Level 3 CHAdeMO connector. Currently there is a bit of a standards war going on with Level 3 chargers, with some manufacturers using a modified Level 2 fitting called a SAE “Combo” plug.

So, I’m sure you’re impatiently reading along here to find out what it is that I don’t like about the Leafs in the winter. In short, just like I’d been told, the range really is reduced in really cold weather. Between the battery holding less total power in cold weather, and the added loads of the heater, in the very worst case the range on a full charge was only about 45 miles; less than half of the pleasant-dry-70-degree weather range. Now, I say “very worst case”, which only happened once—15 below zero, windows iced up and requiring defrost, car sitting for 24-hours-plus without being driven or charged (both charging and discharging the batteries is slightly less than 100% efficient, and the difference manifests itself as heat, warming the batteries to some degree), and taking multiple short trips. Other trips in similar conditions were better, with a wintertime very-cold-weather average of perhaps 60 miles to a charge. If one had a heated garage, I think wintertime range could still be quite high (and the Fleetcarma results show that, too, with some users reporting more than 80 miles of range even at near-zero temps. See graph below.) For us, with no garage, we saw similar range improvements when we departed from the Level 2 charger at my wife’s place of work, with the cabin preheated while the car was still plugged in (which can be done from home via the cars’ internet links). I’ve driven to work every workday all winter, a 45-mile trip each way if I leave from the Level 2 charger, and the most I’ve used was 82% of the battery (long single trips result in better range than multiple short trips, as the batteries warm as you use them). I only use Level 1 to charge once I’m at work, and in temps near zero this has meant that on the way home I need to stop in Middlebury at the Level 2 chargers for about 10 or 15 minutes and get a bit of a boost to make it back. Not perfect, but not a horrible inconvenience, either.

Fleetcarma's Leaf winter range test results.

Fleetcarma’s Leaf winter range test results. Note the wide range between the best and worst test result for any given temperature—quite a few variables affect range, and fortunately, some of these are within a driver’s control.

The other factor that affects range is how you use the cars’ heaters. The 2012 and newer Leafs use a heat pump for cabin heat, and they are really quite efficient. But, in temps near zero using the heater with abandon does use battery power at a noticeably higher rate (4,000 watts or more on the energy readouts). What works better for me is to set the fan manually to “low” (as opposed to using the “auto” button), and the heater temp to 60 degrees (which is as low as it will go). With the mode button set to deliver some of the air to the defrost vents, it keeps the windshield clear and only uses about 1,500 watts; far less than it would on “auto”. I keep my gloves on when I drive, but I’ve always done that in the winter, so it’s pretty normal, and I seem to stay comfortable on my way to work. In non-commuting situations, where I know I’ll soon be to a charger, I just crank the heat right up like I was in a gas-mobile. And it works great—you don’t have to wait for the engine to warm up to get heat; it’s almost instant.

A few other points—freezing precipitation can freeze the charge door shut. Now, freezing precipitation can also freeze gas-mobile’s gas-filler doors shut, too, but the Leaf’s charge door is fairly horizontal on the front of the car, which makes it a bit worse. The times this has happened, a glass or two of warm water poured over the charge door frees it right up. Another point—if the cars are kept overnight outside without being plugged in, they will turn on an internal battery heater to keep the batteries from going below 14 degrees. This has only happened when the ambient temperatures were below zero overnight. The times I’ve checked, it has used about 6% of the battery over the course of the night, with one case (the day one of the cars didn’t get driven for over 36 hours) where it used 12%. Not too bad, but something to keep in mind if you’re going to park a Leaf in an airport parking lot in below-zero weather without it being plugged in for a week. Again, for most people not living in our unusual off-grid situation, I think this would only rarely be an issue.

So, there you have it. I still love the cars, I really enjoy the paradigm of leasing instead of buying (no maintenance, no repairs! (all under warranty if needed)). They’re still quick and fun and better for the environment. But, if you live someplace fairly cold like we do, just remember that in those few weeks of bitter cold each year, that your really fun car isn’t going to go quite as far between charges. All told, for me, it’s been a small price to pay.

Photo credits: Me.
Range graph: Fleetcarma.

 

Crop Circles and Water Memory

Eisenstein cover cropped

What an unusual book. I was recently in the middle of writing two other posts, one about how the Leaf performs in the winter, and another about a book I read about municipal zero-waste systems, when I came across this book and started reading it. I couldn’t put it down. Here is a really bright guy, with some truly big ideas, which, if they are to be countenanced, would trump topics like electric vehicle performance or recycling. I’m quick to criticize others for not having a firm intellectual foundation, and here’s a book that calls mine into question. Maybe I’m on the wrong track, maybe I’m guilty of letting myself be influenced by paradigms that don’t hold up to close inspection. As such, I’ve bumped the topic to first place on the docket, despite the resulting week-long holdup in the blog flow. Whether his ideas hold up to scrutiny, well…

On one hand, Charles Eisenstein has some really insightful views on the state of the world. His work actually reminds me very much of two other books– “Ishmael”, by Daniel Quinn, and “Think on These Things”, by Krishnamurti (and Marx, too, with his ideas of modes of production). Like these authors, he truly steps outside of humanity and human culture, and takes an outside look at the forces that we are immersed in. In Eisenstein’s words, “We have been colonized through and through by the old Story of the World. We are born into its logic, acculturated to its worldview, and imbued with its habits”. He calls these beliefs our “Story”, and says that our history since civilization began has been a “Story of Separation”—we have divorced ourselves from nature, and from each other, and seek salvation from the problems that technology has caused by pursuing ever more of the same. For Eisenstein, nearly everything we know is part of this “Story”– money, politics, education, religion, science; all of our dominant institutions. They all mold us into a standard way of thinking, and to deviate from this party line is to be considered delusional, and to invite alienation. But, deviate he does…

Two other books that question our assumptions.

Two other books that question our assumptions.

But, before I get to his ideas about solutions to “Separation”, here’s a sampling of some ideas from the book that either ring true, or really made me stop and take stock of my own attitudes and assumptions–

— That fifty or a hundred years ago that people everywhere had a similar vision, of economists and political scientists and biologists and chemists all moving us toward “a paradise of mechanized  leisure and scientifically engineered social harmony, with spirituality either abolished entirely or relegated to a materially inconsequential corner of life that happened mostly on Sundays”. But, Eisenstein writes that this vision has fallen apart, and most people don’t have a vision of the future. This certainly seems true—I think it’s clear to most thinking people that humanity is on a bad course, and I don’t think most people know exactly why that is, or have any real idea about how to substantially alter that course.

— That both doom and gloom and naïve optimism can be self-fulfilling.

— That we like to think of ourselves as basing our beliefs on the evidence, when it is far more common for people to arrange evidence to fit their beliefs, “…distorting or excluding what won’t fit, seeking out evidence that will, surrounding ourselves with others who share [our beliefs].”

–That we were all shaken to our cores by the brutal and senseless events at Sandy Hook, but just as many equally innocent children died that year in drone strikes, or that week from hunger. This is one that made me examine my own assumptions. What exactly is the basis for this military action half a world away? One can’t deny that we Americans have quite a few “stories” that justify it. What if we have collectively been too accepting of these?

— That activism is logically a faulty course (though he seems to be on both sides of this issue, as he is clearly an “activist” himself, calling for action). What one person does doesn’t matter, only if millions did it would it make a difference. BUT—ordinary people don’t have the power to make millions do anything, so, the logic holds in reverse—what the activist does doesn’t matter. This one caught my eye, despite the fact that I don’t quite agree; “we shout the truth from our blogs and no one gets it, except the already-converted”. Could it be logically true that my efforts are useless?

— That we might do well to question education as we know it, that school is a conditioning agent to instill in children “respect for authority, passivity, and tolerance to tedium…”. Perhaps, says Eisentein, a healthy child is one who resists schooling and standardization.

— That we don’t need to invent anything new to solve our problems, that  “…we could live in an earthly paradise using perfectly uncontroversial technologies: conservation, recycling, green design, solar energy, permaculture, biological wastewater treatment, bicycles, designing for repairablitiy, durability, reusability, and so on…”

So, I’ll stop there, but suffice it to say that the book is thought-provoking. So, what exactly are Eisenstein’s ideas about how to solve this endemic condition of “Separation” that we all suffer from? I’m not quite sure I can do his ideas justice, but he seems to believe that science (and rationality) as we know them are both hopelessly too narrow to explain how the world REALLY is. I have to admit that this could be true; I have had premonitions and other “paranormal” experiences in my life that science as we know it doesn’t seem to explain. J. B. S. Haldane once famously said that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger that we can imagine. So, to proceed with an open mind and without judging (yet), here are some of Eisenstein’s ideas–

For Eisenstein, we are all cosmically connected in a vast web, and everything we do has an effect on everything else. In fact, the entire universe, and everything in it, the rocks, the trees, the sun, the stars, could be conscious. This animism might be based at the quantum level, he writes, where particles are utterly unpredictable, and “choose” where to go and what to become. He also seems to be a follower of the ideas of biologist Rupert Sheldrake, particularly Sheldrake’s ideas about “morphic resonance”. To wit, that patterns, once formed, will be recreated elsewhere. With this in mind, Eisenstein gives an example—suppose we help an old woman as she’s dying. No one knows we helped her, but we ease her suffering at the end, and then she dies. This act of goodwill has a broad and strong effect, according to Eisenstein. In conventional scientific thinking, if no one knows about the act, then there aren’t many external effects. But, Eisenstein holds that a pattern such as this, once formed in the cosmos, enables other similar patterns to form. (He doesn’t directly say it, but seems to liken it to entangled particles in quantum physics, where two particles, once entangled, behave exactly the same despite being physically separated). Cause and effect don’t necessarily apply—doing an act of goodwill, in any form, helps to solve all the predicaments that we’re in.

His ideas like this continue. Among those that he seems to give credence to—“water memory” (that all samples of water are unique, and hold within them the power of everything they have ever touched), crop circles, the Gaia hypothesis, gift economies, negative-interest money, Earth Treasure Vase rituals, deep admiration for indigenous cultures, epigenetics, and over-unity devices. His writing is powerful, and yet humble at the same time. In the end, his message is almost “Jesus-like”, urging us to believe, to help and love our neighbors, to treasure each other, to treat nature with reverence. As his title purports, a more beautiful world is possible, and could be just around the corner.

 

Crop circle, Switzerland, 2012.

Crop circle, Switzerland, 2012. Unfortunately for Eisenstein, not too hard to create with two people, a dark night, some string, and some 2×4’s.

Now, given that the universe is likely stranger than we imagine, how should we judge Eisenstein’s ideas? For argument’s sake, let me say that there are ideas in his book that Eisenstein himself seems to discount. One, he writes of an acquaintance who was convinced that there was a vast conspiracy underway in which an all-powerful elite class actually controlled the world, which the acquaintance was elucidating with forms of numerology and symbolism. In another example, he writes of New Age ideas like “Reality Creation”; whereby sufficiently strong belief in something will make it happen. If I understood his position correctly, he refers to this one as “New Age hooey”. So, here’s my question (and I’m not being facetious)—how is “Reality Creation”, which Eisenstein discounts, different from, say, “morphic resonance”, which he gives credence to? If the world is stranger than we can imagine, it could be possible that both are true. But from an “orthodox” scientific perspective, neither are supported (though there are some people who say that support exists for all kinds of things, see these two wacky websites- over-unity devices, over-unity for sale).

So, as mere mortals, how do we know who to believe in the realm of ideas that aren’t rational from a strictly objective sense? Do we give credence to the Young Earthers, or the Charles Eisenstein’s, or the David Koresh’s of the world? (And my apologies to Eisenstein for putting those two names together in same sentence). Or, for that matter, to religious teachings in general?

Let me take a stab at it, and lay out my intellectual foundation. First, yes, the universe is likely stranger than we imagine. Thousands of things could potentially be true, and grasping the actual truth might be beyond human capability. But, Descarte’s “cogito ergo sum” still holds; “I think, therefore I am”. We can’t forego our critical thinking, our powers of reason, or we literally have nothing. And though science can be too reductionist at times (good article, “Science in Context“), it is a reflection of our reason. If science as we know it can’t support an idea, that doesn’t make the idea not true. But it does put it in the same realm as all the other unsupported ideas, from native beliefs that the moon is a calabash, to teachings about the Buddha, or Biblical accounts, to modern ideas supporting perpetual motion machines. And since there are limitless versions of things that might be true but can’t be proven (witness the proliferation of conspiracy theories), I can’t see how a rational person can let those ideas overly inform their thinking, lest one become like the Scholastics of the Middle Ages, arguing about how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.

So how’s this for a thought—what if science isn’t failing us, and our problems are mostly just a function of 7 billion people on the planet? What if people aren’t out to wreck the environment, but rather don’t see the consequences of their actions, and don’t yet see a better way? What if the market system, despite not being perfect, is a force for productivity and efficiency that keeps us all fed and clothed? What if, instead of focusing on cosmic oneness, we admit that it might be possible but also remember Eisenstein’s other words, that we don’t need to invent anything new to solve our problems, that  “…we could live in an earthly paradise using perfectly uncontroversial technologies: conservation, recycling, green design, solar energy, permaculture, biological wastewater treatment, bicycles, designing for repairablitiy, durability, reusability, and so on…”

That, right there, might lead us to a more beautiful world that we all know is possible.

Science in action, delivered by the market system and modern finance. Real solutions for a real world.

Science in action, delivered by the market system, activism, and modern finance.

Crop circle image: Creative Commons by Kecko, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/kecko/7576747944. Image has been cropped.
Wind Turbine: Creative Commons by Peter Curbishley, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/peter_curb/8803571483. Image has been cropped.

Bee Addendum

ThinkingBeekeeper

A short post here, an addendum to my last (Bees: Our Problems in Miniature). I just read another book about natural beekeeping, “The Thinking Beekeeper”, by Christy Hemenway, and was struck by how some of her ideas matched those of this blog, particularly this passage—

“In the U.S., we’ve grown tired of expecting that the government will take charge, behave responsibly, and do the right thing. But—we don’t need to wait for the government to make the right move! We can make the needed changes, and the government, well, they can catch up. We can insist on organic food, and we can shop at the farmer’s market, and we can choose never to put anything in a beehive but bees… these are all viable options, and thinking people are doing them, and they are making a difference.

“That’s why I believe that the paradigm truly has begun to shift. In fact, I think we’re close to the tipping point. And I also believe we don’t have to find a cure—a new treatment, pesticide, or antibiotic—for Colony Collapse Disorder—we just have to quit causing it. . . What you do matters. Never doubt it.”

I couldn’t agree more about the part about demand—it’s the mechanism that will change the system on all fronts, and it will precede political change, and it will be enacted by millions and millions of individuals, voting with their dollars. (See posts “A Potential Path Forward“, and “Me and Ma and Globalism“.)

But beyond this note about demand, her book is a great introduction to the philosophy and mechanics of raising bees using treatment-free beekeeping methods in top-bar hives, and she presents her case eloquently and passionately. In one passage she expresses a thought that I was trying to express the other day, but she did it far better, so I’d like to add that quote here, too—

“For industrial beekeepers, especially large-scale migratory pollinators, Colony Collapse Disorder has been a devastating fiscal tragedy, not to be wished on anyone. And I have never, ever, met a beekeeper—commercial, backyard, or otherwise—who did not love their bees, so there is personal heartbreak as well in every vanished colony.”

This was so clear to me in the interviews with industrial beekeepers in the “Vanishing of the Bees” documentary—they may treat their bees, but they love them too.

So, inspired by all my bee-reading, I set out the other day to buy some bees. Some treatment-free bees. This was harder than I thought, and I wasn’t having much success. A fair number of people keep treatment-free bees, but not all that many appear to sell them. An added difficulty was that it seems that nearly all people who sell nucleus colonies (“nucs”) do so in Langstroth hive frames, which don’t fit into a top-bar system. So, almost on a lark, I went to Christy’s website (Gold Star Honeybees), and, ta da, she now sells packages of treatment-free bees that have been raised on small-cell foundation (a more natural-sized bee). They seemed to be more expensive than industrial packages, but worth every penny to me. Now, with three pounds of bees on the way, I just need to  get to work on a top-bar hive. I’m a good woodworker, that part will be a snap. Learning about bees—well, like gardening, that one might take a lifetime.

 

Bees: Our Problems in Miniature

“All over the world, bee populations are declining because monoculture, insecticides, and economics all have conspired to make life in a beehive difficult to sustain. As large industrial beekeeping operations continue to disintegrate, however, there is an opportunity to save the bees in small, isolated communities. In backyards and on rooftops all over the world, bees are being kept without chemical inputs…” — Les Crowder, in Top-Bar Beekeeping.

A honey bee fully loaded with pollen on her back legs comes in for a landing.

A honey bee fully loaded with pollen on her back legs comes in for a landing.

I’m going to get some bees. They’re fascinating. But, the more I read about them the more I’m thinking that the honey bee problems we’ve all heard about in recent years are really a miniature version of many of the environmental problems we humans face, caused by too much greed as we extract from nature. In the case of bees, an overuse of chemicals, miticides, fungicides, broad-spectrum antibiotics, and bee repellents, artificial insemination, too many shortcuts, and a careless attitude toward natural systems as a whole has caused tremendous harm to bees. The problems at the hive are compounded with similar trends in agriculture, where the bees forage. We humans keep trying to break nature into tiny pieces that we can control, when it’s the system as a whole that we should be trying to protect. It seems to me that the problems bees are having are the modern equivalent of the canary in the coal mine—signs that something serious is amiss. The bees are trying to tell us something, and we would do well to listen.

But, first some bee basics for the uninitiated. Honey bees, unlike solitary wild pollinators like bumblebees, can’t live on their own. They live in large colonies of tens of thousands of bees, and in nature will set up hives in hollow trees, logs, or other cavities, and build wax combs inside where they store honey and pollen and raise their young. Bees haven’t changed much in 100 million years; fossilized bees in amber are nearly identical to bees today. There are three types of bees in the hive—the workers (all female), a few male drones, and just one queen. When plants are in bloom, the worker bees collect nectar and pollen and store the excess in the combs, as honey, and during times when no plants are blooming the bees use these stores to survive. In cold climates they cluster in a tight ball in the winter, and inch around the comb, eating their honey stores. If the hive does well in the spring and summer and runs out of space in the hive, it will swarm, and thousands of bees, with the queen, will fly off to start a new colony. The swarm will temporarily alight somewhere, usually on a tree branch, while the workers find a new location. The old colony will raise a new queen. In nature, this is how honey bees propagate their hives.

A bee swarm. Bees colonies that are vital enough to swarm are a sign of good genetics, and beekeepers sometimes are able to capture swarms and use them to continue to improve the genetics of local stocks.

A bee swarm. Bees colonies that are vital enough to swarm are a sign of good genetics, and beekeepers sometimes are able to capture swarms and use them to continue to improve the genetics of local stocks.

Humans have interacted with honey bees for tens of thousands of years; prehistoric cave paintings in Spain show humans on long ladders removing honey from hives amid swarms of bees. People have traditionally kept bees in woven hives called skeps, or in hives similar to what are today called top-bar hives. Most beekeepers today, though, use those familiar white stackable boxes, called “Langstroth” hives, invented in the mid 19th century. These hives have removable frames inside, and allow for ease of access and high volumes of honey production.

Traditional woven beehives, or "skeps".

Traditional woven beehives, or “skeps”.

So, I’ve been reading and learning about bees for several weeks, and there seems to be a spectrum of methods by which people keep bees, from methods that are fairly unnatural at one end of the spectrum, to treatment-free and organic at the other. At the first extreme, bees are often treated with a wide variety of chemicals and antibiotics to control diseases and pests, they are fed sugar-water while being trucked from one large monoculture farm to another, too much honey is removed (and the bees, again, fed sugar-water to make up the difference), combs are reused more times than bees would use them in nature, and queens are created in unnatural ways, including artificial insemination. Bees are also raised on manmade combs with large cell sizes which forces larger bees to grow. These larger bees, in turn, are more susceptible to mites and disease. Honey and beeswax from these treated hives is often contaminated with chemicals, and honey is sometimes  modified still further with sugars and other substances before being sold on store shelves, often without any labeling to this effect. All of these questionable beekeeping practices are exacerbated by outside factors, such as the use of agricultural pesticides and the loss of foraging habitat in general. Huge monocrop fields, other than the few days when they flower, are essentially deserts from a bee’s point of view. While this is the extreme end of the beekeeping spectrum, such practices are all fairly common, and result in weaker and stressed bees.

Weaker bees, in turn, are more likely to succumb to Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, which first appeared in 2006 and now occurs around the world, where entire hives of bees just fly away with no warning, and don’t return. CCD seems to be a complex condition caused by multiple factors, but many implicate a class of pesticides called systemics, and, in particular, systemics called neonicotinoids. When these chemicals are applied to young plants, or even seeds before they germinate, the plants continue to carry the pesticide throughout their lives, which seems to have a cumulative and delayed effect on bees that feed on them. Wild pollinators like bumblebees are also suffering, which is evidence that more is going on in the bee world than just the marginal beekeeping practiced by some. (Whether trucking beehives by the hundreds from location to location while feeding them sugar-water is something we should disparage appears to be a matter of some debate. It has indeed worked for decades, but it doesn’t appear to be working well now.)

Aerial pesticide spraying. Pesticide usage has been widely implicated in the decline of both wild and domestic pollinators.

Aerial pesticide spraying. Pesticide usage has been widely implicated in the decline of both wild and domesticated pollinators, especially a class of systemic pesticides called “neonicotinoids”. These chemicals are still legal in the United States, though Oregon acted alone and banned them last summer.

On the other extreme, some beekeepers use natural methods to keep bees in a dramatically different fashion. They use hives and methods that imitate nature, with careful breeding and no outside chemical treatments. These beekeepers cull weak hives and use natural selection to support bees with good genetics that can fight off disease on their own. They harvest only enough honey to keep bees from swarming, and they only feed bees (usually with real, raw honey) in emergencies or when getting a new hive started. They try to use only local stock when breeding, and try to select for genetics for bees that will thrive in a particular area. Their bees gather from a wide variety of blooming plants, throughout the season. (Just as an example, here in Vermont this includes maples and alders in the early spring, then dandelions and fruit trees, then locust, berries and clovers in the early summer, then basswood, alfalfa, and wildflowers a month later. In the fall the season ends with goldenrod.) Even when using all of the best methods, however, beekeepers sometimes still lose their hives, but the incidence of this appears to be far lower. Some organic growers, in fact, currently report almost no problems with mites and some of the other problems that plague more industrial-scale operations.

If you’re interested, here’s the trailer to a good documentary, “Vanishing of the Bees”, a film that presents a good overview of some of the problems, and does so in a fairly balanced way. The film is available on Netflix, and it’s really worth watching.

Differing viewpoints on how bees should be raised are pretty apparent in books on the subject, too. The two books below both seem to adhere strongly to treatment-free, all-natural methods, and I’ve seen the titles to others that do the same. Treatment-free groups such as Backwards Beekeepers also have sites online, with links to much information.

Two books that advocate all-natural beekeeping and breeding methods. Chemical treatments are self-defeating, just as in other areas of agriculture.

Two books that advocate all-natural beekeeping and breeding methods. Chemical treatments often prove to be self-defeating, just as in other areas of agriculture.

So, I might need another hobby like I need a hole in the head, but I think I’m going to get some bees, and I’m going to try to keep them using these all-natural methods. Maybe I can play some small part in helping solve the bee problems, and they should help pollinate everything here from garden veggies to the fruit and nut trees to the berries in the woods. In fact, beekeeping seems to be a perfect fit with nearly all permaculture systems, with their emphasis on many crops being grown simultaneously. I’d like to urge everyone out there to help the bees, too. Even without raising bees of their own, (though bees are commonly kept in towns and cities on rooftops!) people can plant flowers, fruit trees, and other plants that bees use, and, perhaps just as importantly, quit spraying pesticides and herbicides on their lawns (posts: “Leave it a Lawn” and Mr. X’s humorous thoughts in “Mr. X on Lawn Care“.) Our purchasing habits also have an effect. To quote Michael Pollan, “We vote with our dollars three times a day for the kind of world we want to live in, with what we buy to eat, and what we don’t buy.” With regard to bees, buying organic food, or better yet, organic food from smaller local farms (the opposite of large monocultures) has direct consequences on the world the bees live in.

In the end, the problems with these small bees, and the solutions to those problems, are pretty similar to all of the problems and solutions we have with regard to living sustainably on the planet. There is much we can do, but approaching the natural world with a little more humility might be a pretty good place to start.

 Top image credit: US Dept. of Agriculture.
Bee swarm: Creative Commons by Eran Finkle, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/finklez/5661557687. Image has been cropped.
Skeps: Creative Commons by Umbrellahead56, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/55827596.
Crop duster: Creative Commons by Jschladen, at http://www.flickr.com/photos/40769152. Image has been cropped.