"The honey," says Brook Levan, co-founder and executive director of Sustainable Settings, "is just a byproduct of what we're keeping the bees for. We're really after the ecosystem services they provide."
This largely explains the difference between the terms beekeeper and bee guardian, a difference that will be highlighted this weekend, May 19-20, when renowned apian authority Corwin Bell comes to Sustainable Settings for a two-day, intensive bee guardian workshop. Bell will be sharing his holistic methods with neophytes just getting started during Saturday's class and will follow that up with a Sunday session for those who already have an established colony of honeybees.
If you're wondering how many colonies that might be in a valley this size, know this: As a result of Bell's annual local workshops, which have been going on for about the last decade, Sustainable Settings has helped participants establish over 400 hives in the valley. It's an interesting number in that it probably terrifies some people and makes others wonder if it's just a drop in the bucket of what's needed, given all the media's dire warnings about plummeting bee populations.
Posed with such a bucket question, Levan, white-bearded, sage and near-evangelic in his enthusiasm for natural farming, smiles and concedes that he doesn't know. "But at least it's something," he says. "And when those people see the benefits, they'll share that with others, and maybe they'll be persuaded to start their own hives." And perhaps that drop will become a ripple and then a wave.
Sustainable Settings has 10 thriving hives at its ranch south of Carbondale and, in keeping with the guardianship idea, they're treated as a valuable part of the local ecosystem rather than a commodity. Whereas commercial beekeepers might truck their bees to California to help pollinate almond trees or crack the hives open at inopportune times in pursuit of honey, being a bee guardian means hosting the bees in their permanent homes and only harvesting honey, comb or any of the other products hives provide when it's healthiest for the bees.
It seems fairly common-sensical, but the real proof is in the pudding, and that's where Sustainable Settings, which is based around all-natural, biodynamic farming and ranching practices, truly shines. The ranch has been participating in a U.S. Department of Agriculture study looking into soil quality (a good barometer of overall ecosystem health), and, according to Levan, out of dozens of farms running the gamut from fully corporatized to mom-and-pop, Sustainable Settings comes out on top in just about every metric. This from a property that had to have roughly 75 rotting vehicles removed from it when Sustainable Settings purchased the ranch back in 2003.
"We're trying to re-establish balance in all of the ranch's systems, and bees are a big part of that," says Levan. "We want this to be a chemical-free sanctuary for all pollinators and birds."
With quantifiable results to back up the notion of bee guardianship, it's easy to see why Bell's workshops are so popular (this year's sold out a while ago) and why Sustainable Settings' "swarm list" of folks wanting to start new hives is getting longer. Similar to an organ-transplant list, the swarm list determines who will get the next swarm – which occurs when a queen and thousands of her servants go looking for a new home – that can be captured and used to start a hive.
The concept of a swarm might be another terrifying one for bee-phobic types, but when questioned about how one safely captures such a thing, Levan laughs.
"People will call us and be in a panic because they'll have a swarm in their tree," he says. "And then they're always surprised when we show up dressed [in regular clothes] and just shake the bees off the branch into a box."
With the bees inside, the swarm catcher then sets the box down and leaves it open just a crack, and if the queen is inside, the rest of the bees – all thousands of them – will join her in a few minutes. Then they'll be ready to be taken to the next guardian on the swarm list to become new hive number 401, another drop in a bucket whose filling helps everybody, even if no one ever tastes the honey inside.
The workshops may be sold out this time around, but if you're interested in becoming a bee guardian and want to get your name on the swarm list, contact Sustainable Settings (sustainablesettings.org), or, better yet, arrange to go by the ranch and meet Levan face to face and hear more about the subject from him. He'll be glad to tell you about it.