Building a Better Bee | Interview with Michael Schmaeling of Rodale Institute

bees and honey

The Honeybee Conservancy was created by Rodale Institute in 2012 in response to the bee crisis in North America. Headed by Michael Schmaeling, the conservancy is devoted to building a better bee through sustainable and bee-friendly practices. We spoke to Mike to more fully understand his unique beekeeping methods and understand how we can help save the bees.

“I worked and lived at Rodale Institute as an intern and temporary farm worker. During my time there, I learned so much about organic farming practices and got to work with incredibly knowledgeable people. Among them, was Mike.

“Many beekeepers will take honey from the hive and feed the hive sugar water. Not only does it take from the bees valuable resources they worked very hard to make, it strips them of the nutrients they need to grow strong. Additionally, methods that include chemical treatments and buying packages of non-local bees often hurt the bees more than help them. Learning to keep bees from Mike for the sake of conservation first, consumption second was a new idea to me. Yes, honey is delicious. Yes, pollination is a necessity. But honoring what the bees need to be healthy, strong, and happy is an important first step that Mike is taking at the Institute.”

-Lula Weller, Gardenuity Grow Pro Expert

About five years ago, Michael Schmaeling was hired as an outside contractor to put up greenhouses for the renowned Rodale Institute. Based on his work ethic alone, they hired him as a long-term employee, although they weren’t sure what his role would be. Sometime later, Mike’s executive director saw a swarm of bees in a tree and asked for help. Despite having no experience whatsoever, Mike climbed up, captured the swarm, and put them into a box without a single bee sting.

Mike says, “I was captivated — it was the coolest thing I’d ever done. I felt like the bees chose me.” Seeing his fascination, Mike was immediately offered a job of head beekeeper at the Institute. (Rodale Institute had a bee-farm, but no official beekeeper at the time.) “So,” Mike says, “I started going out there to these bees and poking around and doing things right and doing things wrong and finding my niche.”

Fast-forward five years. Now, Mike has developed a unique and inventive approach to beekeeping — an approach that prioritizes the long-term health and well-being of the bees in mind. Because, as Mike succinctly put, “Healthy bees, healthy community.”

The old beekeeping ways are in a downward spiral. According to Mike, we don’t need to recreate the entire wheel, but we do need to take a step back and reconfigure. Every year, way too many bees die off. So, if current methods aren’t working, what will?

Mike’s style of beekeeping is regenerative. Throughout the season, he grades all of the colonies that survive winter. Then, he watches them closely, propagating only from the colonies that were graded the highest coming out of winter. He grafts and raises his own queens from the healthy, productive colonies. He then “splits” those healthy colonies to make new colonies and give the bees more room to grow. So, if he has 12 colonies, he’ll make it 100 before winter. Inevitably, he’ll lose some over winter, but even if he loses 50% of his colonies, he’ll still have more than he had before.

A fifty-percent loss might sound like a lot, but Mike’s bees are thriving comparatively. Rodale Institute recently had a grant for research. Ultimately, the results were inconclusive, but when asked what needs to be done, the researcher responded, “Exactly what Mike is doing right now is the best way to keep.”

honeybees and beekeeper

So how does he do it?

Zero chemical treatment, local bees only, and leaving the honey in the hive.

Treatments exist to kill mites. But what’s really killing the bees aren’t the mites. It’s the diseases the mites carry. Bees were surviving for centuries without the manipulation of man. Once we put them in a box, we weakened them. It’s akin to putting one sick person in a room with thirty other people and then closing the door. So the best way to help the bees isn’t to kill the mites with chemicals, but to help the bees evolve so that they can survive the viruses mites carry.

Additionally, treatments used on beehives are incredibly harsh — “like acids,” Mike says. By treating bees, we’re hurting them. In fact, the treatments contaminate everything in the hive, so even the honey we’re eating is riddled with miticides. Mike is hoping that the demand for treatment-free beekeeping will increase, just like what has happened to the organic food market. This way, we’re healthier and the bees are healthier.

Using local bees is another huge tenet of Mike’s beekeeping. The status quo in the bee community is to buy packages of bees that are shipped to beekeepers. But, if you’re buying bees from Florida or Texas and then trying to raise these bees through the winter in Pennsylvania, you’re going to run into a problem. “It’s like trying to grow citrus trees in New York,” Mike says. Southern bees are not Northern bees are not Western bees, and they need different climates to survive.

Not to mention, the way these packages are produced are often upsetting. They combine bees from many different colonies and shake them into a box. Once they’ve got three pounds, they’ll put in a can of corn syrup and a new, totally random queen in a cage. “Sometimes,” Mike tells me, “the bees will kill the new queen because they still have the scent of the old queen.”

Right now, the Institute’s bee farm isn’t producing honey for consumption. One hundred percent of the honey produced by the bees stays with the bees so they can grow healthy and strong. That’s not to say that Mike is ethically against harvesting honey — in fact, one day Rodale Institute aims to sell treatment-free honey to customers. However, Mike encourages new beekeepers to be very mindful of their bees in this regard. A domino sugar packet added to chlorinated tap water just isn’t an adequate replacement.

It’s clear that Mike feels very passionately about building a better bee. Now, he is teaching beekeeping classes in an attempt to propagate a sustainable beekeeping practice. His work is young (only about 5 years), but he’s not the only one. Mike has found a unique mentor in Kirk Webster who epitomizes that this style of beekeeping can back a successful career. Based in Vermont, Kirk is a full-time beekeeper with 1,000 colonies at the peak of the season. In a good year, he can make over $150,000. Kirk proves that it’s self-sustainable, and it works.

beekeeper with bees

Most of us, I remind Mike, aren’t beekeepers. But we’re still passionate about helping the bees where and when we can — especially as gardeners who continually reap the rewards of having healthy bees around. Mike offers the non-beekeeper a few ways to help the cause.

First, he says, “Be mindful of what you’re spraying in your yard.” If a bee gets a whiff of spray round-up, it’ll die before it even gets back to the hive. The best-case scenario is using no spray at all, but if you have to, spray in the evenings.

Secondly, if you find bees living in a tree or a corner of your house, don’t spray them! A local beekeeper would love to come and take those bees.

And lastly, find out what bees in your area like and plant that. There are many beautiful, garden-enhancing options that you and the bees will be happy with.

At the end of the day, the industry has become hyper-industrialized. Not enough people are focusing on the health of the bees. Mike is simply just trying to do good for our future. He says, “If humans are going to be involved, we’ve got to be mindful of what we’re creating.” After all, healthy bees, healthy community.