Former Teacher on a Mission to Save Honeybees

7/5/2014 7:00 AM
By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant New York Correspondent

You likely don’t know Gunther Hauk of Floyd, Va., but he’s trying to save agriculture, the food chain, and, by extension, the human race. For all of these depend upon the work of the humble honeybee.

Hauk learned about honeybees through hands-on experience as a Waldorf School gardening teacher. He had also worked as a college-level educator, so “people thought I was stepping down the ladder,” he recalled. “I felt like I was stepping up” when he began working in honeybee conservation.

In 2006, he co-founded Spikenard Farm Honeybee Sanctuary in Floyd with his wife, Vivian Struve-Hauk. Though some people wondered why such an educated man wanted to spend his days educating on honeybees and caring for them, Hauk has never looked back. He realizes both the importance and the plight of honeybees and is determined to recruit others to help save them.

The sanctuary consists of 25 acres he and his wife purchased with donated funds for the purpose of opening the sanctuary. The space provides both safe forage and experienced caretakers to one of God’s smallest, yet most important creatures.

Hauk’s immediate neighboring farms help out by planting cover crops that are good for the bees.

“It’s very important for the bees,” Hauk explained. “You can’t fence them in. They fly up to two to three miles if there’s a lot of forage available.”

In early spring, the farm harvests the bees’ superfluous honey. When the dandelions bloom and new forage has grown, Hauk knows that remaining honey is extra. He sells the honey at local stores. But the point isn’t to keep bees for a profit from the honey.

“Even in spring, we always leave them enough of their own stores because you can run into a cold, wet week,” he said.

Hauk keeps bees to support their health in any way he can, not to ramp up honey production as a business would. Interns help out and learn about beekeeping at the sanctuary.

Eager to spread the truth about honeybees’ importance, Hauk wrote “Toward Saving the Honeybee,” first published in 2002. The book shares what needs to happen in beekeeping to improve bee health. It is now in its third printing.

Honeybees are also important because they produce formic acid, which keeps plants alive.

“That is the most important acid in the natural world,” Hauk said. “We need it, animals need it, plants need it. All stinging insects produce it. They’re the same insects [people] spray to kill and they should learn that [honeybees] are the ones that keep us alive ... Acids are essential building blocks for all our metabolic processes. The honeybee crisis is the crisis of all crises.”

Hauk meticulously cares for his two dozen or so hives. His attention to beekeeping has paid off with zero winter losses in 2014, a remarkable accomplishment considering the long, harsh winter.

Diseases have decimated bee colonies in recent years. Despite the efforts of Hauk and other conservationists, he feels there has been “no progress at all” in solving the problems that are killing off the honeybee.

He has read of many honeybee keepers experiencing massive losses of 30 to 40 percent annually, well above the 15 percent loss that is sustainable. Since 1996, colonies in the U.S. have decreased from 7 million to 2.5 million.

“We won’t solve the problem by trying to find out which fungus, parasite, virus or bacteria is getting them,” he said. “We need to drastically change our agriculture and beekeeping methods to strengthen the honeybee’s health.”

He feels the largest sources of trouble for bee health include monocrop farming — which reduces the diversity of the bees’ forage — taking too much honey from hives, using plastic honeycomb foundations, using chemical sprays such as pesticides, artificially creating queens from the worker larvae and not allowing bees to naturally swarm.

He sows fields of white clover, buckwheat, mustard and crimson clover. Other indigenous available plant life, such as wingstem, goldenrod, tulip trees and black locust trees support their health at Spikenard Farm, too.

“When people do crop rotation,” they have to start growing things for bees and letting so-called weeds come in, Hauk said.

He added that plants such as white clover benefit the bees. He also hopes that more people will take up beekeeping as a hobby, but cautions to seek out those who teach sustainable beekeeping practices, not those who instruct beekeeping for profit.

“When you come to our honeybee sanctuary, you will receive the information needed,” he said. “The conventional methods up to now have been invented with the goal to make bees profitable. The present crisis tells us clearly we have to reverse that.”

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