KAAT BYRD: How did your story with the bees begin?
LES CROWDER: When I was a child I had Navajo and Hispanic friends. We wound up getting in a bit of trouble with weed and alcohol when I was 14, my dad lived on the Navajo reservation and my mom in a small Hispanic town near Albuquerque and It was agreed to send me to herd sheep on a ranch in Colorado. The cowboys there, in the 70s, did not like my long hair and tried to rope me off my horse and shear my hair. I spoke Spanish and the Mexicans, whom the cowboys also did not like, quietly and firmly defended me and I started hanging out with them and became a bit of an anti anglo anglo for a while, then went back to see my mom near Albuquerque. She had thought to keep bees but never did, but she bought an empty Lang hive. When I got back to her house her dad, much like a father to me, came to me one morning all excited and said, “Leslie, there’s a swarm of bees out back, let’s put them in your mom’s beebox!” When I saw them, about the size of a basketball low in a Pinion tree I was transfixed. My partying buddies had called and were on their way to pick me up and help me spend the money I had made on the ranch to buy party supplies. I felt like I was “tired of hitting my head with that brick” and yet wanted to see my friends, and did not have non-drinking friends. Grandpa and I fearfully cut the branch the bees were on, took the frames out of the single deep box and lowered the bees in to the box and put on the lid. As I was carrying the box my buddies drove up. I could smell stale beer and smokes of various types. It gave me the chills and I realized there was no way I was going to get in that car. They wanted me to go party and I said, “No guys, I have to go to the library and get a book about bees, these things are so cool!” My buddies suddenly realized that the box I was carrying was open and full of bees, and quickly said “Later!” and got back in the car and drove off. That’s when the bees started keeping me.
KB: What is your focus and goal as a bee guardian?
LC: I have a degree in Biology and was always interested in how nature works. I went to work for a large (4,000 hives) commercial beekeeper and did not like the use of antibiotics. There were no mites in those days. People thought I was sort of Amish or odd to object to antibiotics. But my focus from the beginning was to not use antibiotics or any toxic chemistry in the hive. I learned from a bee scientist about how really old brood combs in the hive was bad for bees and that is what pushed me to experiment with frame-less topbar hives.
KB: How does the local environment shape your work?
LC: I have kept bees or helped beekeepers in many climates, I mainly learned to keep bees in New Mexico, a high cold (-15f) in the winter, hot (107f) in the summer place with what used to be fairly dependable intense blooms in a short spring/summer/fall. I learned to get bees ready and help them build when there were good flows happening and to leave them plenty of honey for the winter. Here I Austin it is much more like in Jamaica with periodic dearths and blooms and no real winter, although it does freeze a few nights in January.
KB: What threatens your bees and how do you work with these threats?
LC: In New Mexico the main threat was bears and the electric fence worked pretty well. The main threat to beekeeping in general is the changing climate and the “pesticide” soup we expose them and everything else, ourselves especially, to. Bees are weaker, have more problems and compromised immune systems. It turns out antibiotics use up enzymes in bee blood that they could use to breakdown pesticides, so antibiotics make bees more susceptible to pesticides. The word pesticide implies that it is a substance that kills pests. They kill life on earth and should just be called poisons.
KB: What do you believe is the key element for a healthy and strong apiary?
LC: A good apiary is a quiet place with minimal pesticide exposure and a series of good bee-relevant blooms through the seasons.
KB: What are you working on right now?
LC: I am mostly healing and getting my Jamaican family settled in Austin, TX and beginning to teach “treatment free” beekeeping in TX and beyond.
KB: Who or what is inspiring you at the moment?
LC: I am seeing things change and the younger generation really confronting the problems we are threatened by. More and more interest in growing food at home, farming, beekeeping, natural living. Tich Nhat Hanh has inspired me for the last 10 years.
KB: Can you share one of your favorite bee stories?
LC: Once I had been gone for a while and come back to the small town of Bernalillo, NM to my mom’s place because my grandpa was dying of cancer. By then I had 5 beehives. My grandpa had a collection of iris plants that were tall and in full bloom. I told him to try and get out of bed and outside to see them. He laboriously got up and with a walker and help got into the middle of his iris patch. “I think they need more water.” I drug out a hose and went to the frost free hose bib to turn on and off the water at his command. He and I had put a earthworm bed by that hose bib 10 years before and fed them melon rinds etc. A mint plant somehow got started in the worm bed and took it over. Then he and I decided we had a mint tea patch instead of a worm bed. While he was watering the iris I saw a jet black honeybee fly near my feet and begin sipping nectar from the mint flowers. I had one beehive that all the bees were 100% black. I realized that I knew where that bee lived. For a few seconds it was as if time stopped, like the whole universe connected to me through that bee on that mint flower with the worms in its roots and the sun on its leaves. I did not know where grandpa was going, he was dying, but he was going to be fine, we all are, somehow or another. That bee on that mint flower, happens hopefully billions of times a day, was a gateway for me to see how there is no us and them, just us, rich, poor, black, white, mexican, Jamaican, bees, worms, bacteria, all just US.
KB:A piece of advice for rookie bee guardians?
LC: People will tell you you have to feed bees sugar or antibiotics or some kind of poison or you are being an irresponsible beekeeper that spreads disease and mites. Politely insist that you are competently keeping bees and that there is no disease in them, and that breeding bees that are miticide and antibiotic dependent is more irresponsible. The truly competent beekeeper does not need to resort to toxic “treats” that actually weaken bees.