In Tune with the Collective
There are two hearts beating in Volkmar Krieg’s breast. He is a passionate beekeeper with 50-70 hives of his own, and an enthusiastic semi-field trial manager, responsible for testing new crop protection products for their safety to honey bees, at Bayer’s Gut Höfchen field trial station. But his two passions are never at odds with each other. Bees are the common denominator – and Volkmar’s passionate interest in their good health.
I came to beekeeping by chance, really. I was working as an agro-engineer at our Gut Höfchen field trial station near Leverkusen in Germany. It’s an experimental station where we test new crop protection products (pesticides) for their efficacy and environmental safety, as well as looking at new technologies to ensure safe application of products. One day, my boss asked me if I’d like to take on the beekeeping role and responsibility for bee safety testing at the field trial station. That was about 30 years ago and it radically changed my life.
I’m passionate about honey bee health because I know how essential healthy pollinators are for abundance and quality of crop yields. I love looking after and working with the bees at Gut Höfchen. When we are doing our honey bee semi-field trials in the bee-proof netting tunnels, I’m always looking out for any adverse effects on the honey bee colonies. The tunnel design helps us create an environment, which more closely reflects realistic exposures so we can test new products, to investigate effects on individual honey bees, the brood and the entire colony. These trials ensure only bee-safe crop protection products make it onto the market.
Field Trial Manager
Over the years, I’ve become totally hooked on beekeeping and now have 50-70 of my own hives. My fellow beekeepers know I work for Bayer. Some are critical, but most are simply interested in my work and what I do. I take every opportunity to talk to them about what Bayer is doing to promote bee health and why we conduct such intensive bee safety trials. Even if I am working at Bayer, they trust what I’m saying and doing because they know I care about my bees and that the honey my colonies produce is clean and has passed as eligible for sale.
At Gut Höfchen, we’ve also had visits from some critical local institutes: Once we have shown them around and explained our activities, they end up saying that they never knew how much Bayer is doing to ensure the safety of pesticides for bees. That proves to me how important it is to raise people’s awareness of what we do. These personal contacts help to adjust prejudices towards our company regarding pollinators, so I’d love to reach even more people in this way. I know from my experience here that modern crop production and beekeeping work perfectly well together.
My experience with honey bees has taught me that you can’t ‘keep’ them like shepherds do sheep or farmers would cattle. You can try to guide a bee to a certain action but, ultimately, it’ll decide for itself what to do. Each colony is a collective organism, yet each individual bee has a distinct contribution to make. The collective takes decisions that are beneficial to the colony as a whole and individual bees carry out what has been decided so, for example, when to search for food or collect water to cool the hive. With honey bees, it’s a case of ‘all for one and one for all’. When bees return to the hive with food, they share it with all the other bees. And if there’s no food, they will all die of starvation. That’s what I call true solidarity! I think there are a lot of positive aspects we humans can learn from bees. If only our individual human behavior were more in tune with the needs of the collective, our world could be a much better place!
In my free time, I like to produce a range of different honeys so I take some of my hives down to the Black Forest so I can harvest pure forest honey. After driving through the night, to minimize stress for the bees, I like to sit down when we arrive to watch how they react to their new surroundings.
I’d say that 95 percent of bee health is dependent on what the beekeeper does, or does not do. Only five percent is accounted for by external factors such as weather.
First, the colonies send out a few bees as scouts. When they return, they do their famous waggle dancing to tell the others where the good food is to be found. Bees only need about half an hour to find their bearings – it’s fascinating to watch.
For me, my honey bees are pure therapy. Going out to care for the bees is the ideal way to calm down and relax. They have a positive influence on me. By working together, we humans could create a better environment for bees and other pollinators – and in this way promote pollinator health, around the world.
What can we do to promote bee health?
“Be a bit less orderly in our gardens! Let the grass grow longer and plant more flowering plants to attract bees. We hardly give honey bees and other pollinators a chance to find food in many of our gardens these days. Think about what you can do yourself and talk to your neighbors about collective action!” Volkmar sees honey bee behavior as a good guide to how humans can work together: “It’s the collective that ultimately decides how much work needs doing or how clean the hives need to be, for example. There’s no noticeboard in a hive telling bees what to do! It’s simply their collective instinct that impels them to act.” Learning from bees has shaped Volkmar’s mindset. What about yours?