It's winter. Gardeners are curled up with seed catalogs in front of hot fireplaces. Beekeepers are hunched over computer screens, searching the web, trying to find the latest cure-all for the varroa mite. I know because I host the Beekeepers' Home Pages web site and I get seven e-mails a week from beekeepers asking for my 'expert' advice on killing mites. I also get seven e-mails a week from concerned consumers asking if honey is bee-poo. But that's material for a future article.
All beekeepers are aware of the Internet. More than a few of us have dabbled into its weird nether-space - peering into other people's computers to get weather forecasts, honey fudge recipes, or to view dancing chipmunks. It doesn't take much these days to explore the Internet. Most of us have a computer for our business. Most of us have a telephone. All it takes is a twelve-year-old neighbour kid to tie these two things together for us. Suddenly, you're viewing the line-up of speakers for the 2003 Slovenian Apimondia Bee Conference.
I'm not going to waste your time telling you how to use the Internet. You've seen it. It's ubiquitous; most of us take it for granted. The web has always been there, right? Actually, no. The Internet as we know it has only been around seven years. Before that, we traded files through gopher exchanges and logged on to Bulletin Board Systems. What's that got to do with finding varroa mite cures on the world wide web? Plenty, as you'll see in a moment.
In 1994, you could not get a web site address unless you were a non-profit entity. A government, a school, a beekeeper. Someone who worked without any expectation of profit. You could not place advertising on your site. You could not sell a product. The web was a free, idealistic wonderland full of objective information, seemingly run by Marxists.
One of the pioneers of the electronic media was the unlikely character, Andy Nachbaur. Andy became a beekeeper in 1954. He had a few thousand hives in places like Colorado, Arizona, California. I'd met him at a beekeeper's meeting many years ago. "Got a computer, Ron?" No. "Well, get one, Ron." Andy said to me. Andy had a computer. He used it to store beekeeping data. A dozen years ago, you could phone his house in California. His computer would answer and allow you to awkwardly ramble through Andy's collection of research reports, honey recipes, and Andy's spirited editorials about beekeeping (which he loved) and government bureaucracy (which he loathed). The point is this - even in the 1980's electronic beekeeping information was available but it was most useful if you knew the history of the person publishing it. Andy himself advised all readers that "Opinions are not necessarily facts!!" and "Use this information at your own risk!!" I liked this about Mr. Nachbaur - he didn't expect readers to devour his material thoughtlessly.
There were no advertisers at Andy Nachbaur's Bulletin Board System. His Wild Bees BBS was supported by ten dollar annual contributions which few of us remitted. Andy eventually migrated his material to the World Wide Web, but he was not the first to have a beekeeper's web site. That distinction goes to an obscure hobby beekeeper-graduate student at the University of Washington.
Jordan Schwartz began his site in 1994. He was objective and, as a scientist, tried to limit editorial material. He was a pioneer. When I began my "Beekeepers' Home Pages" in October, 1995, I was not the first. There were already two other beekeeping web pages out in cyberspace. But, I put a counter on my site and was delighted to discover thirty people visited the first week. In those days, it wasn't hard to be among the top ten sites. But over the years, several thousand new beekeeping-related sites have sprouted. Some of them very, very good. Others not so good.
How can you separate the good from the not so good? Obviously, it's purely subjective. In my opinion, one of the very worst bee-related web sites is an anti-beekeeping site. "Why Honey is Not Vegan" skews and distorts facts to make a claim that honey is stolen from forced insect labourers which are abused and eventually murdered. As such, according to this web site, beekeepers are villains and honey should not be eaten. I suspect only the converted will enjoy this site and little real damage is done by the author. She clearly speaks from her side of the fence and we might simply ignore her rage. It's similar to television. If you don't like the channel, don't tune it in.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Allen Dick's spectacular web site. The site is personable, interesting, informative - just like Allen. You could spend a week reading his pages, all of it free and most of it unattached to commercial strings. This Alberta beekeeper shows the world how to operate 3000 hives of bees and have fun at it. The images are well placed and the entire site is well designed for finding information quickly and easily.
Not all web sites are altruistic. Advertisers have come to the Internet. They have created entire sites as self-promotion vehicles. The perceptive reader may determine that a product is being peddled. Or maybe not. There is nothing inherently wrong with a web site used by a business to promote its wares. In fact, this can be very helpful for us - some commercial sites provide on-line catalogs, addresses, phone numbers. The Ross Rounds site does a nice job of it - you can track down equipment and learn how to make comb honey. It is clear and obvious to the reader that the developers of the site would like you to try their product. No hidden agenda and no attempt to trick anyone into anything.
But some sites are tricky. Some web sites promote must-have new tools for raising queens or processing honey. These can often be expensive and unnecessary junk. Other sites give dubious information - a varroa mite cure, perhaps. So my suggestion is the same as the late Andy Nachbauer - don't trust anything you read on the net, but don't reject everything, either.
Where's the risk? Lots of potential places. Consider the trouble you may be in if you see an inexpensive, effective cure for resistant foulbrood or varroa mite. You try it because it works in California. Or Argentina. Maybe it won't work for you. Worse, it may work like a dream, but contaminate your hives and honey crop with a chemical that is illegal in Canada, resulting in serious trouble for you. Ouch!
Anyone who has read the information on my Beekeepers' Home Pages should realize immediately that I am not an expert. And I don't offer many ideas on how to conquer mites, skunks, nosema, bears, foulbrood, sac brood, stone brood, or laying workers. So what do I tell the concerned beekeepers who write to me? I dodge the responsibility. I usually write back with web site addresses of universities and government research offices. And their provincial apiary inspector's e-mail address.
Here are some web sites you may like to check out:
Why Honey is Not Vegan: http://www.vegetus.org/honey/honey.htm
Allen Dick's Page: http://www.honeybeeworld.com/
Ross Rounds Comb Honey: http://www.rossrounds.com
Colony Collapse Information: http://www.honeybeequiet.com/
Beekeepers' Home Pages: http://www.badbeekeeping.com
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