Behold the Bare-Handed Bee Whisperer Who Is Saving the Honeybees

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Michael Thiele is 'rewilding' honeybees in California, returning them to more natural nest environments in order to help them survive.

In the beginning of 2002, Michael Thiele had a dream. At the time, Thiele was studying to become a monk at the San Francisco Zen Center, when he had what he calls an incredibly vivid dream about bees. “I saw a swarm appear suddenly in the wild," he tells Atlas Obscura. More vivid dreams of bees ensued, and by the spring he decided to borrow some apian accouterments from a local beekeeper. The next day, a swarm of bees found him. “I was doing some work in the garden,” he says, “when suddenly my wife calls me and I see a swarm of bees covering my gear.”

It's as if they knew something.

As he began dedicating more of his time to bees – he did a stint as the official beekeeper of San Francisco Zen Center from 2002 to 2005 – he became increasingly disenchanted with typical beekeeping techniques. He gave up the traditional beekeeping boxes, refused to use chemicals, smoke, or protective clothing when interacting with bees, going so far as to begin scooping them up bare-handed.

It is an incredible thing to witness, as you can see below, as Thiele moves a swarm with nothing but his hands.

Fast-forward to 2006 and Thiele's entwined path with bees found a new place to roost – a mission to "rewild" the beleaguered bees who are suffering from a devastating decline. Working with a team of biologists, apiculturists, and botanists, the idea is to coax bees out of manmade hives and back into more natural environs. This comes in the form of log hives elevated off the ground, much like the nests bees lived in for millions of years before they were domesticated.

“We can do this very, very simple thing – return bees into their natural nest environment, into their natural biosphere,” Thiele told Jane Ross of Reuters.

beehive log

Apis Arborea/CC BY 2.0

As we've written about a hundred times before on TreeHugger, bees (and other pollinators) are crucial to human life as we know it, given that they pollinate much of the food we depend on. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has had a devastating toll on bee populations across the planet; last winter, beekeepers in the United States lost almost 40 percent of their colonies, according to Ross, who writes:

"Thiele estimates that he has 'midwifed' billions of bees by building traditional nest habitats that attract bees from within the local watershed through swarming, which increases the bee population exponentially."

Encouraging bees back to a more wild state is so important because although wild bee populations are hurting too, wild bees appear to be weathering the tide of humankind much better than their domesticated counterparts.

"Thiele also says domesticated bees are more vulnerable because they are raised using smoke and chemicals and fed sugar water, which he claims is bad for their health," Ross explains.

In 2017, he founded Apis Arborea as a resource for all things apiculture and to share knowledge about the essential role of bees and their rewilding. He does not farm the honey the bees produce unless the colony leaves the hive or dies, he told Ross.

He considers the rewilding efforts both a conservation project and a personal mission. Although perhaps he has had little choice in the matter – it almost seems as if the bees called upon him to help, one log hive at a time.

Read more and see some lovely photos at Reuters and Atlas Obscura.