Reducing Our Chemical Load: What Bees Can Teach Us.

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Last summer I came across a New York Times opinion piece by a Canadian biologist about the widespread collapse of North American beehives. There are multiple causes, but the author focused on the fact that both fields and hives are treated with pesticides.

The author noted that a typical honeybee colony contains residue from more than 120 pesticides. “The only human equivalent is research into pharmaceutical interactions, with many prescription drugs showing harmful or fatal side effects when used together, particularly in patients who are already disease-compromised,” he wrote. “Pesticides have medical impacts as potent as pharmaceuticals do.”

We might turn this around and say that pharma drugs have toxic impacts as potent as those of pesticides. Through this five-year-old blog, I’ve received dozens of emails from people all over the country suffering intolerable side effects from long-term courses of medication, asking for help in quitting. Usually they’re on opioid replacement drugs—particularly Suboxone—but also benzodiazepines (such as Valium and Xanax) and, less commonly, antidepressants. Often these readers have gone to their doctors with relatively modest painkiller habits—say, 60 milligrams per day or less—and were told to call a Suboxone clinic, where they were put on enormous doses of replacement drugs.

“Frequently what you find is patients who go to the provider and say, ‘I’ve been on this for three years and I’d like to come off,’ and the provider doesn’t have the tools or doesn’t want to deal with it,” says Ravi Chandiramani, N.D., medical director of the Sundance Center treatment center in Scottsdale, Ariz. He adds,

The provider actually serves as a nemesis to that individual’s wanting to come off the medication.

The “N.D.” behind Chandiramani’s name indicates he is a doctor of naturopathy, a medical discipline that focuses on disease prevention and treatment by encouraging the body’s native healing abilities and educating patients about their own health. Seventeen states currently license and regulate naturopathic medicine. Chandiramani is the only naturopath in the U.S. directing medical care at a Joint Commission accredited residential rehab. He says his job has become “getting people off the stuff that everyone else puts them on, and replacing it with healthy lifestyle choices, education, and empowerment.”

Dr. Ash Bhatt, M.D., medical director at The Recovery Place in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., negotiates a similar situation. Bhatt, who is board-certified in addiction medicine and in adult, adolescent, and child psychiatry, expresses particular concern about the number of young people being treated with opioid replacement drugs who may not need them. He says:

For the right client, Suboxone can show a tremendous amount of improvement, If we can save them from contracting Hepatitis C or HIV, we would consider that.

The best Suboxone patients, he says, have family members, a sponsor, and/or a community that can support their recovery.

But he says he does not put adolescent patients on “maintenance therapy” because of the risk of damaging brain development. “Their brains are developing from [ages] 13 to 24,” he says.

When you introduce any sort of drugs that could potentially change the physiology and neurobiological development, the fact that they’re doing it themselves is one thing, but the fact that doctors are doing it—it can have devastating consequences.

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As devastating as they are in the bee population. This image of the beehives dying of the toxic chemical load has stayed with me, and I decided to ask a beekeeper I know about it.

Randall Hall, 33, owner of BeeBoy Honey, maintains beehives in five locations in and around the city of Pittsburgh, where I live. He is also recovering from addiction.

Hall had a couple hives before he got sober four years ago. Just two years ago, he expanded from four hives to 30 today.

Hall taught me that the chemicals found in beehives come from pesticides sprayed not only recently but years, even decades, in the past. The chemicals, it turns out, build up in the beeswax, just as fat-soluble pharma drugs like buprenorphine and Xanax can accumulate in human fatty tissue.

Beekeepers, Hall says, reuse beeswax from year to year.

The wax is especially absorbent. Even if you stop using the chemical, your bees will still pass that on.

beeswax

Filtered and rendered beeswax from Hall’s hives. Photo by Randall Hall.

Hall decided to expand his honey production after getting sober partly because, after a three-month stint in rehab, he was looking for something productive to do, and partly because a well-known restaurateur in the city, also sober, offered to buy Hall’s excellent honey for his restaurants—an example of one recovering person helping another, of one teaching another self-care.

“My attitude toward the bees is totally related to taking care of myself and learning how to take care of the bees more,” Hall says.

Certainly at a spiritual level, I’m thinking of myself in the natural order of things. I’m a caretaker of the beehive—I’m not a Bee Master telling them what to do. I don’t want to abuse them in some unnatural way where I could potentially get more money out of it.

Hall uses fewer chemicals than other beekeepers he knows, despite the fact that he could lose money doing so.

I’m trying not to put chemicals in my hives. It’s so important to me that I’m willing to take that risk.

[An earlier version of this piece first appeared in Addiction Treatment Magazine.]

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