Improving the health of bees by using plant extracts

Johannes Wirz

In all parts of the world, people are trying with all available means to improve the situation for honey bees. But in doing so, beekeepers have their hands tied: bees fulfil their central role and mission of pollination, but have to do so in environments that threaten their very existence. Campaigning against pesticides, electrosmog or loss of flower-rich landscapes is work for politics in society. But this calls for resources far beyond those accessible to beekeepers.

So the remaining option is to deal with the bee colonies themselves. Some beekeepers put their hopes on new strategies for getting rid of Varroa mites, others on approaches to making bees stronger through genetics, and yet a third group believes they will help the bees by providing new types of bee-appropriate hives. In our Institute we have begun a project in collaboration with the Hiscia Institute for Cancer Research in Arlesheim and Weleda AG, in which we would like to improve the health of bees by feeding them with plant extracts from mistletoe and echinacea. In several respects, bee colonies, not the individual bees (!), are similar to mammals, or even to human beings. They keep the hive temperature constant at 36°C while raising brood, and have at their disposal a well-developed immune system, as well as a wide range of communication capabilities. This illustrates the amazing wisdom of their organisation. Mistletoe and echinacea are plants which, in human beings, have been shown to improve body defences, organismic integrity or coherence, as well as the quality of life. We hypothesise that these plants will also promote these aspects in bee colonies.

In 2011, with the help of beekeeper colleagues, 150 colonies were included in the experiment. At two important times in the life of the colonies the extracts were administered singly or together. The first administration, comprising a plant extract tea with sugar and honey, was to young colonies in the spring when natural comb construction demands a rich supply of food. The second was to all colonies at the end of the bee season when they all need to be fed to ensure that they have between 16 and 20 kilos of winter stores.

Thanks to generous support, it was possible to continue this bee project in 2012, even though no clear results were produced after the wintering of the colonies through to spring 2012. In the 2011/2012 winter, colony losses in Switzerland were 50%, in Germany 30%. Overall, the losses in the colonies in the experiment were below the latter average. But because some project participants lost very many colonies and others hardly lost any, the big differences in losses resulted in the data being insufficiently robust for analysis. In 2012 the colonies from the first year of the experiment were again fed according to the same plan. Hopefully, in 2013 it will be clear whether the plant extracts improve the constitution of the bees in the medium term.


The Falling Leaves Project

Seasons, Senescence & Color Theory

Laura Liska

Out of the delight one experiences when encountering the ephemeral colors of nature – be they in rainbows or sunsets or leaves – a sense of wonder can emerge: why do we perceive these particular colors? What are these colors doing with us? Is nature engaging us in a sort of unconscious meditation using the language of color and form? 

The dramatic change in color of autumn leaves offers an intriguing subject for researching these questions. That these colors arise during the «death» (and «rebirth» ) of the plant kingdom seems significant and indicative of greater mysteries within the cycle of the year. Our capacity to come to a deeper understanding of the seasons seems, in turn, significant for the landscape itself and the human beings tending it.



How does the human eye participate in the perception of changing color? How, exactly, is light changing through the seasons? What are the perceptible rhythms in the corresponding color changes? What are the conditions under which living color arises? What occurs in substances within the leaves as they respond to shifting light?

Out of the color work of Goethe – particularly in optics, which he so thoroughly and eloquently elaborated in his Theory of Color – deeper questions arise. How can seasonal colors be approached in the context of Goethe’s «sensory moral» colors? Considering Rudolf Steiner indications for the cycle of the year, can an anthroposophic perspective offer deeper understanding: what is the relationship of the human soul and spirit to the seasons of the year mediated by the sense experience of color?


The Project

The Goethean scientific method is exquisitely appropriate for exploring these questions because it connects scientific inquiry with spiritual inquiry; the phenomena in nature with the human soul and spirit. The first year of this project focuses on familiarization with rhythms and processes of seasonal color in a local landscape through observation and documentation around the Goetheanum, in the surrounding Dornach landscape and in the valley of Lauterbrunnen. In addition, the relationship of light and darkness to living color will be explored in the chemical nature of plant pigments, and the camera will provide a means of investigating the workings of the human eye.

This and subsequent research will consider how the process of color change in the landscape is related to Goethe’s Theory of Color, Rudolf Steiner’s indications for the cycle of the seasons, and current scientific research in fields such as phenology, climate change, and biodynamic agricultu

«To feel the supreme and moving beauty of the spectacle to which Nature invites her ephemeral guests! ... that is what I call prayer.» – Claude Debussy 


completed projects:

The influence of planetary constellations on the morphology of head lettuce

Ruth Richter

In conversations with breeders we discussed the possible application of methods developed in projects with genetically modified plants to research into biodynamic breeding. What followed from this was a preliminary project on the question of how sowing during particular planetary constellations affects the following generations. Seed from head lettuce sown in 2002 by the breeder Christina Henatsch (DE), each time during trigonal positions of various planets with the moon, was sown in Dornach and the plants raised under identical conditions. The different variants were observed and recorded for their developmental dynamics and morphology. Whereas at first they were very similar in their growth, clear differences were observed in head formation (see Figure). Making leaf series from the flowering main stem will show whether these differences in formative gestures can also be observed in the leaves.


Outer and inner experiences in studying landscapes

Jochen Bockemühl

Two landscape study weeks were held within the framework of PETRARCA

  • The first was on the theme of agriculture and landscape and held in 2002 in Alsace, in the Thur valley of the southern Vosges. With the retreat of agriculture among the communities there, the woodland is pressing in on all sides, making it oppressive for people living there. Farmers, together with the communities, have taken the initiative with a new form of management to allow breathing spaces in the landscape to be established once again.
  • The second was in 2003 in Scotland at Pishwanton, a small, gently hilly, partly wooded site that has long been out of cultivation, situated between sheep meadows and grain fields at the foot of the Lammermuir hills. This site has since been taken over by the Life Science Trust and is being developed as a training centre for a Goethean way of understanding living processes in the landscape.

Working with the people on the spot gave the opportunity to learn about the natural and cultural factors shaping landscape, each with their histories stretching far back in time. This resulted in pictures of very different cultural formative processes. Then it was a matter connecting with the intentions of the people responsible in such a way that directions for a healthy development of the place would be found without introducing an external, levelling-out standardisation.

Concretely devoting oneself to the sensorial phenomena and to the as yet unknown that should arise at a particular place, develops capacities that are practised in science and art, and have the character of connecting with what is universally human. Dealing with clearly grasped, experientially permeated pictures, as well as reflecting on our own part in what brings about a phenomenon for us, are steps that lead to spiritual ways of perceiving that are appropriate to the given situation. These develop further by guiding formative impulses and accompany the transformation of the whole situation in such a way that what comes about leads to a healthy future.


Yo will find here more information about PETRARCA conferences.


The bee project

Johannes Wirz

In the spring of 2003 many beekeepers in Europe had to suffer up to 80% losses of their bee colonies. The plight of honey bees is of serious concern. Although the Varroa mite is cited as the most important reason for the precarious position of colonies in the field, it is clear that the weakening of the honey bee is connected with a number of factors.

The early summer of 2003 impressively showed what is really needed at the present time: flowering landscapes! Because of the slow growth of vegetation as a result of drought, many meadows could not be mowed until after the first flowering. For the first time in years, the green fields of agriculture became a paradise for bees and other insects, with excellent consequences for bee health. Therefore it would be impossible to improve the situation for bees by increasing the value of agricultural landscapes through creating flower-rich meadows, margins and fallow land.

For many years our work has been smiled upon by the state bee institutes. But today on Gotland and on an Adriatic island the very same institutes have projects asking the same question as we are: can bees survive without treating against the Varroa mite? Initial results seem promising and agree with the observations that we have made: there are always some colonies that, despite high disease pressure, remain healthy. But there are differing interpretations of this finding. Whereas academic bee researchers like to put forward genetic reasons, in our view, apart from the quality of the bee forage, it matters a lot where the colonies are placed. Here, microclimatic differences play a large part. Only through them does it become clear why in an apiary of colonies, which are all treated the same and are positioned only a few metres from each other, some remain healthy whereas others die out in winter.


Butterfly habitat quality

Johannes Wirz and Daniel Kuster

After we had studied the behaviour of two butterfly species with single animal observations, this year we investigated with the same method the quality of the habitat of the marbled white butterfly in three different biotopes. For this we observed the species in an optimal biotope, in meadowland divided into small parcels, and in a relic biotope.

This investigation produced exciting results. The duration of activities of the females was largely independent of the biotope and was constant for the species. However, with the males there were striking differences which were attributable to the different qualities of the biotopes. In Oltingue, where feeding and the search for females took place in different areas, the flight times were significantly longer than at the other two biotopes, where both activities occurred at the same place.

From the frequency of "turns" made by the males, i.e. the overflying of biotope borders and the consequent turning back, it can be deduced that in habitats that fulfil all the needs of this butterfly species, a clear relationship exists between, on the one hand, migration and, on the other hand, biotope size and geometry. The model of random walk describes the situation exactly. But it applies to only a limited extent when biotopes meet just some aspects of the species requirements, as for example in Oltingue. There, in addition to the component of random walk, is also added one of flight towards a goal – depending on mood, butterflies seek specific habitats by directed flights.

We obtained unexpected findings when observing the interaction of females. Under optimal conditions the females meet others of the same species, as well as other insects, mostly during flight. In the relic biotope "12 Jucharten" the encounters took place largely while searching for flowers. As a result of restricted resources, on the available nectar plants competition for feed predominated. For conservation of the marbled white in our meadow landscapes it is necessary not only to give proper consideration to the size and shape of the area and its interconnections, but also guarantee and improve the diversity of flowering plants. Single animal observations shed light on the connecting theme of all living things: the relationship of centre and periphery – here the connection between the biotope quality and biotope surroundings.