Blame where it’s due

Honey bees, Apis mellifera
This article about the growing problem of bee rustling contained one quote that irked me:

The arrival of hobbyists isn’t something that many commercial beekeepers welcome. Some commercial beekeepers actually blame hobbyists for the loss of bees and say that colony collapse disorder is really a case of “piss-poor beekeeping.” Joe Romance, for example, refers to them as “the Birkenstock crowd.”

Colony Collapse is a confusing and contentious issue, sure, but even leaving that aside, there is simply no way  hobbyist beekeepers are more harmful to bee health than the large scale commercial operations. I call rubbish.

Anyone familiar with epidemiology and basic evolutionary theory should recognize that large commercial beekeepers- not the small guys- have created a perfect set of conditions for a bee public health disaster:

1. Commercial beekeepers truck millions of hives across the continent, ensuring any disease that shows up on our shores is spread across the continent within months.
2. Some commercial beekeepers import queens from other continents, ensuring both a steady stream of new pathogens and a dilution of any native genetic resistance to existing diseases.
3. Commercial beekeepers keep hives in much denser concentrations than bees live in the wild, ensuring easy spread of pathogens among hives and favoring the evolution of more virulent strains.
4. As in other systems of intensive agriculture, most large beekeepers deal with disease problems using blanket chemical treatments that favor the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria and insecticide resistant mites.

We aren’t going to come to grips with bee health issues until we recognize the central role of commercial beekeeping in creating them.


15 thoughts on “Blame where it’s due”

  1. With all due respect Alex, I would like to pose a different take on this subject. I have been keeping bees for 34 years, for probably 20 of those years I have been President of Eastern CT Beekeepers Assn. I teach two beekeeping classes each winter. By Connecticut’s standards, I am a commercial beekeeper, running in the neighborhood of 300 hives. I also Import to CT from Georgia,1200 or so packages of bees to resell to hobbyist beekeepers. In addition, also produce up to 200 nucs for resale. All of these bees go to other beekeepers, almost without exception,these people have fewer than 10 hives. While some are beginners, most (80% or so) are replacing dead outs from the previous winter. While taking these orders for bees, I continuously hear ” why did my bees die last winter?” I ask them just two questions. 1) What did you do about nutrition? and 2) What did you do to control Varroa mites? The answer is usually a long silence.

    During the last 8 years or so there has been a tremendous upsurge in people starting beekeeping. Unfortunately, far too many of these people are just in love with the idea of beekeeping and they don’t realize that they actually have to care for these delicate creatures. When they loose their bees because they starved or were over run by mites, they often blame the bees or Monsanto or planes seeding the air, whatever. Almost always someone other than themselves. In many parts of this country, and the world for that matter, land uses have changed to the point where we now experience extended dearth’s in the quantity, quality and diversity of the pollens available to foraging pollinators. Honey bees in our case. Add to this unchecked Varroa mite populations and the dozen or so viruses vectored by these mites and we have a recipe for disaster. I won’t even go into the pesticide and fungicide issues.

    In my operation, I use the same bees that I sell to those beekeepers who are loosing all or most of their bees. ( Italians from my friend Reg Wilbanks in Georgia). I keep my bees in agricultural areas in both CT and NY. Right in the heart of GMO corn, soybeans and alfalfa. I have never lost more than 35% of my bees, most years my losses are in the range of 10-15%. This is below the historical averages going back over 100 years.

    So what is the difference? I care for my bees like any successful farmer cares for their livestock. I monitor and control my mite loads. I monitor the quantity and sources of the pollen coming into my hives. When mite loads go up, I treat for mites. When there is a dearth in the incoming resources to my hives, I supplement their diet with pollen supplements and sugar syrup as needed. I ensure that they have adequate stores for the harsh New England winters. The year that I had 35% losses, guess what? Due to the work load in my construction company , I wasn’t up to par on my Fall management in many of my bee yards. This was my fault, no one else’s.

    While I do agree that the mass movement of bees cross country dramatically speeds up the movement of pests and the related viruses etc., migratory beekeeping operations are far removed from most hobbyist beekeepers. There are far too many people who have a few hives and just close their eyes to the care their bees need. This leads to high mite loads and nutritionally bankrupt bees. When these bees ultimately crash, these high populations of mites are transferred to other nearby hives due to drifting of drones, workers and finally robbing by other bees. This goes for both sick commercial bees as well as sick bees owned by beekeepers who naïvely thing that they can just leave their bees to nature. I tell this to all of the students in our classes as well as the seminars we hold at our meetings. Long before migratory beekeeping, mites, viruses, systemic pesticides, Monsanto and Bayer, Birkenstock sandals and cell phones, 80% of all swarms of honey bees never saw their first spring. This was Mother Nature at work. Pretty poor odds for the ultimate invasive species, apis meliffera.

  2. Hi Adam. Thanks for your comments. I agree that hobbyist beekeepers have high losses, and that these losses are largely due to inexperience and/or some rather odd conceptions of bee management. But these losses are in the short term and not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the introduction and spread of new diseases and a tendency of those disease to evolve higher virulence (see: ) and resistance to control methods. I’m also referring more to the 10,000+ hive migratory beekeepers, where beekeepers can’t possibly monitor each hive for mite load, etc., than to smaller, sedentary operations like yours. I think we’re not in disagreement so much as talking about different issues.

    Hobbyist losses are just hobbyists shooting themselves in the foot, largely. I don’t agree they are creating the long term conditions for bee public health problems, though, and I don’t think there is anything other than anecdotal evidence that hobbyist mite overload causes commercial beekeepers any more problems than do feral colonies, or miticide resistance. Hobbyist ineptitude at least provides some natural selection on bee stocks for toughness.

    In other words, hobbyists may be bad for bee health on the level of individual hives, but not for bee public health, on the scale of years and populations. Commercial beekeepers have set up a system that favors, in the long term, more diseases and more damaging diseases.

    1. I hear you with the introduction of disease and the over use of some treatments thus increasing resistance. For instance, How did mites cross the ocean to North America? How did AFB become resistant to Terramycin? Varroa mites swept across the country at 70 MPH. On the other hand some of the largest Beekeepers in the world have been at the forefront of research into nutrition of bees. ( For example Adee Honey Farms, 80,000 hives) They were very instrumental in helping formulate and test some of the most successful Pollen supplements currently in use. So we are in a Damned if we do, Damned if we don’t situation. There is no way we can feed 7 billion people in this world without large scale farming and large scale pollination to go with it. As I’m sure you must be aware, native pollinators don’t maintain adequate populations at any time to even come close to meeting the pollination needs of Agriculture. Enter large commercial beekeeping operations.

      I don’t know what the answer is. For the last 15-20 years, we ( the beekeeping world) have been trying to select bees that are resistant to mites and have had very limited success. This is going to be a very long process and in the mean time you can put the best mite resistant stock in the hands of many hobbyists and in a very short time the bees will be as dead as a doornail. Like I mentioned earlier, most of the large operations tend to group them selves in the extreme Southern states during the cold months and the after pollination move to the upper Midwest for a honey crop if they just don’t return South. This leaves the overwhelming number of individual Beekeepers isolated from them. So maybe the hobbyists aren’t to blame for all of the commercial beekeepers problems, but on the other hand, the commercial beekeepers aren’t to blame for most of the losses the little guys experience. In the mean time we all will benefit immensely from maintaining the health of our bees with proper nutrition and mite control measures. This is what I harp on whenever I have the floor. I feel strongly that if my bees are surrounded by healthy bees then my bees will be healthier. As a retailer of package bees, nothing makes me happier than to hear the excited voice of a customer who came through the winter with a strong healthy hive! This also means that this person will most likely become a long term customer who adds a few more hives and doesn’t get discouraged.

      I do agree with the original quote about “piss poor beekeeping” It is rampant on all levels. So I guess it is often just a case of the pot calling the kettle black. The good news is that its not all bad news. There are plenty of beekeepers, large and small, who just go about their own way, caring for their bees and reaping the rewards. Hopefully the “piss poor Beekeepers” will go broke or just do us all a favor and take up something else. Hopefully it won’t be anything dear to me.

      1. I think you’ve put your finger right on the crux of the problem, Adam: the scale at which we need bee pollination necessitates, at least in the short term, particular ways of doing things. Some of these things cause problems in the longer term, but it’s going to be very hard to change practices without causing pain somewhere.

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  4. James C. Trager

    Good discussion!
    I find Adam’s comment about 80% mortality of swarms interesting. It leads me to all sorts of basic honey bee reproductive biology questions. How long do queens live? How many swarms emerge from her hive in her lifetime? Are the rates different in kept hive bees as opposed to feral? How do the latter somehow persist all over North America notwithstanding the problems of apiary bees?

    1. Honeybee queens live for 5 years; probably longer but that’s the life span of their egg laying abilities and because they only mate at one time in their life there’s no point in keeping them.
      My hives, when I don’t do anything to prevent swarming usually swarm out twice. The parent queen leaves with the first swarm, one or more of her replacements leaves with the second swarm, and usually one last replacement queen is left to take over as the queen of the parent hive. With exception of a small grace period hives only have one queen, sister queens try to kill one another on sight, mother daughter queens get along a little better. (Presumably when a daughter queen leaves with the parent queen’s swarm, usually that swarm will divide later on, or else they will eventually fight. This situation only comes up when bad weather prevents the parent queen’s swarm from leaving sooner.) Also occasionally the last swarm sometimes leaves the parent hive queenless and without eggs for workers to make a new one.

    2. Most of your questions were answered by MrILoveTheAnts, so I will take on the one that he didn’t address.

      My comment about 80% mortality was accurate before Varroa Mites. With very few exceptions, (and I mean very few), all swarms of honeybees that are left on their own in temperate regions die within 18 months of issuing from a hive. The remaining ones are gone by the second winter. Occasionally, we hear of a feral hive living longer but I always suspect that the hive has died out and been repopulated by another swarm. The overwhelming reason, Varroa mites. Plain and simple. The rest die from a combination of other reasons most often compounded by, you guessed it, Varroa mites. There was a remote region in the Pacific North West where there was a feral population of honey bees that were being studied because they held on in spite of the mites. I am not sure what their status is now but I haven’t heard much about them in the last few years. Another notable exception are the Africanized Honey Bees as I mentioned in my earlier comments. AHB doesn’t winter in cold regions and we all should thank God for that. They are ferocious! We don’t need them!

      As I have said before, Honey Bees are complicated and delicate creatures. Most of their genetic mutations revolve around behavior. We all hear of “Mite resistant Stock”. All of the traits involving resistance revolve around Hygienic and Grooming behaviors. The problem is that resistance does not equal immunity. Not by a long shot! All of these resistant stocks, still need some sort of assistance with mite control. There are many beekeepers out there who are striving to be “Treatment Free” but their efforts are being complicated by myriad external influences. For instance, the original post that has led to this discussion.

      I want to recommend a web site run by fellow beekeeper and researcher Randy Oliver. Randy’s philosophy and beekeeping practices have influenced the way I practice my craft.

      From a personal stand point, I need to get off the computer and prepare about 100 hives for, once again, “you guessed it”, moving into apple pollination. Otherwise there will be a meager crop of fruit in North East Connecticut come September.

    3. Typical queens live 18-24 months. Not 5 years. While there have been some reports of 4- 5 years they would be very far on the extreme, like 110 year old human. 95% of the time right after the hive swarms the queen is superseded. excepts are made when the supercedure queen fails to mate.
      Domestic hives we try real hard to prevent swarming, so as a result we sometimes get queens that go multiple seasons. as for how many swarms from her hive, well as soon as the first swarm is gone its not her hive anymore! and normally the new place takes a least a year to get ready.

      Its unfortunate that in the complaint about a comment the pro made, there are more inaccuracies, such as this one and the neonics causing issues. The comments on the “Birkenstock” keepers was based on this type of errors and Superior attitudes. You would be amazed at how many people with no idea which end of the bee has the sting, know all about how to cure CCD and raise bees.

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  6. Horace Boothroyd III

    This is all very interesting but ultimately irrelevant. Everyone knows that colony collapse disorder is caused by neonicotinoid insecticides, so if we just ban all GMO crops then everything will right itself automatically.

    1. Horace Boothroyd III: I sincerely hope you were being sarcastic, but in case your non-sequitur was sincere, two comments.

      1. Everybody DOESN’T know that neonicotinoid insecticides cause colony collapse disorder, though it’s clear that these insecticides are bad for bees. They might be, but they probably aren’t the only cause.

      2. Even if neonicotinoid insecticides do cause colony collapse disorder, it doesn’t follow that banning all GMO crops, such as those making crops resistant to the herbicide Roundup, will have any effect on the incidence of colony collapse disorder.

  7. Barbara: You handled that much calmer than I would have. This “Nemonic = GMO = CCD = Evil Big-Ag” attempt at logic astounds me.

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