bees and agriculture

An unnatural dilemma

For the past few weeks, I have been gleaning tidbits from both natural beekeepers and the conventional kind. On one day, a speaker explained that Nosema would go away if we just stopped using Fumigilin. The next morning, I took an exam on how to test for Nosema, and how and when to use Fumigilin most effectively.

I like studying both sides of the coin. If I only listen to one side, my information is biased and incomplete. How much harder it is to defend your beliefs if you don’t know how your opponent thinks! Nevertheless, the contrast between the groups is jarring. Each side “knows” they are right; each side is unwilling to bend. The scientific literature points every which way, but each camp has its pet papers lined up, ready to prove a point.

But even after endless reading, listening, studying, and thesis-writing, I still come down somewhere in the middle—closer to the natural side but with a nod of understanding to the conventional side. I sometimes think I should take a radical position and become another bee guru, the “I’m right and you’re wrong” type. But it’s not me. I can’t go there.

More than just bees

The question of right and wrong is not confined to how we keep our bees. The larger question is how do we feed the ever-burgeoning world population. We already have food inequality. We have people who can barely afford food, let alone a cucumber. Conversely, we have those who insist on an organic cucumber. Is it right that those with lesser money have to eat pesticide-laced food? No way will I tackle that question, but it remains, simmering in the background.

Back when I was a student of agriculture, when I was enrolled in courses like “Soil Fertility and Fertilizers” and “Herbicide Science,” I remember hearing about organic food. It was a small movement, just at the edge of my peripheral vision. My classmates and I, all suffering through thousand-page organic chemistry tomes, were nonplussed by the idea. “Of course!” we said. “If it’s food it’s organic (carbon-containing). All food is organic.” We shrugged and went back to killing bugs with chemicals.

It seems funny to me now, as I fill my shopping cart with organic produce, organic milk and cheese. But here’s the lesson: I think that aggressive commercial agriculture has a low probability of stumbling onto the next big thing. But I think the hobbyist, the backyard beekeeper, or the postage stamp gardener has a very good chance of discovering the wave of the future—the thing that saves the planet and the bees.

Different kinds of keepers

So therein is my dilemma: I believe we need the conventional beekeepers to keep the food rolling in, at least for now. Equally important is the small-time “wacko” beekeeper who always has a crazy idea. One of those crazies may save the bees. One may clean up the food supply.

But regardless of the need for natural beekeepers, I believe it is harder to accomplish than many believe. In most urban or suburban areas, beekeeping clubs or suppliers ship in hundreds or even thousands of southern packages every year. It becomes a numbers game. Even if you purchase expensive mite-resistant queens, or produce your own queens from survivor stock, your virgin queens will set out to mate among tens of thousands of drones from those shipped-in packages. What is the chance of your queen mating with drones from another local survivor colony?

If the odds of winning the lottery were the same as getting struck by lightening, people would still buy tickets and hope to win, even when they are dead certain they will never be struck by lightening. But can it happen? Sure. Someone always manages to produce treatment-free bees in the suburbs. Someone always wins the lottery. Someone always gets struck by lightening.

Drowning in drones

So I’m not saying you shouldn’t try to raise treatment-free bees. I’m just saying that if you live in an area with hundreds of packages of imported bees, each of which produces thousands of drones per year, the odds are stacked against you. Realizing that, you can try alternative methods such as instrumental insemination to get the crosses you need. But you have to understand what is going on, and you have to do what is right for you.

What I don’t like to see is people believing they have failed. The natural beekeeping fanatics will say you didn’t do it right, when it may be a problem with your local beekeeping situation. Those who succeed often have hundreds of colonies and can flood their area with mite-resistant drones. Or perhaps they own many acres that are free from annual shipments from the south. Or maybe they live in areas with like-minded individuals who also resist imports. The zealots will tell you otherwise, but be real. If it were easy, the mite problem would be over by now.

The common thread

However, you can become a better beekeeper regardless of your philosophy. The successful commercial keepers and the successful natural keepers have one thing in common: they know their bees. They know the biology of honey bees, their behavior and their needs. They understand pests and how the pests and bees interact. They know honey bee nutrition and the plants that provide it. And they know the strengths and limitations of their beekeeping environment.

So after carefully considering the pros and cons of becoming a bee guru, a one-trick pony of sorts, I’ve decided to stay right where I am. You can keep bees any way you want, and if I can help with a little biology here and there, a little physics or chemistry, that is fine by me. I will never discover the answer to the bee problem, but one of you might. The world is counting on it.


Beekeepers will never agree on the best way to manage bees, but we need to learn from each other. Image by Erika Varga from Pixabay
Beekeepers will never agree on the best way to manage bees, but we need to learn from each other. Image by Erika Varga from Pixabay

Discover more from Honey Bee Suite

Subscribe to get the latest posts sent to your email.


  • Hear Hear! I think you’re exactly right that a resilient and adaptable food system has to start with lots and lots of people trying many things. And you’re right that one limit on what we can do as individual creative beekeepers has to do with the hideously narrow genetics of honeybees. I’d dearly love to never buy another queen from the southern breeders – and though it may be quixotic to try to create a better Rhode Island strain right now – if enough others breed their own queens locally with local survivors we will eventually start to see local variation again. Without that variation our bee populations remain completely vulnerable to the next pest that comes along.

  • What a wonderfully refreshing expression of your viewpoint and understanding! Hear Hear. Mine, too. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if more dialogue could occur along the lines of, “Let me see what I understand about what you understand.” Instead of the same old, “I’m obviously right, so that makes you, obviously, a wrong headed idiot!”

    Thanks so much for your wisdom – and your website!

  • Amen, Rusty, Amen. Your timing is spot-on, once again, and your point well stated. I’ve posted the link to your blog on the Treasure Valley Beekeepers page. Thank you.

  • Thank you Rusty for your very balanced point of view. Too often us beekeepers keep chasing the next right way of doing something and feeling pressure from well meaning zealots that “they know the way”. We are all trying to do right by our bees. Education, research, and backyard observations based on a common sense approach are what will continue to lead us to better ways to help our lovely and endearing honeybees.

  • I’ve certainly also been in the dilemma about “how natural is too natural.” When you come to the spot where you either treat for mites or lose your bees, I guess I bite the bullet and treat with what I think is the least harmful miticide.

    We have a classic “tragedy of the commons” problem. It might be best if none of us treated our bees for anything, just let nature run its course and rely on genetic diversity and natural checks and balances to keep our bees healthy. But any individual in that environment, who chooses to use an “un-natrual” means to keep their hives from getting sick “natually,” will benefit with more bees and honey – so there is an incentive to cheat. When just about everybody cheats, the situation we are in today, we all suffer the consequences of pesticide resistance, lack of genetic diversity, etc.

    • Excellent point, Gary. I hadn’t thought of it in the “tragedy of the commons” context, but you are absolutely right.

  • Sometimes, there can be truth on both sides of the fence. For example, some natural beekeepers have success with feeding/drenching with sugar syrup that has a little HBH or Pro-health added (feeding stimulant) so the bees clean/drink and flush the Nosema spores right out of their guts, while the big boys use the antibiotic Fumagilin-B to treat Nosema.

    I realize that my methods for 24 hives aren’t going to work for the beekeeper that has 7,000 hives. I understand & respect that he or she will have to do things differently (they have a lot more invested to protect). I have noticed while Nosema apis used to be a fall thing, Nosema ceranae can be anytime of the year. I had 2 hives come down with what I believe is Nosema ceranae last spring; one bounced back, one didn’t. The one that bounced back is doing great! The other one had to combine last month with another late swarm hive.

    I am just finishing my 4th year as a beekeeper and am trying to learn and understand everything I can about my bees and beekeeping so that I can make good decisions and keep them alive and healthy for the long term. I am fortunate that with so few colonies I can practice natural beekeeping/integrated pest management methods and experiment with new methods or ideas to sustain/help my bees along . . . and I’m having a lot of fun! :^)

  • Hi friends of the bees. I love all you are saying and I wonder how the problem will sort it self out? But I believe in giving Mother Nature a helping hand. She is so, so much better than we could be! Here I started beekeeping 6 years ago with my mothers dying words “be proud of what you do, and leave the world a better place!”

    I had no idea of what was involved and, had I, not sure I would of taken the jump. But now from one hive and a lot of stings I run 32 hives with less stings and more knowledge. I work with lost swarms, re home and care, nearly all my bees have different looks and traits. They are kept on 9 separate sites and so far never given any chemicals (leave Mother Nature to sort).

    The result is last year I lost one hive (sat on by a horse rubbing it’s a..e and knocking it over). BUT I do not tell my English beekeepers this is what I do. They would be horrified and probably have a lot to say. So quietly I move around my girls checking and watching. I have never seen anything other than a little chalkbrood, which the girls sort out, and have had more success year on year, with so much honey this year I have had to go to market. So who’s right and who’s wrong I think time will tell, IF we have enough of it!

    Totty’s Good Life, Dorset , England
    Thank you for your wisdom Rusty…

    • Totty,

      I thought I’ve heard every single way to lose a hive, but this is new one on me. Funny.

  • We have in this world many idiots like the unnamed speaker who suggests that if beekeepers stop using Fumidil-b Nosema would go away. In the UK, thanks to such idiots in the EU, we can no longer purchase Fumidil-b for the treatment of Nosema. In thirty years of keeping bees I never lost a colony of bees due to Nosema. I used to give my bees one gallon of syrup with Fumidil-b in the first autumn feed. This kept Nosema at bay. This treatment was tested in the UK in 1952 and found to be very successful with no adverse effects on the human race.

  • Very balanced analysis that applies far beyond beekeeping. I am not a beekeeper but read your blog all the time for exactly the kind of thoughtfulness you’ve just demonstrated. Thanks

  • I can appreciate your trying to keep a balanced position. I have been following your blog for some time and glean info as it applies to my bee stewardship. I just don’t understand why “we need to feed the world”, even as our failed attempts at doing so are causing the demise of so sacred a creature as the honeybee and other hosts of pollinators? Is the concept of the world being able to feed itself so foreign? Many projects around the globe have been very successful where villages and communities provide food and clean water for themselves, while caring for pollinators. And their food is non-GMO, non-poisoned, indeginous, and most importantly, sustainable.

    • Sharon,

      My fault for not being clear. I didn’t mean the U.S. needs to feed the world, but rather that humans need to make sure that other humans are fed. If we (humans) cannot feed each other, perhaps we (humans) need to slow our rate of reproduction. Just a thought.

      My readership is worldwide, so when I write I tend to think of all nations, not just the United States. But if you want to think about the U.S., think about this: We are a country that imports just about everything from cars, to oil, to clothing, to mops. Raw agricultural products are some of our last remaining big exports. The day we stop exporting food is the day our already trashed economy falls through the floor. Even now, many nations will not import our GMO products, and I can’t blame them.

      So the U.S is not in an economic position to suddenly lose a lot of agricultural production by drastic changes in pollination policy. It would be nice, I agree, but we have to be cautious and ease into change. If we make too many wrong moves, the rest of the world will be feeding us. Feeding a village with local indigenous plants may be feasible, but feeding New York City that way? Not so much. It is easy to be idealistic when our forks are full.

      That said, we definitely need a change in pollination policy and I believe it will come. I used the example of organic farming because it was a foreign concept not so long ago, but now it has taken root all over the world. Pollinator conservation will happen too. Those of us who are believers need to keep learning, keep teaching, and keep showing but we must be realistic. As I always say, we have to start from where we are, not from where we should be.

  • Great post. Ever since I read The Drunkards Walk I’ve been much more skeptical of people making direct connections between their success in—anything—and what they claim got them here. I’m much more comfortable with the real role chance plays in everything and not only listen to all sides, but question them, too.

  • Well said. When I was studying agriculture and horticulture in Australia in the 1970s, organic was seen as the wishful-thinking sideline with much higher costs, while the chemical method was seen as the economic and viable option for serious larger scale and commercial operations. The status quo is still much the same, although there is a much bigger ground now allocated to being more organic where practicable.

    The organic (reduced or nil pesticide) versions of any product is more readily available now than in the past few decades, but still is not the major method of agriculture. It is no wonder bees, including native bees are not as prevalent as they were in the past. Major bush fires have taken a big toll on the vegetation and honey production.

    Recently, imported honey/non-honey sugar mixes have appeared, eg Victorian honey which a sugar mix from Turkey and not Victoria, have been highlighted and fined by the government consumer commission.

      • I hadn’t not realised there were sugar syrups from China, Then again when I think about Chinese restaurants in Australia, the pork pieces in batter have a clear sweet sauce which is a bit honeyfied, so many that is what you are speaking about. I will have to keep my eye open to them. I have seen Maple syrup and imitation maple syrup but at least those companies are not calling the product honey.

        • Merilyn,

          In the U.S. many samples of “honey” imported from China have been found to be cut with high-fructose corn syrup. If it is discovered early enough, it is sent back. But often it gets through inspections and goes on the grocery shelf labeled as honey. Big problem.

  • Hi, I would just like to point out that Fumigilin is a banned product here in Europe. Shop bought honey contains enough contaminants without adding this one.

    • Bil,

      As far as I know, Fumigilin is banned just about everywhere except here. I’m not for it, but I like to hear the different perspectives. Fumigilin is interesting because it is a naturally-occurring substance isolated from the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus.

  • An excellent post, Rusty. As a new beekeeper I found the loudest voices in my local club were treatment free, although upon closer examination, they applied many non-chemical treatments. And after trying very hard to follow that canon, and facing massive colony crashes from Varroasis I, like Gary Rondeau above, adopted a “least harmful” regime that now includes formic and oxalic acid treatments.

    Here in Canada, there are few to no feral colonies that can survive the pressures on honey bees (Varroa, poor forage, Nosema, pesticide, weather, in roughly that order. It is important to remember that Varroa resistance, desirable as it is, is not the sole requirement for regaining treatment free bees). The survival of honey bees here is a function of the ability of beekeepers to stay the business/hobby; if we went cold turkey truly treatment free I think it would take years to rebuild, even supposing Varroa resistant bees resulted. I am confident that the genetic engineers will find us a solution, a method to make the Varroa weak or incapable of efficient reproduction, but have no idea when that might happen. Meanwhile, “do the least harm”.

    • WW,

      Good point about treatment-free bees. I mentioned two, Nosema and Varroa, but beekeepers routinely treat for AFB, EFB, beetles, and occasionally tracheal mites as well. So you are absolutely right; it is a multifaceted issue.

      I agree with the “do the least harm” philosophy. I think of it as, “as little as possible, but as much as necessary.” For me personally, I would probably leave beekeeping if I lost all my bees. I think I would be unwilling to spend the money to start over, and starting over would mean getting bees from another unknown source with unknown problems.

      The decisions are different for different folks, but they are complex.

  • Great post! I find value in observing and listening to fellow beekeeper practices and experiences. Not to judge or to join one camp or another, but to formulate my own path and ideas. I tend to align with those ‘wacko’ beekeeper types – always finding new ways to break status quo. I learn and gain appreciation through testing new ideas and failure. Not everyone’s path, but it works for me.

  • On either side of the road there is a ditch and keeping “it” (what ever “it” may be) between the ditches is the only way that I have found to keep moving forward. Aldo Leopold is a conservationist who lived in the first half of the 20 century and he addresses many of the issues that I face daily as I try to make a living in agriculture. (Side note I really like Leopold’s prose)…..I like to think that I still have a dairy farmers mentality in that if we take care of our resources our resources will take care of us. All choices we make have consequences, both good and bad. Growing up on a dairy, the cows were tended to before breakfast in the morning and as well in the evening their needs were seen too before supper was served. There was absolutely way any of our cows were mistreated. Leopold’s essay Ax-in-Hand does a wonderful job addressing the dilemmas we face, yes he cut trees for heating but not his favored pines.

  • Rusty,

    I want to thank you for the sentiment that I didn’t fail if a hive issues swarms, doesn’t produce 50 lbs of honey for itself and 25 lbs for me, if one requires feeding or dies in winter.

    When I first read your posts 2 springs ago I felt joyfully hopeful realizing swarms were good for the bees in the big picture. I LIKE bees, naturally I want to intrude gently and give to them more than I take from them. I had been presented with the notion nature could and should be dictated to and I should produce results with their efforts!

    Acceptance is a beautiful thing.


  • I like your balanced viewpoint on everything. It’s the reason I’ve been reading this site, obsessively.

    One thing about this post, though…

    I tend to think that, even though outnumbered, those who try to raise bees without treating will bee helping build up tolerances in bees. It may only be a little but it was probably “just a little” that kicked off CCD. “Just a little” may be just enough to pull it all out.