Don’t worry. I’ve been predicting the imminent crash of beekeeping for about eight years now. So far, I’ve been pathetically wrong. So don’t lose any sleep over this.
Still, the sudden closure of the three Brushy Mountain Bee Farm outlets and the disappearance of their website doesn’t give me a warm and fuzzy feeling. Yes, they probably made a number of faulty business decisions including quick expansion and a high debt-to-earnings ratio. But again, I’m guessing.
I’ve also heard rumors that some bee clubs are losing members and meeting attendance is dropping. Not in all places, mind you. Some clubs are doing better than ever. Put it this way: I’m hearing rumblings from the field.
Cycles of beekeeping
Does any of this surprise me? Absolutely not. Like many interests and hobbies, beekeeping has a history of popularity that rises and falls like a thermometer. The crest prior to this was in the 1970s when hippies and flower children—all peace, love, and Volkswagons—decided to keep bees. In fact, many of the “old timers” we have now started back then. It’s a charming piece of beekeeping history.
The current beekeeping bubble began after press reports of colony collapse disorder (CCD). People with no prior interest in insects suddenly decided to save the world by keeping bees. The current push to aid Mother Nature has many similarities to the 70s, and I believe many of the current beekeepers will stay with bees just like their predecessors.
Times have changed
To outfit all these new beekeepers, hundreds of entrepreneurs and retailers were on the spot, ready to help. This time around we have all sorts of digital gadgets, plastic parts, clever tools, and countless websites. We have bee suits made of modern materials, hives of every conceivable design, and feeders we can’t figure out. You name it and someone is making it. Or many someones.
But we also have things they didn’t have in the 1970s or in prior waves of beekeeping. We have varroa mites, small hive beetles, and viruses galore, along with worsening environmental conditions. Beekeeping is more difficult than it used to be, and more expensive. Staying with it takes a commitment that is larger than just buying a hive and pulling honey supers once a year.
What’s hot and what’s not
Tulips. Trolls. Hula hoops. Pet rocks. Cabbage patch dolls. Gotta have it. No, inexpensive toys are not the same as bee hives, but tracing their wax and wane is instructive. First they are plain vanilla. Then they come with dozens of variations. Then everyone is doing it. Then we lose interest. Things you can’t be without one day fail to sparkle the next, and we move on to the next shiny object that captures our interest.
In contrast, many complexities and ironies associated with beekeeping are inconsistent with pet rocks. For one thing, in the background we have commercial beekeepers. They were here before the rise and will be here after the fall. They are the backbone of the beekeeping industry and they aren’t going anywhere. I can’t imagine what they think of all the hoopla and gadgets, but they know cycles. I assume many just shrug and say, “This, too, shall pass.”
A sad irony
But the big irony, the really sad outcome of the current beekeeping bubble is that it did not save the bees. In fact, it made everything worse. The surge in beekeeping was based on reports of colony collapse disorder, and you can still find current references to CCD even though no official cases have been recorded for years.
Oddly, honey bees were never endangered. In fact, they have a history of different types of collapses that were never understood or diagnosed. Perhaps CCD was related to mites, or maybe not, but one thing is certain: CCD caused the bubble that didn’t save the bees.
If anything, the spread of varroa mites and the viruses they carry was intensified by the bee bubble. As the number of hives grew, and each hive was placed close to another, the pathways for disease and parasite transmission multiplied geometrically. Just as human diseases move faster in densely populated areas, bee diseases can spread quickly when many colonies inhabit limited space.
Over the top
The thing that shocked me lately is the number of treatments being used for mite control. Ten years ago, many beekeepers were treating for mites once a year. But as mite transmission increased due to numerous hives, the number of mite treatments required to keep a colony alive increased. Last week when some people on BEE-L mentioned treating 12 or 14 times a year, I was astonished.
Gassing colonies with acid vapor repeatedly throughout the year is not something I’m interested in doing. If I had to do that, I would quit beekeeping in a heartbeat. Call me an unrealistic romantic, but that much treatment destroys the pastoral image I have for beekeeping. Clean outside breezes. Bees and flowers dancing in the wind. The rich smell of nectar and brood. The sweet sparkle of honey on toast.
Yet those who have runaway mites and don’t treat end up spreading disease and making the prognosis for healthy colonies that much bleaker. Treatment-free bees need separation from the constant onslaught of diseases and parasites, but separation is hard to come by with so many beekeepers.
Furthermore, the bees that really are in trouble, the bees that actually do need our help are not imported honey bees but the native bees. Large numbers of honey bee colonies have jeopardized native bee health due to increased competition for forage and from pathogen spillover into the environment. Even bumble bees are being found with deformed wing virus.
Maybe it’s just me
Maybe I’m wrong about the bubble bursting as I’ve been wrong so many times before. But if the slump is coming, I think it will be better for the bees, both managed and wild. No one has to quit beekeeping, either. Fewer new colonies together with natural attrition would soon bring hive numbers down to a more sustainable level.
I’m curious to know whether anyone else has detected a change or if I’m just imagining a trend that doesn’t exist. Also, I said I would quit if I had to treat 12 times a year. What about you? Do you have a threshold at which beekeeping no longer makes sense? Or would you keep going regardless? Let me know what you think. Thanks for your insight.
Honey Bee Suite