If I could change the direction of modern beekeeping, I would insist on responsibility. The more I read about the health crisis of honey bees, the more I think we beekeepers have created our own problems. It’s convenient to blame everyone else, but outside influences are only part of the story.
Having said that, if I were to blame anyone outside of beekeeping for the “bee problem,” it would be the popular press. The press continues to exaggerate every bee loss to the point where people who know nothing about bees think they should help by putting a colony in their backyard, rooftop, or patio.These bees are generally purchased from a southern supplier, not adapted to wherever they’re going, and placed in the hands of unskilled keepers. Invariably these bees have mites and viruses.The bees swarm, abscond, drift, and perhaps die, and in the process they spread the mites to neighboring hives and feral colonies.
Bees are not lawn ornaments
Now there is nothing wrong with being a beginner, and nothing wrong with making beginner mistakes. We all do it. But many of these colonies were purchased by people who were not particularly interested in bees or animal husbandry, but who thought that they should do their part to help “the bee situation.” It makes them look “green” and kind of cool, too. Unfortunately, this kind of beekeeping only makes the bee situation worse. Here’s why.
Nearly all the common honey bee ailments—including brood diseases, predators, parasites, and pathogens—are spread from hive to hive by close contact. In a landscape where beekeepers are far apart, the spread of disease is lower and slower simply because the populations do not interact. Assuming no packages are shipped in, a beekeeper can keep a remote apiary relatively clean. But once we begin filling in the interstices, putting a beehive on every block, we create corridors of disease transmission. When the foraging area of every colony intersects with the foraging area of every other colony, disease organisms can travel like light.
Worse, since the bees in these hives are often trucked from large package operations, the bees are loaded with diseases and parasites before they leave the bee yard. Instead of helping the bee situation, these innocent people are actually making it worse. They are closing the loop, assuring that every colony is in close proximity to another.
Into the wild
Even worse, some evidence suggests that bee diseases are spreading into the wild populations of native bees. We don’t have a lot of data, but it’s possible that we are losing bees without even knowing they are sick. The jury is still out on honey bee diseases, but we know that managed bumble bees have infected wild species with Nosema bombi, and we know that managed leafcutting bees have spread chalkbrood to other Megachilidae. I would be surprised if honey bees haven’t already passed some of their ailments into wild bee populations.
Many of the people who want to save the bees simply don’t understand the complexities, and it is easy to get involved in situations that are not as they seem. For example, many people buy electric cars so they can do their part to cut down on greenhouse emissions. That seems like a good idea. But depending on where you live, your electric power may come from coal-burning plants. By driving that electric car, you may have actually shifted from gasoline to coal, which is worse for the environment. Yes, the proportions matter and you would need to calculate your usage based on the percentage of your electricity that comes from coal. But my point here is that things aren’t always as they first appear.
Sharing the planet with other beekeepers
In our sometimes misguided efforts to be “green,” it is easy to forget that we share the planet with each other. If you are a “let the bees be bees” type of beekeeper and refuse to treat for mites on the grounds that you are all-natural, you may be interfering with the lives of others. If your bees are infecting the colonies of people whose livelihood depends on bees, or of breeders who have spent decades developing resistant strains, or of your neighbor who carefully treats his bees so as to not affect yours, you are overstepping your bounds. To me, a responsible beekeeper is one who manages his bees and mites, who understands what is going on in the hive, and who actually has a plan.
In areas where people live close together and beekeeping is popular, I believe we have an absolute responsibility to other beekeepers to monitor for mites and treat or destroy when necessary. How you treat is up to you, but it should be a recognized and effective treatment that is monitored for efficacy. If it isn’t working, you can do something else, but do something you must.
A word about treatment-free
As I’ve said before, successful treatment-free beekeepers usually have a few things going for them:
- Probably the most important factor is some degree of separation from other beekeepers. No one can keep mite-resistant bees in an area that is importing hundreds, if not thousands, of mite-ridden packages. The odds are overwhelmingly against it.
- Successful treatment-free beekeepers usually have a large enough operation that they can flood their areas with drones from treatment-free stock. They need their queens to mate with drones that have the proper genetics, not random drones shipped into the neighborhood.
- The third thing is a solid understanding of honey bee genetics and mating behavior. The two things that most separate honey bee genetics from the simple Mendelian genetics we study in high school are haplodiploidy and polyandry. These two items turn bee breeding into a complex puzzle governed by numbers that are hard to understand, even for the pros.
If you are a beekeeper who wants to breed treatment-free bees, then you should. But you need a plan. An island is helpful, too, or at least a section in the middle of nowhere. No matter how good you think you are, you won’t succeed at treatment-free if hundreds of packages are finding their way into your foraging area every spring.
Treatment-free bees or just free bees?
Of all the treatment-free stories I come across, the most irritating one goes like this. The treatment-free beekeeper gets his bees from removals and cut-outs. Although he doesn’t treat, he has an endless supply of rescued bees. On the surface it looks like the operation is thriving but, in truth, he just keeps replacing deadouts with cutouts.
I would like to know how many of these beekeepers are doing as Seeley recommends and proactively destroying the colonies that show little or no mite resistance. I would also like to know how the drone thing works. Successful treatment-free breeders are highly concerned about the genetics of their drones. How does that compare with bringing in random untested drones from cutouts? If the random model really works, it’s time they publish some data so the rest of us can learn how to do it.
A responsible beekeeper keeps his mites at home
With the situation we have now where viral loads are higher than ever, where bees are requiring more and more care, and colonies in some areas are dying in record numbers, we cannot continue to condone the casual beekeeper who believes treatment-free means “hands free.” If nothing else, beekeepers must be responsible toward each other. You can no longer “let the mites be mites” because you’re too lazy to do anything about them. There are simply too many colonies too close together with too many problems. You should take responsibility for your mites or get out of beekeeping.
The way I see it, you have two choices. You can monitor your mites and treat when necessary, or you can monitor your mites and take proactive measures to re-queen or destroy collapsing colonies before they release their mite loads to the world. Beekeepers who treat and beekeepers who don’t will never see eye-to-eye on philosophy, but we should be able to agree on one thing: mites must be contained to the best of our ability. Letting mites be mites is no longer an option.
Honey Bee Suite