miscellaneous musings

Why is beekeeping so hard?

Beekeeping is tuff. Much harder than I ever thought it would be. I mean, how hard can it be to raise bees that have been raising themselves forever? ——John

When you are feeling overwhelmed by the difficulty of beekeeping, the thing to remember is this: Although bees have been raising themselves forever, they haven’t raised themselves in our present environment.

Evolution is a glacially slow process. As the environment changes, lifeforms slowly evolve to fit the changes. But humans have altered the planet so fast—especially since the close of WWII—that only species with multiple generations per year and extremely flexible genetics have been able to keep up. Cockroaches, mosquitoes, and many single-celled organisms, for example, have managed just fine. Many species have not.

The bees’ environment is not natural

So even if you are a natural beekeeper following biodynamic or organic principles of beekeeping, the environment where the bees are living is not natural. Like it or not, our present conditions are clearly man made.

For example, the air is polluted. It has been found that bees in polluted air have more difficulty finding forage because it interferes with their sense of smell. Some of the air pollutants stick onto raindrops and fall into the world’s water bodies, causing them to be more acidic. The acidity of water changes what will live in it and affects the things that drink it.  We don’t know the details of how it affects all living things, but we know the potential for harm is there. We know there is much we don’t know.

In addition to the air, the soil and water are also tainted with industrial pollutants, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, fertilizers, and nuclear waste. For example, high levels of progestin and estrogen have been found in fresh water supplies. These hormones have been found to persist in spite of water treatment and they interfere with the development of aquatic animals. Although some places are worse than others, the earth is a closed system. Eventually everything spreads everywhere; like oil on water, it gets thinner but it doesn’t go away.

Monocultures are not limited to farms

Agrochemicals have allowed us to take something nature hates—the monoculture—and put it everywhere. Farms, which for thousands of years were a tapestry of plants and animals, have been split into various specialties. The corn is grown here, the pigs there, the cows somewhere else. Each of these monocultures requires more and more chemical intervention to keep them alive.

Even honey bees placed in an almond orchard are a monoculture in a monoculture—all the other insects and plants are killed before the honey bees are brought in, which means our bees are competing with each other for resources, and their pests are free to move from bee to bee with nothing to get in their way. And don’t forget: the residual poisons are left for the bees to eat.

We tend to think that other people are responsible for monocultures: it’s them, not us. But the biggest monoculture in the U.S. is lawn grass, and homeowners tend to use higher concentrations of weed killer than farmers–weed killers that wash off the lawns and into the water supplies and fish-bearing streams.

A missing American beauty

Hardly anyone remembers the majestic beauty of the American elm. The tree was tall and stately. It had few, if any, lower limbs which meant it was perfect for lining streets and parks and ball fields. It was so shady, so magnificent, that it was planted everywhere in the Northeast and Midwest. The towns became tree monocultures. So when Dutch elm disease struck, it ripped up and down those leafy roads and byways and knocked out virtually every tree, state after state, until not an elm was standing.

But monocultures and pollutants are not the only features of the modern Earth. The World Wildlife Fund recently reported that monarch butterflies are covering just 1.65 acres of their wintering grounds in Mexico this year, down from 44.5 acres in 1995. The reason? Habitat fragmentation, urban sprawl, herbicides: cities too big to span, food too hard to find. This egregious loss, like many others, has happened on our watch. If it continues, our grandchildren will read about monarchs they way we read about passenger pigeons, eastern elk, and silver trout.

Beekeepers must not become discouraged

I could go on, but the point is that it is not always your fault when bees die. You cannot get discouraged. You have to remember that everything is different for them regardless of how natural you attempt to be. The modern Earth is not the planet they evolved on. Your attempts to do things right will always be tempered by environmental conditions that are new and rapidly changing.

Perhaps there will be a breakthrough: A chance mutation? A better breed? A magic bullet for mites? We don’t know what it might be or whence it may come. But every last beekeeper is an important part of the process. So hang in there. Believe in yourself. Keep learning. Who knows? The ultimate answer may come from you.


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  • Nice post. The HB Suite is apparently widely read. Why not spread the word that the Monarch bflys are in trouble because they must reproduce on their way North and again on the way South and that their larval forms (caterpillars) only feed on milkweed. Which has been almost eliminated in the Midwest by roundup. Encourage people to plant milkweed in their gardens. There are sources that will send free milkweed seeds. It is a handsome plant.

  • Your last line there actually made me tear up. My daughter and I have been reading the Lorax a lot lately. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” I feel like that has become our little homestead’s motto, to care a whole awful lot about and take awfully good care of our own small place. And hope that it has an effect on the rest of our own small planet.

    Sorry to get sappy there.

    • Gretchen,

      It’s not sappy. I have many days when I think I can’t maintain a website one more minute: problems with my host, rising expenses, computer glitches, broken links, nasty e-mails, the thought that I should be doing something else. But then I think about the bees—all bees—and again ask myself, “What can one person do?” Then I realize I need to just keep going . . . Who knows? Maybe I will inspire the person who can do more.

  • We beekeepers have also altered their diet. One example is soy-based pollen substitutes, or as industry likes to call it, pollen supplement. By substituting these substances for the plant-based pollens bees need in order to be provided the needed detoxifying enzymes they lack, the bees are prone to more stresses and infections.

    • Another troubling aspect for me is the raising of queens using pollen subs and the feeding of non-plant based nectar sources during the early developmental stages. The majority of queens are reared in this manner and is a strong reason queens don’t survive a single season or are pushed out by the colony due to reasons we still don’t understand. We can see from our own diets that eating poor quality food low in naturally occurring nutrition has a detrimental effect on human life, so it also goes for the bees. I also think it is important to recognize that many of modern beekeeping management practices work against the bees natural behaviors such as keeping colonies from naturally swarming. Swarming behavior has several reasons such as to help heal colonies and is not limited to reproduction.

      • Bill,

        The difference between home-grown queens and purchased queens always puzzles me, but I’m sure the feed is a major factor. My own queens seem to live forever, while the purchased ones may last a couple of months. How can we get it so wrong?

  • Beekeeping is much harder today than just 30 years ago. Years ago I basically I gave them a wooden hive and let them go at it. I occasionally checked in on the interior and collected my share of honey.

    This past year I was aggressive, but not agressive enough controlling the Varroa mite. Add all the other enviormental factors and the bee has everything stacked against them.

    The natural wild honey bee used to swarm everywhere. So many times they would find a home inside a wall of a house. It has been years since I have seen a wild swarm on Long Island.

    We need more support from the government and private industry to help get bees back in action and be safe from the harm.

    • Harold,

      I used to walk in the woods with my grandfather in Pennsylvania. We would make our rounds and check on all the bee trees. They were there year after year after year. No storms, no freezes, no droughts seemed to bother them a bit.

  • Hey Rusty,

    Your website has been the answer to my bee confusion so please never feel it does no good, though I can understand that with all the increasing problems facing bees nowadays.

    This site has so helped me make sense of the huge amount of info and disinfo out there and shown me simple and effective methods. Thank you so much. And I can’t believe people send you nasty emails, that’s awful given how much effort you put in.

  • In the words of Sylvester McMonkey McBean: ” Things are not quite as bad as you think” At the turn of the century tracheal mites were heralded as the bee plague of the time. Lots of bees were lost. Bees with resistance to them survived. That is the natural selection in real life and it works pretty fast. However if you want to believe that species evolve over ions – because how else can monkeys turn into people, then you are stuck believing in a glacially slow process. The truth of the matter is, there would not be any bees (or any life for that matter left) to “evolve” if that was the case and living things didn’t have a build-in mechanism to adapt quickly to the changing conditions. But then you would have to believe that those living things were already created like that with an irreducible complexity already within.

    That is not to say that I doubt human capacity to destroy just about anything they put their mind to. But I think left to themselves, bees will do just fine. There are plenty of bee keepers who go treatment free to suggest that there might be something to this line of thought.

    • According to National Geographic, the planet is losing between 17,000 and 100,000 species per year to extinction. That doesn’t sound like “quick adaptation” to me. That sounds like the glacially slow process wasn’t able to respond fast enough. At the rate we are going, there won’t be “any bees or any life for that matter.” As you also say, humans have the “capacity to destroy just about anything they put their mind to.” And believe me, we are putting our minds to it.

      You go on to prove my point by saying, “Left to themselves, bees will do just fine.” That is exactly right. Trouble is, they are not left to themselves; they have to share the planet with us, and therein lies the problem.

      By the way, no one ever said monkeys turn into people. What has been shown is that many primates have common origins in their evolutionary history.

      • There is a very quick evolutionary process taking place with bees…it’s called AHB and they have moved quickly and adapted to northern climates without any trouble at all. But we are eradicating them in the southern states as fast as they can find any feral colonies whether these bees test positive for AHB or not. This strain of bee is the only answer to our over manipulated ecosystem. Beekeepers will have to simulate AHB behavior with all colonies by making simulated swarms by splitting every summer and in some locations 2-3 times per season. Breaking the bee brood cycles has proven to be the best way to thwart the mites and renew colony health. Swarming has been thwarted by beekeepers for centuries and we erroneously have even tried to breed this behavior out of them, but now the bees need this simple behavior in order to survive. Many modern strains don’t stand a chance sitting in the hive for multiple seasons; even treated colonies collapse after a season or 2 if they are not allowed to perform the natural act as swarming.

  • Rusty,

    I’m sure you’ve already read this npr article. http://www.npr.org/blogs/krulwich/2012/11/29/166156242/cornstalks-everywhere-but-nothing-else-not-even-a-bee
    It caught my eye for a few reasons; my Mom grew up in southern Iowa, it had the word bee in it, and I live in a city surrounded by corn and soybean fields. The book featured in the article was a big disappointment because it totally bypassed the effects of agribusiness and pesticides. Since you’re an insect lover you’d probably enjoy the images.

    • Thanks for the link, Julie. I sent it on to several other people because it really illustrates a point. We are always talking about sustainability, yet killing every living thing is about as unsustainable as it gets. So, so sad.

  • My wife and I started keeping bees specifically because of the difficult time they were having and our shared disdain for the likes of Bayer, Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont etc. We only keep two hives and we don’t try to prevent swarming. We like the fact that our bees are doing their part to help maintain the wild population which is pretty much non-existent in our area of Rural NC near Fort Bragg. Despite this we are able to get enough honey each year not only for us but we’ve sold enough to cover the startup costs.

    We read “Bee Keeping for Dummies” cover to cover before we ever touched a bee and started with two hives which I would recommend everyone just getting into it do. With two or more hives you learn the inner workings much faster, it prevents useless inspections but promotes needed inspections by being able to compare side by side activity.

    In the two years since we started I’ve lost at least one of the hives each winter, the first year one vanished and this year a queenless hive froze. In the spring I simply catch the first swarm to replace my loss then subsequent swarms go free. This coming spring we will be expanding to 3-4 hives by putting one or two on a friend’s property. It’s funny how bee math and chicken math are similar.