Whenever someone says they want to help “save the bees” by becoming a beekeeper, I feel discouraged. That statement usually means they are about to buy a box of unrelated honey bees shipped from the south with a factory queen and all the optional extras, including mites and viruses. Hard work and sound judgment may turn that jumble into a viable colony, but will it help save the bees? I don’t think so. Adding more and more colonies into an already stressed environment doesn’t solve the problem.
When I think of saving bees, my thoughts embrace all 20,000+ species, not just honey bees. But in fact, I don’t believe bees need saving. What needs to be saved is their environment and their food supply. In a proper environment, the bees can take care of themselves.
Nutrition is key
No matter what kind of beekeeping magic you perform, no matter how skilled your technique, it will be for naught if we don’t provide bees with a healthful environment which includes a balanced and plentiful diet. For that reason, every beekeeper should also be a grower, filling fields and flowerpots with life-giving blossoms.
As consumers, we worry about the health of our charges. A pet owner scours the fine print on a bag of dog food or the container of goldfish flakes. A livestock owner obsesses over the ingredients in the layer ration or hog builder. And owners of children scrutinize packages of oatmeal and cornflakes. The bottom line in all cases is nutrition.
Proper nutrition is necessary for healthy bodies, rapid growth, mental development, and sufficient immune response. We know that intuitively, yet we send our bees out into a nutritionally deficient world and wonder why they get sick. We wonder why they can’t combat disease, defend themselves against pests, or survive the winter.
Ten supers on top
I recently heard a group of beekeepers talking about the good old days when you could stack ten honey supers on a hive and have them filled inside of two weeks. “Bees aren’t what they used to be,” they concluded. “Today they’re inbred and weak.”
But I don’t believe honey bee genetics has changed radically in the past few decades; what has changed is the bees’ environment. A degraded environment containing a poor food supply is the reason all bees are in trouble, not just those that get Varroa or CCD or Nosema.
For example, the beekeepers who stacked supers ten high where able to do so because crops like clover and alfalfa were allowed to bloom. But today, those fields are cut at about 10% bloom in order to maximize the protein content for livestock, and all the nectar is lost.
It’s the environment that changed
But that’s just one change among many. Weeds used to be allowed to grow at the perimeter of fields and in windbreaks and along drainages. Now these areas are kept “clean” with herbicides. And while those clean areas represent a decrease in honey bee forage, they are a death knell to native species who use those plants for nesting materials, shelter, pollen, and nectar, while the areas below are used for tunnels, mud collection, drinking water, shade, and safe havens. We take that all away with one squirt of our chemicals.
Vast acreages of monocropped farmland provide inferior forage for all bees, including honey bees. Worse, many native bees cannot fly far enough to traverse those fields, and some can’t fly the width of a interstate highway or the breadth of a Home Depot parking lot. Whereas a honey bee can span several miles, many natives are lucky to travel a few hundred yards.
Invasive weeds flower, but . . .
Other acreages, those not covered in field crops or concrete, are smothered beneath invasive species. I’ve heard the argument that invasive species bloom, too, and make good bee forage. But here’s the catch: an invasive species becomes a type of monocrop replacing multiple species. Like most monocrops it blooms all at once, and when it is done there is no more forage. Instead of having a succession of flowers to feed bees throughout the season, you have just one super-size meal followed by weeks of nothing.
If you subtract all the places that are no longer habitable for wild bees such as cities, farms, suburbs, lawns, industrial complexes and roads, and you delete all the areas covered with invasive crops or treated with chemicals that destroy both their homes and their food supply, you can see why the fate of native bees is so uncertain. While it is hard to notice the damage done to the natives, we can certainly see the toll taken on honey bees.
I believe that if you truly want to save the bees, you can be more effective by tending the environment than by tending a hive. You can do both, of course, but you cannot ignore the real problem. Bees and flowers co-evolved and remain co-dependent. If we want to save the bees—any bees—we must first save the flowers.
Saving bees is a matter of reducing pesticide use and increasing the number of flowering plants. Nothing else will replace those two items—not breeding, not feeding, not genetics, not management. Rumor has it that the number of honey bee colonies in the U.S. is at a twenty-year high. Can we say the same about the flowers on which they depend?
Honey Bee Suite