The news reports are correct; it is a hard time to be a beekeeper. There seems to be an article or report every week about some new disaster or plague that is negatively impacting honeybees. At the same time, a resurgence of public interest has launched a new generation of beekeepers who are now flooding established clubs and beginner classes.
The media reports massive honeybee die-offs naming the plague Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Research has yet to determine a specific cause and is far from developing anything that could be called a cure. The best studies identify that bee colonies are “stressed” from multiple factors.
In the mid-1980s, an invasive mite species decimated bee populations in the United States. The tracheal mite (acarapis woodi) was discovered in Florida. As suggested by its name, this microscopic mite attacked the bee’s tracheal or breathing tubes. Federal and State organizations did their best to contain the infestation but it quickly became apparent that any control was hopeless and the tracheal quickly spread throughout the country. Mostly, the infestation shortens the lifespan of individual bees; lessening their honey crops, decreasing the value of pollination, and leading to large hive die-offs in the winter.
Honeybees, like birds, fly wherever they like in search of nectar and pollen. Each night, foragers return to their hive only to set out again in the morning. A colony of bees contains anywhere from 10,000 to perhaps 80,000 individual honeybees.
Beehives are constructed to be easily transportable, enabling farms and orchards to enlist millions of honeybee pollinators to blanket their fields and trees. It is estimated that a full 30% of the food we eat is pollinated by honeybees. Most fruit, vegetables, and nuts are insect pollinated. Large scale commercial beekeepers make their living crisscrossing the country providing pollination services to crops as diverse as California almonds, Florida oranges, Washington State apples and Maine blueberries, as well as everything in between.
While vital to our food supply, the migratory nature of large scale beekeeping also spreads bee pests to every part of the country.
By the late 1980s, a second, more damaging, invasive mite was discovered in Florida. Varroa (varroa jacobsoni and later renamed varroa destructor) is an external mite that lives off the hemolymph or blood of honeybees. It’s about the size of the head of a pin. Originally a non-destructive pest to Indonesian bees, it reportedly jumped species to our honeybees with devastating effects. Varroa has now spread all over Asia, Europe, and North America and is probably present in every country in the world with the possible exception of Australia.
Varroa certainly kills a lot of hives outright. Perniciously, they also weaken hives so that common infections become deadly. It is safe to say that without Varroa mites, CCD would be a manageable problem.
Changes in the pesticide industry have also raised serious concerns among beekeepers and the general public. The days of wide spectrum insecticides and non-targeted aerial spraying are largely behind us. Genetically modified crops and other clever pest management controls raise new concerns. For example, although insecticides are routinely tested for lethality against honeybees, only adult bees are examined. Testing ignores the impact of the insecticides on their young bees (called “brood”). Further, insecticides are typically tested individually and not in combination with other chemicals commonly used in field situations. These chemical combinations can result in greater harm to a hive than individually.
Pesticide damage is not new to the beekeeping community. Pesticide kills are well documented since the 1960s. It seems clear that we’ve come a long way from the indiscriminate use of broad spectrum insecticides that devastated both honeybees and the environment. The wide acceptance of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) with targeted chemical use has resulted in a cleaner and more healthful world.
Another area of concern is farming practices that emphasize the removal of non-crop plants from field edges and hedge rows. This limits honeybee forage options, removing the variety of nutritious protein sources. In many areas, habitat loss has resulted in a lack of adequate nutrients and poor diet for already stressed hives.
Honeybees are in trouble. The public is reacting with both concern and a resurgent commitment to save the honeybee. County beekeeping clubs are enjoying a flood of new members who want to start their own hives. Beekeeping classes are routinely overbooked. After World War II and until the 1980s, the numbers of beekeepers were consistently dwindling. As more of our population left the farm and country side, beekeeping was abandoned and seen as an inappropriate activity for city and suburban life.
I don’t have statistics, but it is obvious to me that the number of beekeepers has at least tripled. Further, it would be safe to say that the majority of beekeepers of the past were overwhelmingly male and of retirement age with some background in farming. Now the typical beekeeping club will have beekeepers ranging in age from 18 to 80 with both genders well-represented.
The beekeeping industry has responded in kind offering numerous sources of beehives, honey extracting equipment, and every imaginable beekeeping tool. Honeybees can be purchased on the internet or bought locally through clubs and resident beekeepers. To this extent, it is also the golden age of beekeeping.
Where this new popularity of beekeeping will lead is anyone’s guess. Scientists are working hard to find solutions and better approaches to pest control. Beekeeping enthusiasm has never been higher. I can say with absolute certainty that honeybees will survive. In spite of all their challenge, they have been around for millennia and will continue in the future. Whether honeybees will continue to feed the nation is far less certain.