One of the most common questions I get asked is, "How are the honeybees doing?" My answer is, "It's complicated."
The honeybees are doing well but it is because pollination and honey revenue are allowing beekeepers to invest resources into maintaining the health of the honeybee colonies. For the sake of this discussion, I will exclude the recent popularity of hobbyist beekeeping. More than ever, agriculture in the United States in relying on professional beekeepers to provide bees for pollination. Farmers realize that renting bee colonies substantially raises their production. Because of this demand, prices paid for honeybee colony rental are stronger than ever. At the same time, consumers appreciate honey that is produced locally and prices for honey produced in the United States are at historical highs.
So what is cause the problems faced by the honeybee? Three issues have changed since I began beekeeping in the 1970's .
- The efficiencies of monoculture farming practices have reduced the forage available to honeybees as well as other pollinators such as naive bees and butterflies. Field sizes have grown. Fence rows where forage used to exist have been removed and it seems that corn and soybean are everywhere.
- Pesticides, fungicides and herbicides are used on a much wider basis. While many of these chemicals are not immediately lethal to the honeybee, long term exposure to the honeybee of these sub-lethal chemicals are creating bees that are not as healthy and have a shorter life.
- The Varroa Mite was introduced to the United States in the 1980's. Because the Varroa Mite and the Asian honeybee, Apis Cerana existed together for so long, they were able to exist and thrive together. When the Varroa mite jump to Apis Mellifera, the honeybee we use in the West, our honeybees didn't have the ability to live with the mite. The Varroa mite lives on the honey much like a wood tick feeds on a human only the Varroa is much larger relative to the honeybee. The Varroa mite opens a wound on the honey bee and feeds on its fat bodies. This open wound also allows viruses to enter the honeybee. If left unchecked, Varroa Mites will overrun a honeybee colony. This photo shows mites on a honeybee with deformed wings that result from a virus the mites help vector to the honey bee.
This graphics shows how these issues inter-relate.
Fortunately by knowing these issues, we can manage our hives to compensate for the changes. We can feed our hives protein and carbohydrates during the times of year when food is scarce because of lack of forage. Dancing Bear Apiary is fortunate because we are not located in an area where large scale agriculture is widespread. We look for locations to place our bee yards where farming is minimal and there are large "wild" areas. Because we don't manage large numbers of colonies, we can be choosy on where we place our bee yards.
Also, because we don't manage huge numbers of colonies, we can focus on managing our bees to reduce mite levels in the hives. This requires a lot of labor but we love to take care of our bees. Someone told me a long time ago, "Take care of the bees and they will take care of you." We have found this to be very true.
The beekeeping industry on a whole is learning to be sustainable in this new paradigm. My next two blogs on this subject will dive into where we get our bees to replace losses.