Problems, we have a few:

Colony Collapse Disorder

CCD - Crime SceneIn October 2006, beekeepers US began reporting mysterious losses in their apiaries. Hives were suddenly empty, but there weren’t piles of dead bees around. Whole apiaries, entire operations, were suddenly wiped out. While colony losses are not unexpected, especially over the winter, this magnitude of losses was unusually high and losing them in the Fall is definitely not typical.

The main symptom of CCD is very few or no adult honey bees present in the hive but there is a live queen and a scattering of dead worker bees. Often there is still honey in the hive, and immature bees (brood) are present. Varroa mites, a virus-transmitting parasite of honey bees, have frequently been found in hives hit by CCD.

This is not the first time that beekeepers are being faced with unexplained losses. The scientific literature has several mentions of honey bee disappearances—in the 1880s, the 1920s, and the 1960s. While the descriptions sound similar to CCD, there is no way to know for sure if those problems were caused by the same agents as CCD((US Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service: Honey Bees and Colony Collapse Disorder)).

What does this mean? Otherwise healthy colonies are suddenly empty of bees. The queen, some brood and not enough workers to look after any of it are all that’s left. There’s plenty of honey and pollen stored, but no indication of why they left. By some estimates, US beekeepers have lost and replaced 50% of their colonies since it started. When you’re used to “normal” annual losses of less than 15%, that’s a HUGE amount of resources that have been turned to replacing colonies instead of pollinating crops or producing honey.

Big increase in winter losses

Canada doesn’t have CCD. I know it sounds insane: we’re next door to each other and share the longest undefended border in the world, but we have a very different set of problems here with a similar result. Generally, if a beekeeper manages to make it through the winter losing 15% or less of his hives, that’s considered “acceptable”. Long-term losses used to average around 12%. No more:

Year Average Losses # Hives Lost
((Calculated from percentage loss of total number of hives listed by Statistics Canada:
Production and Value of Honey and Maple Products))
Highest Province Percentage Loss
2006/07 29%  168,805 New Brunswick 59%
2007/08 35%  194,414 Alberta 44%
2008/09 33.9%  198,464 Alberta 44%
2009/10 21% 120,892 Nova Scotia 41.9%
2010/11 29.3%  180,858 Ontario 43%
2011/12 15.3% 96,040 New Brunswick 27.9%
2012/13 28.6%  197,350 Manitoba 46.4%
2013/14 25% 166,849 Ontario 58%
Total losses: 1,323,672 “Acceptable” losses: 735,160

Source: Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists’ Annual Colony Loss Reports

That kind of livestock losses simply aren’t sustainable. Some percentage of those colonies can be made up by splitting stronger ones, but that will also setback any expansion plans that the beekeeper might have. At $200 each, buying replacements from a breeder (assuming the breeder has them available) can’t be sustained for very long either.

Disease is just as prevalent as ever

Honeybees have always been susceptible to disease. Their immune systems are among the weakest in the animal world and an infection in the hive can spread like wildfire, especially in winter when dead or dying bees cannot be removed. Varroa & tracheal mites, Nosema (apis and ceranae), Small hive beetle, Wax moths, foulbrood, chalkbrook, sacbrood and an assortment of virii are all potential threats((Wikipedia: List of diseases of the honey bee.)).

There is one thing that we do know about the cause(s) of CCD and honeybee mortality: it’s not cell phones.

Hive TreatmentsStandard operating procedure has to change

Beekeepers are people and people really like simple explanations for problems. We put our faith in science and science rewards us with a “magic bullet” for whatever the issue might be. For decades, SOP for a new health issue in bee hives has been to look for some kind of medication or treatment that will help. That’s been the focus throughout much of this crisis: find something that will help and figure out the cause later.

For a variety of reasons, that hasn’t happened. Primarily because the cause of honeybee mortality looks to be far more complicated than anyone thought: a 2013 peer-reviewed paper by scientists at the University of Maryland Bee Lab and the US Department of Agriculture have identified a witch’s brew of pesticides and fungicides contaminating pollen that bees collect to feed their hives((PLOS ONE: Crop Pollination Exposes Honey Bees to Pesticides Which Alters Their Susceptibility to the Gut Pathogen Nosema ceranae.)).

Beekeepers aren’t blameless

One thing that immediately jumps to mind is that all of the major research has started with the idea that the cause(s) are external to the beekeeper’s operation: agricultural pesticides or fungicides are the leading culprit. While there’s little doubt that they’re contributing factors, the should certainly be some attention paid to the management practices of the beekeeping industry. Over the course of a normal year, various combinations of a half-dozen synthetic chemicals and antibiotics can be applied to a hive according to the calendar, not according to any particular symptoms. At least two of these treatments are still allowed by organic management standards.

We’ve been successfully keeping bees without treatments of any kind since 2008 and our winter losses are certainly no worse than the rest of the industry:

Year # Hives # Lost Percentage Ontario average((Statistics Canada: Production and Value of Honey and Maple Products))
2008/09  4  0  0  31%
2009/10  10 3 34% 21.6%
2010/11  14 3  21.4% 43%
2011/12  12 2 16.6% 12%
2012/13  14 4  28.5% 37.9%
2013/14 15 6 40% 58%

We’re the first to admit that we’ve had it easy: starting out with a couple of hives and giving them the care and attention that they need to survive without treatments is an entirely different ballgame than trying to change over a 500-hive operation. But, it’s also nowhere near impossible as some have claimed. Not one of our hives has been overrun by varroa mites as predicted. Of course they have mites: anyone who claims to have mite-free established hives either doesn’t know what they’re looking for or they’re not being honest.

Strong, healthy colonies are able to manage a certain load of disease and parasites without any intervention from us. It’s really that simple. That’s why our focus isn’t on honey production. That’s what has brought the industry to this point: take every last drop of honey that you think you can and load the hives up with sugar or high-fructose corn syrup in the hope that they’ll make it through the winter to produce again next year. Sugar does have a place in an operation such as ours, but only as an emergency food. We never harvest from a first-year hive and if an established colony has had a poor year, then we don’t take any at all.

On The Flight Line

 

It’s not about the honey, Honey! It’s About the Bees!
— Christy Hemenway, Gold Star Honey Bees & a good friend.  😉

Moving forward

FormicMSDSWe don’t claim to have all of the answers, but in an increasingly polluted and contaminated world, doesn’t it make sense to try to eliminate what we can? Shouldn’t we be working with nature instead of trying to subvert it? One thing is for certain: we have no intention of donning a respirator, goggles and heavy, chemical-resistant, gloves so that we can treat our hives with formic acid. No way. If it ever comes to that, then we will have lost the battle.

An open mind is key to solving a puzzle, especially one as complicated as this it turning out to be. Clearly, pharmaceuticals and harsh chemical treatments aren’t the cure-all panacea that they’re claimed to be. We need healthy honeybee populations to protect our food supply, so we owe it to the bees, and ourselves, to have a look at “alternative” methods.