Everything I thought about Beekeeping was Wrong

Ok, maybe not everything. But a lot of things. My mind has been pretty blown this weekend, and I realize I have been inadvertently passing on some wrong information. So the best thing to do is write about it, so I don't continue to misinform anyone who reads this blog. If I haven't said this before, I will right now: I AM AN AMATEUR at almost everything I do and with regards to everything I blog about! I'm careful about sources and research, but this weekend has shown me very clearly that even someone like me who does her best to wade through vast amounts of information can often be wrong. 

What brought me to this realization? I've just spent the last two days attending a workshop hosted by my local beekeeping association. The leader and speaker was Randy Oliver, of Scientific Beekeeping fame. Randy is a Biologist and strives to understand better ways of beekeeping through scientific methods. Here's a blurb from his website:

"I started keeping bees as a hobbyist around 1966, and then went on to get university degrees in biological sciences, specializing in entomology.  In 1980 I began to build a migratory beekeeping operation in California, and currently run about 1000 hives with my two sons, from which we make our livings.

In 1993, the varroa mite arrived in California, and after it wiped out my operation for the second time in 1999, I decided to “hit the books” and use my scientific background to learn to fight back.  I started writing for the American Bee Journal in 2006, and have submitted articles nearly every month since then (see “Articles by Publication Date”–scroll to the bottom for the most recent).

My writing for the Journal brought me requests to speak at beekeeping conventions, which has also allowed me the chance to visit beekeepers from all over North America and several other continents.  I read most every scientific study relating to beekeeping, and regularly correspond with researchers worldwide.

What I try to do in my articles and blogs is to scour scientific papers for practical beekeeping applications, and to sort through the advice, opinion, and conjecture found in the bee magazines and on the Web, taking no positions other than to provide accurate information to Joe Beekeeper." (italics mine)

Yesterday was spent indoors, with power point, learning everything Randy could teach us in a short period of time. Today was spent outside (in 105 degree temps) in the backyard apiary of one of the members, opening hives and putting a practical point on the information we had digested the day before. 

Much of what I learned would only be of interest to other beekeepers. But I know there are many folks reading this blog who, while not beekeepers, still care about fresh, healthy food and how to live in a more sustainable way, who care about the environment and who try to have gardens and preserve food for winter and maybe even keep chickens. Some of what I learned this weekend affects all of us, not just beekeepers. I've also touted some things here in this blog that I've learned are flat-out incorrect, so I'd like to set the record straight and hopefully, this will be of interest to both those who are beekeepers and those who aren't.

It's pretty hard to argue with the cold data of science. And this particular scientist, Randy, is also an organic gardener who has a vested interest in the health of his food. That makes him a rather perfect vehicle for this message, as far as I can tell. For more information about actual beekeeping, you couldn't go wrong with perusing his website, but I'm just going to hit on two points here. 

The first: I've been wrong about the effect of neonicotinoids on honeybee colonies.

Some background for those who don't know: All honeybee colonies here are European, descended from the first colonialists who brought them from England. European honeybees are social bees, living in colonies of up to 50,000 bees in the height of summer. This makes them different from solitary bees, which are our native bees here in the states. Solitary bees (such as bumblebees, mason bees, carpenter bees, wool carder bees) live mainly alone, rearing a new colony each summer. The queen hibernates alone in winter and develops her entire colony in one warm season, so there is not enough time to rear a colony of thousands. There will only be a few bees in a native bee colony. I learned that honeybees are actually not in decline, as we hear in the news almost daily. So many folks are now so concerned about honeybee health that they've become backyard beekeepers, and this is causing a resurgence of honeybees. Native bees and pollinators, however, are in decline.

Neonicotinoids are a type of systemic pesticide. They are regularly dabbed on seeds, a minute amount, and the pesticide grows as part of the plant in every phase of it's life (it's systemic). The pesticide will be present in the leaves, the flowers, the nectar, the pollen, and the seeds of the plant it started in. Neonics are used most often in monoculture crops, such as corn, wheat, and soy, but they are used in very many of our food crops and also in ornamentals (that petunia you're buying at Home Depot will only be purchased if it's perfect). 

Neonicotinoids have often been blamed for Colony Collapse Disorder, which started becoming more prevalent in beehives at about the same time neonics became commonly used. Also appearing at the same time were two honeybee enemies, Varroa mite and Nosema ceranae (which are probably the true culprits of CCD). Science shows that neonics are actually not terribly poisonous for honeybee colonies. In fact they actually increase production when the bees get a little bit of it. Honeybee colonies are so large that the effect of neonics is largely moot. Not only that, the handling of neonics is much safer for farm workers than the use of organophosphates, and for that reason alone are a better choice for big agriculture. Randy says they're not going away any time soon, either. 

So should you ignore my advice and buy your plants and seeds from big box stores rather than your local neonic-certified-free mom and pop nursery? ABSOLUTELY NOT. And here's why. While honeybees can sustain a certain amount of neonic damage, native pollinators definitively CANNOT. This is a big reason why we are seeing such a decline in the numbers of native bees and butterflies. So my advice stands. Buy your plants and seeds from reputable sources, a place that commits to organic practices. (As an aside, organic foods and plants often have many insecticides/herbicides routinely sprayed on them - they are just certified 'organic' methods. This is better, but still not ideal. Just one of the reasons why growing your own is always better.)

Ok. Time to move on to the second point, which is a bit harder to swallow and may offend some folks. And here it is in a nutshell: We must treat our hives for varroa mite. 

I've waffled openly on this blog, going back and forth about whether it's right as a 'natural' beekeeper to use poisons to kill pests in the hive. Our first year as beekeepers, we didn't treat for varroa, and we lost that hive. Last year, we did treat, and the hive made it through, just barely. That same colony is back to full strength and it looks really good this summer. On that experience alone, I'd say I was already 90% convinced that we'd treat again this year. 

But when I mention this in certain circles, I am positively lambasted. And just a couple of weekends ago, when I went on the Berkeley Urban Farm Tour, I heard one of the farmers vehemently stating that she would never treat her hives because she is a 'natural' beekeeper and because (and I've said this myself at one time or another) 'the bees have to evolve to survive this problem.' I have felt extremely guilty for treating my bees with pesticides. (And by the way, these are organic pesticides we're talking about here, nothing synthetic.) I wouldn't go spray my garden with Imidacloprid to kill the cabbage worms or aphids, so why would I poison varroa in my beehive? It's a conundrum that only those who have kept bees can know. Losing a colony is devastating. It feels horrible. Especially when you know you could have done something to help them. But on the other hand, honestly, don't they need to evolve past this? I've been told that by organic farm mentors more times than I can count.

Well, Randy set me straight on this issue in the strongest possible way.

First of all, he says, there's no such thing as a 'natural' beekeeper. From a biology standpoint, a 'natural' beekeeper would be someone who left a hole in their tree and a swarm moved in, and in that case you're not a beekeeper, you're a bee-haver, and in order to be natural you just watch them. Once you have a hive, once you take their honey, you're intervening. You're a beekeeper and there's nothing natural about it.

Secondly, good animal husbandry is good animal husbandry, no matter the animal. If your dog had mange and you let it go untreated, you'd be put in jail or hounded by PETA. Treating mites on your bees is exactly the same issue.

Thirdly, bees drift. This was new to me. If a bee goes to a hive that is not hers, and acts suspiciously, like she's going to rob the hive, the guard bees will kill her. But if a bee goes to a hive that is not hers, and seems confused, the guard bees will let her in after a period of time, and she'll become part of that colony. Studies have shown that bees drift to and become part of other hives up to FIVE MILES AWAY from their original hive. So, if you live within a mile or two of a beekeeper, let's name her Sheila, that doesn't treat her hive for varroa, your hive will very likely get some of Sheila's bees with varroa when Sheila's hive fails and collapses because of said varroa. So even if you are a beekeeper who is on top of treating the varroa in your hive, Sheila's bees can come screw it up for you. (No offense to anyone named Sheila. Every Sheila I've ever known has been lovely.) Randy put it more succinctly. He said, "Natural beekeepers are messing it up for the rest of us."

And this brings me to the fourth point which is that our European bees, bred for gentleness and good brood-rearing and great honeymakers, are not bred to survive varroa. They can't evolve past it because IT IS NOT IN THEIR GENETIC CODE. Now a hive of feral bees, down the road in the open space, may have indeed evolved to survive varroa. And you can collect a swarm anytime you find one or someone calls you asking for help. But who knows if that swarm is from a feral colony? It could be from Sheila down the block. The only way to tell is to test those bees (using methods detailed on Randy's website, such as an alcohol wash) and find out what their varroa load is. The bottom line is that pretty much all bee colonies have varroa to some degree. The varroa doesn't actually kill bees. It lives on the outside of them, sucking their juices from a hole the mite has drilled into the bee's skin. The mite injects a substance that causes the hole to remain open, rather than healing, which allows all kinds of viruses and bacterias to get in to the bee. (Randy likened this, in terms of ratio, to a human having a mite the size of a Dungeness Crab living on them, sucking out of a 3/4" hole in the skin.) Most bees die of Deformed Wing Virus after having hosted varroa. Honeybees can survive a small infestation of varroa, but the varroa rapidly develop and spread in the bee larvae, and infestation tends to double every month in the summer, coming to a head in early fall. 

A side point: Randy believes that the only way to really prevent varroa is to breed queens who are resistant to it. He's been trying for 25 years to do just that, with no luck. 

Today at the workshop we performed an alcohol wash on the hives we opened. One hive had 25 mites per 1/2 cup of bees (about 300 bees). Randy says that hive will likely fail, but it's possible the beekeeper can do enough to stop it. And this is JUNE, not the fall, when most of us see varroa in our hives. Randy encouraged all of us to start treatment in February and continue 3-4 times through November.

The mites at the bottom of a cup of alcohol wash

The mites at the bottom of a cup of alcohol wash

The treatment Randy recommends are all organic (all the synthetic treatments used for varroa are no longer being used, because the varroa has itself evolved to resist them). He uses three different things to treat, and mixes them up and uses them at different times and in different orders, so the varroa doesn't develop a resistance to them. These are oxalic acid, thymol, and formic acid. The amount of oxalic acid that you use on one hive is the same amount as in 3-1/2 ounces of spinach. Formic acid is found in honey (and ants) naturally. Thymol is from the herb thyme. All of these are effective, but only formic acid gets under the capped brood and kills the mites there, which is of course where they are breeding. Unfortunately formic acid is also a threat to the queen, as she never leaves the hive and can die from the fumes. So there is no perfect solution. We can only manage varroa, not eradicate it.

I hope I've done enough to clear up some of the erroneous things I've written about in the past. I've always called myself a 'natural' beekeeper, but I won't be doing that anymore. I still consider myself an organic urban farmer, though. I don't sell our honey, but by law, to sell organic honey in California, you have to show proof that you've actually treated for mites. So I figure I can still call myself organic. Or maybe I'll just call myself 'doing-the-best-that-I-know-how.'