When you find something on the internet and you have an opinion, you have 2 choices – write a blog post about it, or comment on the item (no, keeping your opinion to yourself is not an option – at least going by what I see…). Yesterday Alex Wild pointed out the ways in which commercial beekeepers may be contributing to the current crisis in hive losses . Having been both a hobby and a commercial beekeeper, and having taught hobby and commercial beekeepers, I think I’ve got to weigh in.
First, let me agree that commercial beekeepers do all of these things. We import queens (although few of the major diseases aside from viruses can come in to the country this way), keep colonies in dense populations (check out this holding yard), blanket treatments (worse, illicit homemade formulations of control agents), and truck colonies all over the countryside. Second, let me say that, in the classes I teach, the uptick in interest in hobby beekeeping was caused by the recent crisis in bee hive losses. In fact, in the past 6 or 7 years the most common reason people take my hobby beekeeping courses is “I’ve heard bees are endangered, and I want to help” (to them I say “plant flowers, and don’t spray the bugs”).
Among commercial beekeepers I have known some exceptional individuals who are forward thinking, treat hives only as necessary, raise their own stock, and refuse to truck hives everywhere, but instead find good production areas close to home. I have also known some exceptionally poor managers who take all the problems they’re faced with, and make them worse. And the same can be said for hobby beekeepers.
The issue as I see it is not a question of who’s to blame. Hobby beekeepers say the stresses of commercial management cause colonies to break down (bad industrial agriculture!), commercial beekeepers say inexperienced beekeepers create permanent pathogen sources by constantly letting hives die because they refuse to treat diseases and pests (I take medicine when I’m sick, why would I deny that to animals under my care?). The issue seems to be fixing a system that’s not amenable to repair.
- To fix the problem of hive movement we need to either not pollinate crops (but where do we get our almonds and blueberries?) or rip up the fields and plant some of every crop in every region (yeah, right). Hives have been moved as long as hives have been movable – and they will continue to be.
- To fix the problem of livestock imports we need to be able to produce livestock in our own country at the right time of year – but to do this we need strong hives that consistently survive (i.e. fixing the problem requires that the problem already be fixed).
- To fix the problem of keeping hives in denser populations than wild (or in North Americs, feral) colonies, we have to abandon commercial, and probably hobby, beekeeping, so no-go there.
- To fix the problem of blanket treatments we need a much larger experienced labour force to monitor and treat on an as-needed basis. Although honey and pollination prices have never been higher, high rates of colony loss have increased the cost of running a beekeeping business.
Commercial beekeepers may be operating hives in a manner that is not sustainable in the long term (obvious with even a cursory understanding of epidemiology and host/parasite dynamics), but the major problems are also not readily solved. Of the four listed above, only the use of blanket treatments could be fixed in the short term – and then only with some apparently non-existent funds. Where we go from here is not obvious, but if commercial beekeepers are part of the problem, then the solution is going to have to fit their businesses, and not the other way around.