A Look at the State of Honey Bees in Today’s Agriculture
May 1, 2012 | Helen Weatherall
Next time you help yourself to a handful of almonds – raw, salted, whole, slivered or blanched – make sure to give some thanks to a honey bee. And consider doing the same when you inhale the sweet smell of blossoms from the florist or in your garden. Honey bees after all don’t just bring us honey; they bring us most of the foods we eat. Their importance to agriculture cannot be overstated. As pollinators, honey bees and their kin in the family Apidae are the keepers of plant diversity worldwide.
Those who remember from grade school know that pollination is all about sexual reproduction. It’s about helping flowering plants to share DNA. Unlike mammals, plant species have evolved several methods of multiplying. Plants such as cattails and corn reproduce with the aid of what is known as abiotic pollination. As such they don’t rely on help from other organisms to carry out their reproduction as physiological adaptations allow for a simple gust of wind to disperse their pollen. Bananas and almonds, like the majority of plants, however, reproduce with the help of biotic pollinators. Bats pollinate our favorite breakfast fruit, and in the case of almonds insects – particularly bees – do the bulk of this delicate and essential work.
In times of plenty, much is assumed or taken for granted. The natural topsoil of America’s Red River Valley was so deep and fertile when farmers first began tilling it, little to no concern was paid to its depletion by overuse or erosion. When the West was won, buffalos were so plentiful marksmen shot them from trains for sport and left their carcasses to scavengers. Now we see that the world’s pollinators have suffered a similar fate.
Until sometime in the 1980s, there was little concern paid to the health and welfare of honey bees and other insect pollinators as there was little need to do so. But in the 1980s honey producers and those in the pollination business began to have cause for concern.
“In the 80s we had mite trouble”, said Dave Hackenberg of Hackenberg Apiaries, a large scale commercial beekeeping operation headquartered in Lewis, Pennsylvania. Referring to the Varroa mites found to be an invasive species from Asia, Hackenberg said, “If you don’t control the mites they’ll kill your hives.”
The Mystery Behind Hive Die-off
Additionally, hives have increasingly been plagued by viruses, bacteria and fungi. Last year, researchers from the University of Southern California discovered four previously undetected viruses that infect America’s bees. But both Hackenberg and Joe DeRisi, PhD, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF, believe that the presence of these biological agents doesn’t fully explain hive die-off, or what since 2006 has been referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder.
“They dug back in the 1980s and they found that Nosema was already here with everything else,” said Hackenberg of investigations into the impact of the microsporidian fungus. Nosema is a disease of bees caused by a parasite that invades the stomach and midgut, causing dysentery and varying degrees of paralysis in the affected host.
From what he describes as, “50 years of bending over bee hives,” Hackenberg senses what the DeRisi research team also arrived at: there is more to the Colony Collapse Syndrome story than pathogens. Indeed, DeRisi and fellow researchers have learned that pathogens are also present in healthy hives. In other words, their presence does not necessarily mean death to a hive.
Hackenberg and others hypothesize that pesticides, or more specifically a class of chemicals known as systemic pesticides that were first used in the late 1990s, figure into the puzzle. These chemicals are neonicotinoids, which contain the active ingredient imidacloprid, and other similar chemicals, such as clothianidin and thiamethoxam. A systemic pesticide moves inside a plant following absorption by the plant, thus making the entire plant, including the pollen that it produces, toxic.
“Jeff Pettis (a biologist at the USDA) will tell you pesticides went from the bottom of the pile (of suspected culprits) to the top,” said Hackenberg.
Finger Pointing and Contract Pollination
The collective alarm over the current compromised state of honey bees has led to a fair amount of finger pointing. Hackenberg attests to this as he and his colleagues in the business of commercial scale contract pollination find themselves the objects of some of the blame.
One who takes issue with industrial-scale pollination enterprises is behavioral biologist Elizabeth Capaldi Evans of Bucknell University.
“As a beekeeper I know that people who do this migration business, their bees are very highly stressed,” says Evans.
The stress Evans speaks of is stress that is brought about by management. To understand this one must first understand that honey bees are the pollinators of choice of beekeepers in the business of contract pollination specifically because they are highly manageable.
Those in the business of contract pollination typically manage 40,000 – 100,000 colonies, and for them honey is a byproduct and not their primary source of income. Their income comes from fulfilling contracts with farmers all across the United States to pollinate crops. Following the growing seasons, these beekeepers haul their hives from one cash crop to another, from the citrus orchards in Florida to the blueberry barrens in Maine, melon fields in Texas, to almond plantations in California.
“Clacketty, clacketty, clack through times zones – it’s got to be a shock,” said Gretel Clark, a self-described beekeeper hobbyist, who once kept 40-50 hives and harvested two and a half tons of honey annually.
“They’re moved en mass in eighteen wheelers and plunked down with machinery. (Then to give them strength) they’re fed high fructose corn syrup and manmade pollen patties, no natural pollen to speak of,” Clark added.
Hackenberg does not refute this. He makes his living by honoring contracts and to do that he needs to move his bees. Nonetheless, having reached his seventies after being in the business of keeping hives all of his life, Hackenberg knows a thing or two about bees. He knows that in July and August when corn matures and sends clouds of its yellow pollen out in gusts of wind, queen bees stop laying for up to two weeks. Though corn doesn’t need the help of bees to cross-pollinate, worker bees sometimes collect it. Even without visiting a corn stalk they can pick up the pollen by way of the tiny hairs that cover their bodies.
“You can control what a cow eats, but you can’t control what a bee eats,” explains Hackenberg. Worker bees forage up to five miles.
When placed inside a sizable industrial farming zone, bees are going to pollinate and feed on the nectar of whatever crop they alight upon. In monoculture dominated industrial farming this generally means that the bees have only one source of pollen to rely on for their nutritional needs. This benefits the farmer in that the bees’ focus is on pollinating the crop in question, but it may not benefit the hives.
As it happens many of the cash crops produced by industrial farming aren’t of great benefit to bees nutritionally.
“They’re not big nectar producers,” acknowledges Vicki Wojcik and ecologist with the Pollinator Partnership. “Not all plants produce or provide bees the amino acids (they require).”
Sustainable Bee Farming
When asked to remark on the viability and potential advantages of sustainable and organic bee keeping and honey production, Wojcik gives a sobering answer:
“It can certainly exist, but there are lots of things that make it unviable.” Explaining that it’s a problem of economics she remarks, “The margins are really stressed. It really doesn’t work on the small scale.” To illustrate this fact, she tells the story of a honey producer in Iowa that she knows.
“He has 2,000 hives and last year he lost 30%. He went down to 1,500 – that’s a big hit.” The government does subsidize beekeepers, but only for losses over and above standard winter loss. Even then the compensation is small, amounting to $70-$100 per hive.
Addressing the feasibility of organic beekeeping and honey production, Wojcik restates a point Hackenberg makes: “You can’t tell a honey bee where to go.”