Honeybees: A Sticky Study in Frustration and Fascination
So far our big fat beekeeping endeavor has been a big fat flop.
We have experienced just about every phase of beekeeping except collecting honey, which is like saying you’re an equestrian who has done it all–except the riding part.
Honeybees are not on the endangered species list in the U.S., but they are living on borrowed time. In the 1940s the U.S. had 5 million honeybee colonies. Today we have 2.5 million. Compare that level of decline to an extraordinary increase in demand for bees to pollinate plants that produce food, and you can see the recipe for disaster.
Beekeepers across the country have experienced the unexplained Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). A hive full of bees is called a colony, and with CCD the entire colony disappears, leaving behind only a live queen, some honey and a few immature bees. There are no dead bodies, and no official diagnosis of this mysterious phenomenon.
There also are a host of new parasites and pests that attack bees and hives. Ours have been attacked by hive beetles and infested by wax moths. Many successful beekeepers treat their hives with chemicals such as coiumaphos to keep pests at bay. A USDA test for the presence of pesticides in bee colonies showed that this was the most commonly found chemical. We use only organic materials on the farm, although there is no such thing as organic honey because beekeepers cannot control where in a 3-mile radius bees go to collect pollen and nectar.
The environment in which bees must exist is no longer a good one. Chemicals are sprayed and spread on everything from trees, shrubs and grass to bodies of water. Most farmers use a chemical cocktail, applied repeatedly, to produce weed-free fields, and too many homeowners do the same to achieve that lush green manicured lawn. We have peach farmers all around us. The one across the road from our farm sprayed his trees 14 times year before last. (Last year an unforecasted late killing frost wiped out his peach crop, as well as most of our blueberry crop.)
Climate change might be another factor, although thus far there is precious little official research.
Another factor is a decline in sources of pollen and nectar, a bee’s daily staple for survival and making honey. As more land is cleared for development there is less for bees to feed on, and that’s one reason that we have planted hundreds of bee-friendly trees, shrubs, flowers and cover crops such as crimson clover and buckwheat.
Perhaps one of the biggest honeybee killers is the beekeeper and the general public. Honeybees are often mistaken by groundskeepers and homeowners as hornets or wasps and killed. Beekeepers also must take ownership of the fact that we cause some bee losses, either through neglect, mistakes or over-management.
A week ago we installed new bees and their queens in four hives for the third time in two years. We joke that when we finally harvest a gallon of honey it will be worth more than a gallon of Chanel No. 5 ($26,000 a gallon).
Removing four hives with dead bees a few weeks ago was a pretty sad affair. So why, you ask, do we continue? We re-evaluate each year, as we do with everything, but so far we have continued and reinvested partly for altruistic reasons. There are estimates that from 50% to 80% of the world’s food supply is affected by honey bee pollination. The world needs honeybees in order to eat.
As farmers say, maybe this is the year.