I've just returned from the American Beekeeping Federation's Annual meeting, this year held in Reno, Nevada. It was held at one of the casinos there, which is a strange place to put 400 or so beekeepers, but that's what they did.
As with most of these operations, they force you to walk through the slot machine part of the first floor to get to almost everywhere...the elevators, the restaurants, the other entrances. They make it hard to avoid the lure of easy money.
During the day, when customers were less obvious it wasn't too distracting...the smoke was at a minimum and the noise, though noticeable, wasn't overwhelming. But in the evening when customers were everywhere...at the blackjack tables, the poker tables, and especially sitting, drinking and smoking at many of the slot machines ... the noise was fearsome. What with the whirring and whistling, the bells ringing and machines clunking and clanking and dinging...as I traveled through this cacophony of noise to get to the elevators it seemed as if I was walking through a huge cloud of mad bees, randomly swirling, madly buzzing, and everywhere around me. As I moved across the room, coming closer to some sudden source of loudness, then moving away from it, the swarm of mad bees seemed to wax and wane around me...attacking, retreating, moving with me and away from me, above me and below me, all at the same time. It was an odd sensation that was not at all pleasant. Needless to say the lure of jackpots, free drinks, and clouds of smoke was lost on me. Nor did I see many of the beekeepers willingly give their hard earned money away. Perhaps they heard the mad bees too.
But the meeting rooms were far away from this crazy place and peace and quiet reigned for the talks and demonstrations. Here I could escape the swarm, the noise, and the smoke.
There were significant numbers of new information talks, lots of we-still-don't-know-but-are-getting-closer talks, and still some it's-the-end-of-the-world-and-we're-all-going-to-die bits floating around as you talked to beekeepers, researchers and vendors.
The good news is, and we've been collecting this for awhile now, is that with all of the fuss and attention, beekeepers are this fall and winter taking much better care of their bees than in the recent past. I went so far as to say in my February editorial in Bee Culture that beekeeping in this country has changed more in the last two years than in the last 20, and almost all if it is for the good. Lots of this kind of information came out at this meeting...honey bee nutrition has improved a thousand fold...both in the recognition that it deserves and the quality of material that is available that wasn't available even five years ago.
Basic management has improved, too. Beekeepers are rotating out older combs and replacing them with new, pristine foundation. This has helped remove some of the natural and manmade toxins from their environment and reduced stress in their lives immensely.
Varroa treatments are calming down as those that don't work are being phased out and those that are somewhat kinder and gentler on the bees are coming of age. Of course these new treatments often cost more to apply, or just cost more, so adjustments are being made to accommodate those moves, but healthy bees are (nearly) priceless.
But what's new? Some interesting findings came to light at the meeting....
One that has been rumored to be happening was fully discussed here by the USDA researcher who conducted the work. There is an internal parasite honey bees are prone to called Nosema. There are two varieties and though different in some ways they tend toward the same result with bees. Mild to moderate infestations tend to debilitate bees but aren't lethal. But heavy infestations can be lethal, or very nearly so.
One thing you have to understand about an organism as small and fragile as a honey bee is that nearly dead is as good as dead...and insects in general, and honey bees in particular, don't heal. And injured bee, say one that has been attacked by a varroa mite and had its skin pierced, dies...slowly certainly for the wound is small, but it dies from the wound. There is no mechanism for a bee to heal, to scar over a wound, to recover from a damaged leg, wing or antenna. Thus, a damaged bee, even moderately damaged, becomes a detriment to a colony.
So, when you have bees that are slightly damaged by this parasite, the colony is already at a disadvantage with workers living shorter lives, making less honey, and doing less work. Now, challenge those same, somewhat damaged bees with a sub-lethal dose of one of those new pesticides and guess what happens. Our damaged bee, stressed from the disease, is stressed even further by the pesticide that's present. But there isn't enough pesticide to kill our bee so it only weakens it further. But now our parasite is enabled, it can move faster, further and do even more damage, hastening the death of this hapless bee. So two non-lethal events team up to become a very lethal encounter...and many, many bees in the colony can die rapidly. But imagine if you add an attack by varroa to this, and that is almost a certainty at some level in most colonies...the bees simply don't stand a chance...pesticides, varroa and Nosema...it's a gang attack and our bee is phased out quickly.
Another of the stresses our bees must deal with are the many viruses they encounter in their world. And recent research shows that there are many, many of these in colonies that bees must deal with. Bees have a kind of immune system that can handle these, at least to some degree. But viruses are sneaky and there are as many clever devices they have to get inside a bee as bees have to keep them out. They infest bees in the traditional manner of course...from mother to daughter in the eggs queens lay (and queens have multiple viruses it was shown by another researcher...but where these are from...their mothers, fathers, food they were fed at the queen producers or in their hives?), and in food workers feed larvae, workers feed queens, workers feed drones, and in pollen bees bring back from flowers. Bring back? Pollen? Well, this was a surprise. One study showed that of 65 bees analyzed, three viruses were found in the pollen they were carrying...some with one, some with three, but 100% of the pollen loads these bees brought back had a honey bee virus associated with them. From where? Well, from bumblebees, nonapis bees, from honey bees that were there before...viruses traveling between hosts is not common in this manner, and it was a shock...is nowhere safe for a honey bee?
The connection between viruses, Nosema, pesticides, stress, and colony collapse disorder is still uncertain. They all play some role, but their associations and their influence remains somewhat blurred. More time, money and research remains to be had.
On the last day of the conference I asked one of the commercial beekeepers who was there and who had colonies in a holding yard in southern California waiting for almond bloom how things were going. His answer was telling...Well, he said, it's been cold in California so far and the bees haven't been moving...until the middle of the week. That's when the temperature warmed up and bees could fly...and that's when they started to disappear. Again.
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