Dealing with the beekeeping life is part of what The Beekeeper is all about. Bringing to light some of the antics, the silliness, the politics and the sadness of the plight of our honey bees, especially in light of the Colony Collapse Disorder uncertainty is also part of what goes on here. And though CCD is most definitely a (as of yet unknown) pathogen based problem, it is perhaps enhanced by non-pathogenic, environmental stresses. But maybe its not, maybe CCD is in no way at all affected by anything at all in the environment. Still, in the outside world our honey bees are a part of, there are stresses, diseases, pathogens and parasites, along with bad weather, poor housing, and dumb luck that cause honey bees to have bad days at best or cause entire colonies to perish when these problems become extreme.
Three very different environmental problems came to light recently that seem to have nothing to do with CCD, but certainly are causing problems for our honey bees and their keepers.
Back several weeks ago, there were more forest fires burning out west that even the media could keep up with. Their focus, rightly I suppose, covered loss of homes and businesses, and in extreme cases human life. Marginal attention was given to wildlife affected by all the flames ... parentless bear cubs with burned paws made the news several times for those who are concerned. But the birds and the squirrels, the earthworms and rabbits ... they up and move I guess, or become well-done dinners for the predators that remain behind.
A natural honey bee home is in the cavity of an old tree. Usually quite a distance up, they remain mostly unnoticed. When a fire comes along, the bees, in hurry-up mode, consume as much honey as they can, carrying it in their crops (much like a pelican holds food in its beak), and the entire colony absconds ... it abandons its nest in search of a new, safe place to live. The honey they take with them is the food they consume while looking for a new home, and provides the energy they need to build that home. Once a cavity is found ... probably in another tree ... they quickly build that comb, the queen begins laying eggs, the foragers collect nectar and pollen for food and if they are lucky life goes on.
Sometimes these fires move so fast that the colony doesnt have time to pack up and leave and the entire colony perishes. This isnt uncommon with bees living in beehives that are on the ground. Fires give a headsup ... smoke ... and the higher you are the sooner you encounter natures first warning. Low to the ground ... well, a friend showed me a photo of what was left of his beeyard ... the fire moved in so fast all 16 colonies perished. All that was left were nails and the metal coverings. The rest ... boxes, frames, comb and bees ... ashes. No warning, no change to leave.
The next was that hurricane. Whenever extreme weather causes flooding, honey bees in beehives have problems. First, because two, three or more feet of water will pretty much cover a beehive thats sitting on the ground or on a pallet. But beehives are made of wood, and wood floats. And beehives floating around in a flood arent all that uncommon. Beehives heading downstream arent all that uncommon either. The bees ... sometimes they have a chance and they leave ... like their fire-threatened brethren. Sometimes the water comes so fast they dont, and you may see them all sitting on top of the hive as it floats by. In any event, the beekeeper loses both the boxes and the bees. And there isnt insurance for honey bees (but sometimes there is for the boxes they live in, so that helps).
But that hurricane caused a whole set of other problems for bees living in trees. When the wind takes down a tree with bees living inside, and the tree has to be cut up and removed ... guess what happens to the bees? Their home is hopelessly destroyed, often many bees including the queen perish when the tree crashes. They havent had a chance to prepare to move and didnt even know they should have. And once down theres nothing but confusion ... suddenly their home is horizontal instead of vertical. The entrance is no longer 10 or 20 feet up in the air ... in fact, the tree is no longer 10 or 20 feet up in the air. Often the trunk is split open and comb and honey and brood are strewn out all over ... and then some electric company guy with a chain saw comes along and wants his way with what used to be home. It makes for a bad day.
If the bees are lucky a beekeeper is summoned and perhaps most of them are removed. Sometimes even the queen is saved, the comb and bees are put in a new hive and they adjust. As late in the season as hurricanes come though, survival is difficult ... you need to get your comb built, food harvested and stored, new bees produced to get you through the winter. Sometimes beekeepers combine nests. The homeless are added to a colony thats already got everything they need. The two are slowly introduced and with the existing combs and stored food, and now more bees, both will do alright over winter. They were the lucky ones.
Theres one more problem out there. Weve talked about this here before but it hasnt gone away. Agricultural pesticides.
Bees wander around in their universe. There are no fences, no borders, no private property rights. They trespass no more than rabbits or deer or birds. Thats a given.
Whats not a given is when they visit plants that have been treated with chemicals that kill. Pesticide labels are the law, and pesticide labels say that pesticides are not to be applied when bees are foraging. Thats not a difficult law to obey. Most do.
But when chemicals are applied and they are not supposed to harm bees, or other pollinators, and those pollinators visit and are harmed ... is the label wrong? Is the law wrong? Are the bees doing something wrong?
A whole family of chemicals have been released in recent years that are very effective in controlling insect pests. They are applied to seeds just before they are planted and are absorbed by the plant and are in all plant parts for the life of the plant. Anything that tries to consume that plant is killed by that chemical. (Humans eat parts of those plants by the way, but a little poison is OK, right?)
These chemicals have now been banned in four countries in Europe because they are accused of killing honey bees. The chemical company ... Bayer ... says not. Beekeepers, and now governments are not so sure, and have slowed the process because they want to take a closer look. Four countries have done this. Four countries.
Is it time that this country take a second look at these chemicals? Are we so certain that they are safe that we are positive they are not harming bees, other pollinators, beneficial insects ... our kids, ourselves?
Maybe these new chemicals should be examined again. Italy, France, Germany and Slovenia have said they need more information. Are we so smart that we dont? Or are we so greedy that we dont want to?
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