Recent conversations with several commercial beekeepers about reduced colony losses have been enlightening because a common theme keeps coming up ... being proactive. That may seem like a simple solution to a complicated problem, but you have to realize how most beekeepers keep bees, at least for the most part ... by being reactive.
Beekeepers tend to react to situations in a beehive. (Bees are hungry, so you feed them. Mites build up, or you assume mites build up so you treat them.) Beekeepers kind of wait for something to happen, then they take care of it ... not all the time and not all beekeepers, but thats kind of how it works. And until now it kind of worked. But now, after all the poking and probing about colony collapse disorder, all the sampling and checking and asking and asking again, some things have become clearer, at least in how to take better care of bees. Checking for mites all season long and making sure populations dont build up to unhealthy levels using resistant bees, using varroa mite traps, and using the most effective, least troubling treatments available is now the norm. Thats a given. Or should be. But there are others that need to be looked at closely.
One salient fact has become very clear: Keep bees away from modern agriculture. There isnt a crop out there that is safe for bees at any time of the year it seems. Corn and soybeans seem to be the most deadly ... and there is a lot of corn and soybeans out there.
Corn is deadly because most of it is seed-treated with systemic pesticides that move throughout the plant to protect it all season long ... and some winds up in bee-collected pollen that the bees take home to be stored and to kill yet unborn generations of baby bees. (This doesnt include the possibility of harm to the environment and the people who live in corn areas due to atrazine pollution from corn crop management, but that doesnt seem to be a bee problem at the moment. However, does your community test for this substance in your drinking water?). The label of the most-used corn chemical treatment even says that it is dangerous for honey bee brood, but that seems to not be an issue ... at least not for farmers, the EPA, or the state departments of agriculture responsible for enforcing label regulations.
Right now soybeans all over the country are being sprayed for soybean aphid and soybean rust, while the soybeans are in bloom, in direct violation of label recommendations. These, too, are killing fields in many places.
But lets not leave out the now deadly citrus groves. Much of the citrus crop in Florida has been subjected to a new disease called citrus greening, also called Huanglongbing or yellow dragon disease, a bacterial infection that eventually kills the plant, and renders the fruit inedible even before the tree dies. It is reported now in every county in Florida, and it has moved to the citrus areas of southern California. The disease spreads from infected to healthy trees by way of the Asian citrus pysllid, a sap sucking insect, and the only way to control the spread of the disease is to control the insect. This is accomplished by massive and frequent sprays of a systemic insecticide that moves throughout the plant ... into the leaves, stems and flowers. The poison is picked up in both nectar and pollen, and it is not good for bees. Not good at all.
An ironic citrus side note, if you will allow me, is the ongoing dust-up between beekeepers and seedless mandarin orange growers in southern California. (Nutshell: Seedless mandarins don't need pollination, so farmers are fighting adjacent growers to keep bees out, so the bees don't produce unwanted hybrids with seeds.) I brought this up a bit ago, and the controversy hasnt gone away. The only change is that the judge decided in favor of the beekeepers and said they could stay, so now growers are using huge fish nets to cover the trees to keep the bees out of their groves that grow seedless mandarins so they stay seedless. That costs money. Of course it will cost money to spray for greening, too, and it costs money to lose trees to the disease and it costs money to cover those trees with nets ... it costs money to keep those trees healthy. My bet is that if citrus growers in southern California begin spray programs there like the growers now are doing in Florida the battle of putting bees in citrus will be a moot point ... beekeepers will want to be a hundred miles away.
Growers 3, beekeepers 0.
So the smart beekeepers are (or will be) staying as far away as they can from fatal acres, and, as one beekeeper put it, staying out in the woods, being proactive about coming in contact with this stuff. Time will tell if this actually works, but Im hearing already that the bees are doing better.
But food is a problem too. It used to be, long ago and far away that beekeepers felt the bees should earn their own living. The only time they were pushed was when beekeepers needed large populations earlier in the season than the local plants could offer food, so bees were fed ... usually both sugar and protein. Otherwise they were more or less on their own to earn a living and make enough to make it through winter. This has been changing gradually and beekeepers have been stepping up their fall feeding schedules over the past few years ... many because of the requirements of having strong colonies early in the spring for almond pollination.
The past three years have seen dramatic increases in this practice ... because of almond pollination preparation, and because drought in many areas has limited available bee forage ... but also because beekeepers are becoming proactive. Not only are they preparing for the future, they are feeding better food, more food and more often. The better food is coming from studious beekeepers, researching long forgotten honey bee diets that were used years ago before commercially available bee feed could be bought. And more often with more food at each feeding. Pounds and pounds of these new-old diets are going into colonies and that is growing strong, healthy bees.
Colony collapse disorder may, or may not still be a problem, but the demon is having a harder time finding those susceptible colonies ... beekeepers are making sure of that.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.