Bees: Our Problems in Miniature

“All over the world, bee populations are declining because monoculture, insecticides, and economics all have conspired to make life in a beehive difficult to sustain. As large industrial beekeeping operations continue to disintegrate, however, there is an opportunity to save the bees in small, isolated communities. In backyards and on rooftops all over the world, bees are being kept without chemical inputs…” — Les Crowder, in Top-Bar Beekeeping.

A honey bee fully loaded with pollen on her back legs comes in for a landing.

A honey bee fully loaded with pollen on her back legs comes in for a landing.

I’m going to get some bees. They’re fascinating. But, the more I read about them the more I’m thinking that the honey bee problems we’ve all heard about in recent years are really a miniature version of many of the environmental problems we humans face, caused by too much greed as we extract from nature. In the case of bees, an overuse of chemicals, miticides, fungicides, broad-spectrum antibiotics, and bee repellents, artificial insemination, too many shortcuts, and a careless attitude toward natural systems as a whole has caused tremendous harm to bees. The problems at the hive are compounded with similar trends in agriculture, where the bees forage. We humans keep trying to break nature into tiny pieces that we can control, when it’s the system as a whole that we should be trying to protect. It seems to me that the problems bees are having are the modern equivalent of the canary in the coal mine—signs that something serious is amiss. The bees are trying to tell us something, and we would do well to listen.

But, first some bee basics for the uninitiated. Honey bees, unlike solitary wild pollinators like bumblebees, can’t live on their own. They live in large colonies of tens of thousands of bees, and in nature will set up hives in hollow trees, logs, or other cavities, and build wax combs inside where they store honey and pollen and raise their young. Bees haven’t changed much in 100 million years; fossilized bees in amber are nearly identical to bees today. There are three types of bees in the hive—the workers (all female), a few male drones, and just one queen. When plants are in bloom, the worker bees collect nectar and pollen and store the excess in the combs, as honey, and during times when no plants are blooming the bees use these stores to survive. In cold climates they cluster in a tight ball in the winter, and inch around the comb, eating their honey stores. If the hive does well in the spring and summer and runs out of space in the hive, it will swarm, and thousands of bees, with the queen, will fly off to start a new colony. The swarm will temporarily alight somewhere, usually on a tree branch, while the workers find a new location. The old colony will raise a new queen. In nature, this is how honey bees propagate their hives.

A bee swarm. Bees colonies that are vital enough to swarm are a sign of good genetics, and beekeepers sometimes are able to capture swarms and use them to continue to improve the genetics of local stocks.

A bee swarm. Bees colonies that are vital enough to swarm are a sign of good genetics, and beekeepers sometimes are able to capture swarms and use them to continue to improve the genetics of local stocks.

Humans have interacted with honey bees for tens of thousands of years; prehistoric cave paintings in Spain show humans on long ladders removing honey from hives amid swarms of bees. People have traditionally kept bees in woven hives called skeps, or in hives similar to what are today called top-bar hives. Most beekeepers today, though, use those familiar white stackable boxes, called “Langstroth” hives, invented in the mid 19th century. These hives have removable frames inside, and allow for ease of access and high volumes of honey production.

Traditional woven beehives, or "skeps".

Traditional woven beehives, or “skeps”.

So, I’ve been reading and learning about bees for several weeks, and there seems to be a spectrum of methods by which people keep bees, from methods that are fairly unnatural at one end of the spectrum, to treatment-free and organic at the other. At the first extreme, bees are often treated with a wide variety of chemicals and antibiotics to control diseases and pests, they are fed sugar-water while being trucked from one large monoculture farm to another, too much honey is removed (and the bees, again, fed sugar-water to make up the difference), combs are reused more times than bees would use them in nature, and queens are created in unnatural ways, including artificial insemination. Bees are also raised on manmade combs with large cell sizes which forces larger bees to grow. These larger bees, in turn, are more susceptible to mites and disease. Honey and beeswax from these treated hives is often contaminated with chemicals, and honey is sometimes  modified still further with sugars and other substances before being sold on store shelves, often without any labeling to this effect. All of these questionable beekeeping practices are exacerbated by outside factors, such as the use of agricultural pesticides and the loss of foraging habitat in general. Huge monocrop fields, other than the few days when they flower, are essentially deserts from a bee’s point of view. While this is the extreme end of the beekeeping spectrum, such practices are all fairly common, and result in weaker and stressed bees.

Weaker bees, in turn, are more likely to succumb to Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, which first appeared in 2006 and now occurs around the world, where entire hives of bees just fly away with no warning, and don’t return. CCD seems to be a complex condition caused by multiple factors, but many implicate a class of pesticides called systemics, and, in particular, systemics called neonicotinoids. When these chemicals are applied to young plants, or even seeds before they germinate, the plants continue to carry the pesticide throughout their lives, which seems to have a cumulative and delayed effect on bees that feed on them. Wild pollinators like bumblebees are also suffering, which is evidence that more is going on in the bee world than just the marginal beekeeping practiced by some. (Whether trucking beehives by the hundreds from location to location while feeding them sugar-water is something we should disparage appears to be a matter of some debate. It has indeed worked for decades, but it doesn’t appear to be working well now.)

Aerial pesticide spraying. Pesticide usage has been widely implicated in the decline of both wild and domestic pollinators.

Aerial pesticide spraying. Pesticide usage has been widely implicated in the decline of both wild and domesticated pollinators, especially a class of systemic pesticides called “neonicotinoids”. These chemicals are still legal in the United States, though Oregon acted alone and banned them last summer.

On the other extreme, some beekeepers use natural methods to keep bees in a dramatically different fashion. They use hives and methods that imitate nature, with careful breeding and no outside chemical treatments. These beekeepers cull weak hives and use natural selection to support bees with good genetics that can fight off disease on their own. They harvest only enough honey to keep bees from swarming, and they only feed bees (usually with real, raw honey) in emergencies or when getting a new hive started. They try to use only local stock when breeding, and try to select for genetics for bees that will thrive in a particular area. Their bees gather from a wide variety of blooming plants, throughout the season. (Just as an example, here in Vermont this includes maples and alders in the early spring, then dandelions and fruit trees, then locust, berries and clovers in the early summer, then basswood, alfalfa, and wildflowers a month later. In the fall the season ends with goldenrod.) Even when using all of the best methods, however, beekeepers sometimes still lose their hives, but the incidence of this appears to be far lower. Some organic growers, in fact, currently report almost no problems with mites and some of the other problems that plague more industrial-scale operations.

If you’re interested, here’s the trailer to a good documentary, “Vanishing of the Bees”, a film that presents a good overview of some of the problems, and does so in a fairly balanced way. The film is available on Netflix, and it’s really worth watching.

Differing viewpoints on how bees should be raised are pretty apparent in books on the subject, too. The two books below both seem to adhere strongly to treatment-free, all-natural methods, and I’ve seen the titles to others that do the same. Treatment-free groups such as Backwards Beekeepers also have sites online, with links to much information.

Two books that advocate all-natural beekeeping and breeding methods. Chemical treatments are self-defeating, just as in other areas of agriculture.

Two books that advocate all-natural beekeeping and breeding methods. Chemical treatments often prove to be self-defeating, just as in other areas of agriculture.

So, I might need another hobby like I need a hole in the head, but I think I’m going to get some bees, and I’m going to try to keep them using these all-natural methods. Maybe I can play some small part in helping solve the bee problems, and they should help pollinate everything here from garden veggies to the fruit and nut trees to the berries in the woods. In fact, beekeeping seems to be a perfect fit with nearly all permaculture systems, with their emphasis on many crops being grown simultaneously. I’d like to urge everyone out there to help the bees, too. Even without raising bees of their own, (though bees are commonly kept in towns and cities on rooftops!) people can plant flowers, fruit trees, and other plants that bees use, and, perhaps just as importantly, quit spraying pesticides and herbicides on their lawns (posts: “Leave it a Lawn” and Mr. X’s humorous thoughts in “Mr. X on Lawn Care“.) Our purchasing habits also have an effect. To quote Michael Pollan, “We vote with our dollars three times a day for the kind of world we want to live in, with what we buy to eat, and what we don’t buy.” With regard to bees, buying organic food, or better yet, organic food from smaller local farms (the opposite of large monocultures) has direct consequences on the world the bees live in.

In the end, the problems with these small bees, and the solutions to those problems, are pretty similar to all of the problems and solutions we have with regard to living sustainably on the planet. There is much we can do, but approaching the natural world with a little more humility might be a pretty good place to start.

 Top image credit: US Dept. of Agriculture.
Bee swarm: Creative Commons by Eran Finkle, at Image has been cropped.
Skeps: Creative Commons by Umbrellahead56, at
Crop duster: Creative Commons by Jschladen, at Image has been cropped.