Local Farmers Will Save the World

12 Feb

I just read an article in a beekeeping magazine reporting on a study of honey bee queen longevity. The study results tend to support what I have argued for years, which is that colony collapse and the other crises facing the honey bee industry are rooted in our refusal to value local bee keeping and, more generally, local agriculture.

In essence the study found that exposing queen bees to quite moderate temperature ranges during shipping causes them to become less fertile. Reduced fertility results in higher queen failure, and queen failure coincides with the high mortality rate of colonies in the U.S., which has been estimated near 50% in some years.

Historically, beekeepers would replace queens every year or two. Young queens do better at laying eggs and maintaining colony morale, and they are less likely to get superseded in the middle of a nectar flow. Recently, some beekeepers have begun replacing their queens as often as twice yearly.

The main idea I took away from this study is that shipped queens are likely to be less fertile than ones that are not shipped, because non-shipped queens are not exposed to the temperature ranges that may cause a well-mated queen to become less fertile.

Here’s what I’ve done to improve the chances that I’ll have a good quality queen handy when I need one:

  1. It took three years of failure, but I finally have learned how to raise my own queens. Therefore, with some care and planning, I can assure myself of a supply of fresh, well mated, never-shipped queens.
  2. If I need a queen and for whatever reason have to buy one, I look for a local supplier and go to his or her apiary to pick up the queen instead of putting her in the mail.
  3. Nucleus colonies (nucs) are key. I keep a few nucs around to that if a queen in one of my production colonies goes missing I can immediately replace her with a queen from a nuc.

In my opinion, the agricultural industry is looking in vain for a “silver bullet” remedy or a convenient scapegoat that will make the colony collapse crisis go away without changing industry practice. I’ve read respected bee biologists’ reasoning that “we’ve been doing it this way for decades with no ill effect; therefore the present crisis must be a result of a factor other than this practice.” This is a perfectly understandable line of reasoning. But, I think it ignores a few things.

For example, it is common practice for bee keepers who provide critical pollination services for commercial orchards and field crops to stack hundreds of bee hives on a semi trailer and confine their bees for days while driving from one orchard to another. Is it possible that this practice creates an environment that is stressful for the bees? I’m certain it does.

Another question to ask is why it is not okay for me to subsist on broccoli alone, but it is okay to place bees in vast commercial orchards where the available pollen and nectar is from a single type of plant? I’m not sure how bees are expected to obtain the broad range of nutrients they require from a single pollen source. I’m certain they can’t.

Something else to consider is the possibility that there has been an incremental increase in honey bee stressors over the years. Little by little our environment has become more polluted, more and more synthetic chemicals have been sprayed on food crops pollinated by bees, and new pathogens and parasites have arrived to wreak havoc with the bees. Perhaps the bees are finally giving up. They are robust, but perhaps we’ve pushed them to the limit and beyond.

Maybe we need to examine the entire food production system in this country and honestly examine whether current practices are appropriate.

I think it is not surprising that colony collapse is a problem rarely faced by sideline beekeepers like myself whose bees are rarely or never confined, transported, or plunked down in the middle of a vast field of watermelons. My bees have ready access to a veritable pollen smorgasbord. They are not malnourished. They are not stressed out by confinement, sudden temperature changes, changes in elevation, or being bumped and banged on the back of a truck. I loose colonies occasionally, but not to colony collapse disorder.

I believe that, if we want to save our bees and protect the quality of our food supply, we need to make fundamental changes. And I believe the locavores have it right. Small farmers who sell all or most of their crops to a local market tend to embrace environmentally sustainable practices and impeccable food handling methods because, in part, they are directly accountable to their customers. And, there is a cascade of economic and environmental benefits that arise when farmers partner with local bee keepers to satisfy pollination requirements.

Save the world by supporting your local farmers!