Category Archives: Bees

Beekeeping Has Changed

Apiary_259F

I’ve had the opportunity to speak at, oh, probably a gazillion beekeeping meetings over the last 40 years, from small local gatherings to an audience of over 3000 at Apimondia 1999. I had a long absence from meetings for ten years after I began directing my university’s Centre for Dialogue, but with the release of my 2014 book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive” I returned to the speaking circuit.

That ten-year gap spanned a tumultuous era in beekeeping, and when I returned to lecturing I discovered that the beekeeping community today is quite different from what it was a decade ago.

A combination of decreased forage, increased pesticide use and rampant disease and pest problems now kills between 30 and 45 per cent of North American colonies annually, compared to the five or ten per cent when I left. That, of course, is a quite different world for bees, but it has also stimulated some dramatic shifts in who comes to meetings and how they keep bees since the advent of the bee apocalypse.

Attendance and makeup of audiences has changed significantly over the last ten years. A typical local meeting back then might have ten crotchety men over the age of 70, and a state or provincial meeting perhaps fifty or so of the same. Now, the audiences I speak to are in the hundreds, sometimes even for a local meeting, and there are many young people and women in the crowd.

Given the problems honeybee colonies experience today, that’s a remarkable increase in audience diversity and abundance. I attribute the increase to two factors. First, people care about bees, and have responded to the crisis by getting involved. And second, the new beekeepers also care about food, and growing local, a movement that seems to have spread into beekeeping along with hands-on gardening and urban farming.

Another observation that fascinates me is the number of beekeepers who no longer treat for Varroa. At all. This lack of chemical dependence is more prominent in the hobby and sideline crowd, but more and more commercial beekeepers with hundreds of colonies are telling me the same thing.

At first I doubted that beekeepers could actually keep their colonies alive without treatments, and they do lose colonies, occasionally large numbers. But the colony losses they report are in the 30 to 40 per cent range, no worse than beekeepers that treat heavily. Perhaps in the pre-collapse days, with low winter mortality, treatment was clearly preferable. But if you’re going to lose over one third of your colonies each year whether you treat or not, skipping treatments may make good sense, saving both labor and the costs of chemical treatments.

What’s missing in this discussion are data. We need more rigorous studies comparing treated and untreated colonies. Relying on anecdote is not a robust way to design colony management recommendations, but there seems to be enough stories out there to justify a large-scale research effort to examine the desirability of few or no treatments in today’s environment of high annual colony losses.

Another surprising impression I have from my travels is an increase in beekeepers who prefer top bar hives to the more standard Langstroth equipment. In New Mexico, for example, half of all colonies are kept in top bar hives.

Top bars would seem to have many disadvantages, particularly the need to destroy the comb to harvest honey, as the frames can’t be spun in extractors like the Langstroth frames. But what’s most interesting about top bar advocates is that they seem less focused on maximizing honey production and more focused on enjoying their bees.

And they do see some advantages in their system. Yes, colonies may have a tendency to swarm more often in top bars, but top bar beekeepers compensate by checking their hives often during swarming season, with a hands-on attitude focused more on observing and enjoying their bees than on producing copious quantities of honey.

They also rarely move their hives, which may be another advantage since moving colonies exposes bees to diseases and pests. And, top bar beekeepers focus on harvesting wax as well as honey; the high value of beeswax provides some economic counterweight to producing less honey.

I may be generalizing from too-few experiences, and perhaps beekeeping hasn’t changed as much as I’m imagining. But if it hasn’t, it should. It would be foolish to continue keeping bees the way we used to, because the old ways no longer work.

The message I take from my limited observations is this: if there is a movement, it’s one that is putting bee health first, emphasizing the enjoyment of beekeeping as much or more as maximizing colony productivity. And it’s a movement deeply rooted in an expanding food culture that favors local farming and reductions of synthetic pesticide and fertilizer use.

I believe that a radical reinvention in how we keep bees is necessary to reduce today’s tragic colony mortality. It’s been gratifying to hear as I travel that many younger people are getting involved, with new ideas, and that they are beginning to redefine what good beekeeping means.

 ——————————————–

Your comments are most welcome. I’d love to hear from you:

The Chat

To my great surprise, my recent book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive” has won the 2015 Governor-General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction (http://ggbooks.ca/books/non-fiction/english/bee-time-lessons-from-the-hive). It’s been a huge thrill, almost on par with the day my daughter was born, or that first life-changing conversation with Lori at a sculpture artist’s show opening, a chat that has extended into a lifelong dialogue.

And it’s the gift that keeps on giving; pretty much every day since the 28 October announcement has brought some interesting invitation or idea across my cyber-desk. Opportunities to lecture or read at bookstores, invitations to do workshops, quirky thoughts on the telapathetic powers of bees, catch-up notes from long-lost friends, information about fascinating projects being done by artists to draw attention to the plight of bees (see, for example, http://www.thegoodofthehive.com) and much more has filled my inbox.

And there’s been the occasional insult. My favorite so far is that I was a “too smart by half nitwit.” Not bad, although not quite up to the professor who called me a “nincompoop” early in my career.

But I really knew I’d arrived in the literary stratosphere when an editor contacted me about doing one of those interviews that newspapers publish with authors, assuming that we’re interesting and knowledgeable. You know the ones: there’s a nice picture of the author, followed by a series of bolded questions that provide we authors with the opportunity to show off our erudition, but usually come off with us seeming to be crabby and ill-tempered.

I was a bit concerned when I received the request, because the questions can often be hard to answer. Things like “Which of your favorite authors writes the best sentences?” Or “So what are you reading now?” I dread that particular question in radio or live interviews since, although I read constantly, my mind invariably goes blank when asked about what I’m reading or to recommend a great book.

But to my surprise I enjoyed my cyber-chat with Trevor Corkum of the online outlet 49th Shelf. He had read the book, had some insightful questions, and even his query about “writers who have influenced me” wasn’t painful as I had some time to think rather than having to answer on the spot.

Hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did. You can find it at http://49thshelf.com/Blog/2015/11/06/The-Chat-Trevor-Corkum-Interviews-2015-GGs-Winner-Mark-L.-Winston

How Will We Feed the World?

I’ve been on an extended book tour, giving lectures and reading from “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive.” It’s been a great ride, and I’ve had the pleasure of talking to a wide range of public, beekeeping, academic and farming audiences.

Whenever I speak, the current plight of honeybees and wild bees has been part of my message. There are many interacting causes behind the decline of bees, but farming practices including heavy pesticide use and the predominance of vast single crop acreages are two of the most significant factors causing bees to circle the drain.

Pesticides have been clearly and irrefutably linked to bee declines, including the immediately toxic as well as longer-term sublethal effects of insecticides and fungicides, and the insidious impact of herbicides that remove flowering plants that are important nectar and pollen sources from fields.

Monocropping has harmed bees by creating vast deserts of one flowering source, which results in poor nutrition and limits nectar and pollen availability to an unduly short few weeks, not sufficient to maintain most wild bees that require longer time spans with floral abundance to survive and reproduce.

My proposed solutions to the negative impacts caused by farming are simple: reduce pesticide use and break up the single-crop system with multiple cropping and crop rotations that extend floral availability for bees. But supporters of conventional farming invariably bring up the “how will we feed the world” argument, suggesting that alternative agriculture is pie-in-the-sky feel good nonsense, and totally impractical to feed the 7 billion and growing human global population.

Until recently there hasn’t been any way to counter the claims of conventional agriculture, except to balance the feed-the-world argument with the benefits of diminished environmental impacts from alternative agriculture, especially organic farming. And the negative environmental impacts of conventional agriculture are concerning, including damage to soil, water and air quality, biodiversity and human health.

But finally a few studies have amalgamated research from many sources that indicate organic agriculture not only leaves a softer environmental footprint, but also stands up well in productivity and profit when compared to high-input, single crop conventional farming.

Organic agriculture has been the most intensively studied, and a 2015 publication by Lauren Ponisio from the University of California at Berkeley and colleagues analyzed 1071 organic vs. conventional yield comparisons from 115 studies. Organic farming was only slightly lower, averaging 10 – 20% less yield, although organic farms that used multi-cropping and crop rotation systems showed differences less than 10%.

What’s most important to realize about this result is that high productivity in organic farming has come almost exclusively from innovative growers, without the benefit of the vast research empires and extensive subsidy payments from government that have supported conventional growers. As the authors point out, “appropriate investment in agroecological research to improve organic management systems could greatly reduce or eliminate the yield gap for some crops or regions.”

But productivity is only one measure of farming success; when profit and income are factored in, organic agriculture has proven superior to conventional systems. Two authors from Washington State University, David Crowder and John Reganold, examined 55 crops over 5 continents, and found that organic farming was 22 – 35% more profitable for growers, due to the higher premiums received for organic food. Further, the authors pointed out that their study didn’t factor in environmental benefits and enhanced ecosystem services associated with organic farming, which further tilts the ledger in favor of organic.

But we don’t require pure organic farming to see improvements in agricultural practices; some simple changes in conventional farming that reduce but don’t eliminate pesticide and synthetic fertilizer use are worth pursuing. A study in Iowa by Adam Davis and colleagues compared the typical conventional crop rotation of maize and soybeans with a four-crop rotation of maize, soybeans, small grains and red clover. They found that yields were equal or greater in the four-crop system, with lower fertilizer and pesticide inputs as well as dramatic improvements in environmental measures such as freshwater toxicity from runoff.

They concluded the “results of our study indicate that more diverse cropping systems can use small amounts of synthetic agrichemical inputs as powerful tools with which to tune, rather than drive, agroecosystem performance, while meeting or exceeding the performance of less diverse systems.”

What might be done to drive agriculture towards organic, or at least in the direction of sustainable farming that reduces pesticide and fertilizer use and increases crop diversity? Certainly the marketplace is one force for change. If consumers demand more organic and sustainable food production, farmers will respond. In fact, they have; organic food sales currently make up about 4% of the U.S. market, and organic production is experiencing continued strong expansion of about 15% annually.

However, it is government that has the capacity to exert the strongest and most rapid levers for change, through setting agricultural policy and by directing payments away from the overly subsidized conventional growers and towards the sustainable and organic modes of food production. Their excuse for inaction in the past has been the “feed-the- world” rationale, but given these recent studies, that argument no longer holds water.

Bees would certainly benefit from enlightened farming practices, but improvements in environmental integrity and our own human health also argue strongly for government intervention in what has become an agricultural system driven too much by corporate profit rather than good farming practices.

There are elections coming up in both Canada and the United States. There is one irrefutable way to influence government to act: vote. I encourage anyone for whom bees are important, as well as those of us who care about where our food comes from and how farming integrates into ecosystem function, to make agricultural reform a key issue.

A vote for organic and sustainable options will not only save the bees, but will provide the kind of agriculture that benefits us all, growers and consumers alike.

 

For more information about the studies cited above, see:

Ponisio LC, M’Gonigle LK, Mace KC, Palomino J, de Valpine P, Kremen C. 2015. Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap. Proc. R. Soc. B 282:20141396 http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.1396

Crowder, DW and Reganold, JP 2015. Financial competitiveness of organic agriculture on a global scale. PNAS, June 16, 112: 76117616, www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1423674112

Davis AS, Hill JD, Chase CA, Johanns AM, Liebman M (2012) Increasing Cropping System Diversity Balances Productivity, Profitability and Environmental Health. PLoS ONE 7(10): e47149. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0047149

Manifesto

We often support the value of bees with economic arguments, neglecting the dimension of values, the principles we hold important and the personal and environmental standards that should be at the heart of beekeeping rather than at its fringes.

The current serious issues facing bees suggest it is time for a new manifesto to guide beekeeping, one that recognizes beekeepers as stewards of both managed and wild bees, promoters of healthy environments, managers of economically sustainable apiaries and paragons of collaboration and cooperation. It’s time for some audacious thinking about the future of beekeeping.

Such a manifesto might look something like this:

  • Beekeepers are Stewards of their honeybees, lightly managing colonies with minimal chemical and antibiotic input.
  • Beekeepers are Promoters of healthy environments in which wild and managed bees can thrive, including reduced chemical inputs and mixed cropping systems in agricultural settings and diverse unmanaged natural habitats in urban and rural areas.
  • Beekeeping is Economically Viable, so that hobbyists can enjoy their bees with some honey to give away, sideliners meet expenses with a bit of profit and commercial beekeepers have a consistent and sustainable income sufficient to support a family without the heavy personal stress associated with contemporary beekeeping.
  • Beekeeping organizations are Inclusive, Collaborative and Cooperative, encompassing hobbyists with one hive to commercial beekeepers with thousands, wild bees enthusiasts to honeybee keepers, and honey producers to pollinators, under one umbrella organization that puts the health and prosperity of bees and the environment that supports them first.

We need to recognize that the good old days are gone. Bees are no longer able to respond with the resilience that allowed us to manage honeybees intensively and depend on healthy ecosystems for wild and managed bees to thrive. Today, pesticides are ubiquitous, diseases and pests rampant, and the diversity and abundance of bee forage has plummeted.

It’s a new day, and below are just a few suggestions for what a manifesto-driven bee community might look like. Note that every idea goes against conventional wisdom, but keep in mind that these are not conventional times for bees:

Perhaps we can no longer take copious honey harvests from our bees. If so, a good first step would be to take ¼ less honey and feed that much less sugar.

Perhaps we should let colonies swarm every second year, providing a break in the brood cycle that might diminish the impact of varroa.

Perhaps we should move honeybees no more than once for pollination, recognizing that honeybees are no longer healthy enough to sustain multiple moves.

Perhaps honeybees should no longer be considered our primary agricultural pollinator, but used to supplement wild bee populations whose diversity and abundance we increase by large-scale habitat enhancement in and around farms.

Perhaps we should allow only one varroa treatment per year to prevent resistance.

Perhaps we should eliminate all antibiotic use, controlling bacterial diseases like American Foul Brood through a rigorous inspection and burning regime, as they do in New Zealand.

Perhaps we should cease the practice of feeding pollen supplements in the spring, as we now understand such feeding yields higher worker populations but weaker individual bees.

Perhaps research should rigorously analyze these “perhaps” ideas. Our research community has done a fabulous job of elucidating why honeybees and wild bees are doing poorly, but what we need now are bolder research directions towards solutions.

Researchers tend towards the more glamorous high-tech solutions, but those are unlikely to succeed and at best are far down the road. Some old-fashioned, large-scale management research is needed now, coupling studies of hive survival and wild bee abundance and diversity with economic analyses of what works best for beekeepers and crop pollination.

Here’s one example: I have been travelling quite a bit lately promoting my new book “Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive,” and I consistently encounter beekeepers who are not treating for varroa, but rather breeding from surviving untreated colonies. They report colony survival rates as good or better as those commercial beekeepers who treat heavily, but it’s all anecdotal. Let’s test those claims more rigorously, by organizing national projects to compare untreated surviving colonies to lightly or heavily chemically treated colonies.

Here’s another example: I know of no economic studies that demonstrate moving bees for pollination is economically superior to maintaining stationary apiaries, or that compare moving bees once, twice or more. My own opinion is that the extent of bee movement is a major contributing factor in the poor colony survival we see across North America, with 42% of colonies dying in 2013/2014 in the United States. But, I know of no data that support or dismiss my hunch.

There is a changed mind-set enveloped in my brief manifesto, one in which we consider the well being of bees as the primary directive rather than economic prosperity or beekeeper convenience. Putting bees first is the only way managed and wild bees will return to health, and beekeepers and farmers with bee-pollinated crops to prosperity.

I don’t know whether this manifesto is the right direction, or the ideas above sound, but I do know that the status quo is unsustainable.

There is a quote attributed to Einstein that is highly relevant for the future of beekeeping: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Perhaps it’s time to challenge everything we have believed about beekeeping with honeybees, and to boldly promote wild bees to become our primary commercial-level pollinators.

Perhaps it’s time to be audacious.

Mark Winston is Professor and Senior Fellow at Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Dialogue, and author of the recent bookBee Time: Lessons From the Hive.”

Honey, Hives and Poetry

Bees do many things, but one undervalued side product of being involved in apiculture is the diversity of doors that bees open for human interaction. There are, of course, the obvious interdisciplinary collaborations: entomologist with botanist, scientist with beekeeper, professor with government regulator, environmentalist with wild bee enthusiast.

I’ve been privileged to enjoy all of those interactions, but perhaps my most interesting partnerships have been with artists. I’ve worked with dancers, novelists, sculptors and multimedia artists, with valued learning and some deep friendships emerging from each project.

And now I’ve embarked on another artistic journey, working with award-winning poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar on a project connecting poets with beekeepers, chefs, urban farmers, food bank workers and others to celebrate and explore the boundaries of language and bees.

The project inhabits the intersection of the global movement to grow healthy food in cities, a growing awareness of threats to honeybee and wild bee pollinators and the vibrant poetry scene in Vancouver. Poetry is the ideal voice through which to capture our memories and reflections about food, going beyond sustenance to connect the personalities who harvest and the land from which they gather.

Saklikar writes thecanadaproject (https://thecanadaproject.wordpress.com), a life-long poem chronicle that includes poetry, fiction, and essays. Her book, Children of Air India, un/authorized exhibits and interjections, was the winner of the 2014 Canadian Authors Literary Award for poetry and a finalist for the 2014 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Award.

She also has collected poetry about bees for decades, and admits to a bee poetry fetish. We intersected when I interviewed her for the book I was writing, and then we attended each other’s book launches, hers for Children of Air India and mine for Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive for which she contributed considerable insights into how poets have viewed bees.

Poetry allows the exploration of themes that can be difficult to express through prose, inhabiting the interstitial cracks between fact and emotion, images and dreams, imagination and language. But poetry is also about sounds, vibration and undercurrents, the song beneath connected words.

And, as we learned through our first public performance, there is a bit of the poet even in those who don’t think themselves poetic.

We premiered our collaboration last month at the Vancouver Public Library, in a program titled “Honey, Hives and Poetry in the City.” It was part of Canada’s national poetry month, which fortuitously had the theme of poetry and food this year.

Rachel Rose joined us on stage. She is the poet laureate of Vancouver and has dedicated her three-year appointment to championing poetry, language and the arts in Vancouver. She’s connecting established and emerging poets with chefs, urban farmers and others engaged in nourishing citizens to create a collaborative book of poetry inspired by food.

Elee Kraljii Gardiner and two members of Thursdays Writing Collective also joined the program. The Collective runs free drop-in creative writing classes at the Carnegie Community Centre for members of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, an area challenged by poverty-related issues. Rounding out the evening with a honey tasting was Sarah Common and others from Hives for Humanity, an urban beekeeping project in the heart of the Downtown Eastside (http://hivesforhumanity.com).

To our surprise and delight, we had a large and engaged audience, ranging from poets to beekeepers, urban residents to foodies, backyard gardeners to food truck groupies, all curious about what inspirations about food might be drawn from bees and honey. Their enthusiasm was palpable, their applause frequent and their response enthusiastic when we turned the tables on the audience and asked them to take a few minutes to write some brief poems of their own.

The quality of their writing was notable, audible gasps of delight erupted spontaneously from the audience as we read a few of their brief poems aloud. Here are two of their poems; I don’t know the authors’ names as they were submitted and read out anonymously:

I

A sun-fed engine

revving in the garden

spinning, turning its wheels

turning up pollen like petrol

all cylinders firing, making

liquid gold, hot fan of wings,

dancing in circles, humming

and humming. Oh crazy

makers, legs burdened with

yellow. Eat the sweetness,

pace your cell, keep the

cylinders firing.

 

II

Early morning.

Stillness.

Soon the dogs bark and race

out the door careening past

the hives and down the fields

past the apple trees.

JOY!

 

Renee and I were stoked by the evening to grow the bee/poetry interface, and hope to write some new work and evolve our collaboration into a multi-media performance with music and other poets.

And we aspire to inspire, by offering opportunities for those who don’t consider themselves poets to dip their toes into language and vocalizations that express the inestimable insights that bees can bring to our human world.

Perhaps Beekeeping Should Change?

(The post below first appeared as a Letter to the Editor in Bee Culture magazine)

It was an interesting January, bookmarked with the American Beekeeping Federation (ABF) meeting at Disneyland at the front end, and ending with the American Bee Research Conference (ABRC) in Tucson, Arizona at the end.

These are quite different meetings. The ABF attracts around 900 beekeepers, many managing commercial operations with upwards of 10-70,000 colonies. The ABRC is much smaller, around 100 participants, mostly honeybee researchers, extension agents and government regulators.

I was left with a sense of optimism from both meetings, unexpected since beekeeping continues to flirt with an epic disaster caused by 1/3 of all colonies dying every year. This has been going on for a decade now, with colonies dying each year and replaced by beekeepers splitting their surviving colonies and building up their numbers again each spring.

But apiculturists are beginning to realize that many of the issues causing the demise of our colonies are outside our control. Of particular concern are a lack of abundant and diverse nectar and pollen sources due to the vast weed-free, single-crop acreages typical in farming today, and heavy use of pesticides by farmers.

This is a long-term problem not easily amenable to change. Even long-term transformation is problematic since political pressure exerted by the beekeeping industry has little influence, because it is a tiny industry lost in the vast magnitude of contemporary corporate agriculture.

I observed two positive trends in hallway conversations that are encouraging. The first involves recognizing that beekeepers’ interests and those of agriculture as it is practiced today are not necessarily compatible. Finding alliances with other organizations with allied values could create a considerably more effective coalition lobbying to shift agriculture in a direction healthier for bees.

Beekeeping could be leading a movement towards more sustainable farming rather than buying into the large scale and high input agricultural systems that too many beekeepers are enmeshed in. If so, there are innumerable interest groups with which to align: organic growers, sustainable farmers, the urban and local food movements and a vast array of environmental groups, among others.

The love-hate relationship beekeepers have developed with pesticide companies might be one alignment worth pondering. Traditionally, we’ve been anti-pesticide, recognizing that many field chemicals are toxic to bees. For that reason, beekeepers often have been in the forefront of movements for stronger pesticide regulation.

Ironically, beekeepers also have become dependent on those same companies to invent and market new chemicals to control bee diseases, pests and parasites. Like the farmers we criticize for overuse and reckless applications of pesticides in fields, we beekeepers ourselves have stepped onto the same chemical treadmill, losing credibility and the high ground in campaigns to reduce pesticide use and implement stronger regulations. It’s common for beekeepers to apply mite-killing chemicals four to six times a year, a sure recipe to induce resistance in the mites through over-application, as well as leaving considerable residues in comb.

Which brings up the second trend I noticed at these meetings, a realization that beekeeping itself has to change. Many, perhaps most, commercial beekeepers are no longer primarily honey producers, but have become pollination managers, moving their bees from crop to crop for the pollination fee, with honey a messy byproduct.

These are enormous mass migrations, with 60% of American bees moved onto just one crop, almonds, each February, about 1.6 million colonies, and many colonies moved three or more times a season to various crops (Canadian beekeepers are somewhat less migratory). These beekeepers have come to depend on the high fees they charge growers for pollination, but income is offset with steep costs for labor, equipment, transport and travel, not to mention stress on bees and beekeepers alike.

I have yet to find an economic analysis that shows migratory beekeeping is the optimal way to make money in the beekeeping industry. Stationary beekeepers who leave their colonies at one apiary site all year, or perhaps move only once and more locally, may not get the high pollination fees, but they also don’t have the costs. Many migratory beekeepers are starting to question whether moving bees is the best way to make a dollar.

Beekeepers also are striving to get off their self-induced chemical treadmill, and flock to sessions at meetings with speakers claiming to be managing their bees free of synthetic pesticides and antibiotics. Some talk about embracing gentler strains of African bees because they swarm often, which breaks the varroa mite’s breeding cycle. Swarm prevention has always been high on a beekeeper’s management agenda, but perhaps that type of out-of-the-box thinking will be necessary to evolve a sustainable beekeeping industry.

Another innovative idea I heard floated was for beekeepers to metamorphosize into pollination habitat managers, contracted by growers to create and maintain habitat, nesting sites and forage for wild bees. Honeybees would be used as supplemental pollinators only when necessary, and at much reduced colony numbers from the current migratory avalanche.

Honeybee health and survival can improve, but only through a combination of agricultural change and the evolution of beekeeping itself.

Planners of beekeeping meetings, here’s a session idea for your next conference: Audacious Ideas for the Future of Beekeeping.

That’s what the survival of beekeeping needs: daring and bold ideas, and the courage to implement them.

 

Who Keeps Bees?

Who keeps honeybees?

The number of beekeepers globally is statistically elusive, but there are something like 30 million hives worldwide, tended by a few million beekeepers. Some manage a single colony while the largest commercial beekeeping operation runs about 70,000 hives. There also are an inestimable number of semi-managed hives kept in logs in the less developed world, and wild nests from which honey is removed regularly by families who often have cultivated the same feral nest sites for many generations.

What’s notable about who keeps bees is the range of characteristics that are exhibited by beekeepers. A recent set of profiles in BeeScene, the quarterly journal of the British Columbia Honey Producers Association, provided some insights into who keeps bees and why in B.C.

There’s a good mix of males, females and couples in the B.C. beekeeper community, with quite a range of personal and professional backgrounds. Some are retired, some still working, with current or past professions ranging through police officer, physician, designer/manufacture of electronic systems, printer, forester, chef and medical office administrator.

There are a number of traits commonly found in this otherwise diverse group. For one thing, most experienced beekeeping at a young age, or got the idea to keep bees during childhood. Many had grandparents or parents who kept bees, or an eccentric neighbor who let them observe while they went through colonies.

Most began beekeeping in middle age or upon retirement, when the pressures of starting a family and growing a profession abated. At that point memories from childhood served as a reminder of their delayed passion for beekeeping, and they began looking around to buy some bees.

It’s also common for serendipity to step in. One of B.C.’s beekeepers began keeping bees when he was offered two hives in trade for sheep fleeces produced on his hobby farm. Others connected with the bee world through an interest in gardening that brought up the necessity of pollination. A casual conversation with a local beekeeper at a coffee shop often winds up with a new hive in the garden.

The role of a mentor is another frequent theme for beginning beekeepers. Local bee clubs invariably have an old-timer who looks after the newbies, taking them out and passing on the wisdom of the beekeeping ages, then looking in on the new beekeepers to provide advice as their colonies grow and management becomes more complex.

Hobby farming or intensive gardening is another quality shared by many beekeepers, for whom adding bees to the mix is a relatively small jump in time and commitment. Backyard gardening has been a route into bee management for many, especially in recent years as urban agriculture has experienced a boom across North America.

The BeeScene survey also was interesting in asking personal preferences for the two devices that beekeepers invariably use: a hive tool to separate and lift frames for inspection, and the type of fuel they burn in their smoker, used to pacify bees before opening the hive and during an inspection.

Hive tools come in many varieties, each with a subtle variation. Beekeepers ardently defend their chosen tool; the possibilities mentioned in the survey included J-shaped tool (also referred to as “the hooked one”), a serrated bread knife, pocketknives, screwdrivers, pry bars, a welder’s wire brush, and the “old standard” sold at Canadian Tire, with a flat scraper at one end and a curved blade at the other.

Preferred smoker fuel showed a similar creativity and range, including wood shavings, dried grasses, burlap, pinecones, grass clippings, cardboard and dried cow patties.

Another characteristic that beekeepers hold in common, and one that is perhaps their most endearing trait, is an essential quirkiness. It’s an odd hobby to take up, and a difficult path to follow commercially. It takes individuals who notice the nature around them with an unusual attentiveness, and have that peculiar affinity for honeybees that overcomes the hard fact that bees sting.

I’ve had the privilege of travelling globally and meeting beekeepers from the jungles of South America to the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, the outback in Australia to Arab villages in Palestine. Invariably, beekeepers are willing to set aside the too-common things that divide us: race, religion, politics, national origin and economic class, to just talk bees.

Perhaps there is a larger message to be learned from beekeepers, the potential for collaboration and collegiality when otherwise distant segments of society come together in fellowship united by common interest. It’s not world peace, but it’s a start.

Mouthparts of the long-tongued bees

mark's photo

At one point early in my career I was recognized as the world’s expert in the labiomaxillary complex of the long-tongued bees, at least among the half-dozen or so entomologists for whom bee mouthparts mattered.

I achieved this obscure recognition as a graduate student at the University of Kansas by dissecting, drawing and analyzing mouthparts from about 100 species across the thousands that make up this diverse bee group. The other bees have short tongues and were studied by another student, who ascended to the short-tongued throne. Tongue length makes a difference to bees, as it determines what flowers they can collect nectar from.

Admittedly obscure, and not generally seen as among my most stellar achievements, this study nevertheless transformed by scientific career, not so much for the scientific findings as for the cultural lessons I learned from my mentor in the project, the eminent bee biologist Charles Michener.

Mich was a prodigy, publishing his first paper on bees when he was 16 and going on to reach the highest levels of academia. In 1948 he had published a paper describing the evolutionary relationships between all the bees, a monumental achievement that formed the bible of bee taxonomy for decades.

What changed everything for me was the basistipital process, a tiny obscure protuberance found on some long-tongued mouthparts but not on others. What made this structure important was that it differed in the highly social honeybees and stingless bees. Tracing its evolution back through more primitive bees suggested that each group had evolved social behavior independently.

If so, this was a career-building discovery, as the evolution of complex social behavior is rare. The key implication of this finding was that sociality had evolved not once but twice among the bees.

Studies of insect social behavior were and still are important areas of research, in part because we too are a highly social species and can learn much about our own evolution and behavior by examining that of the bees.

I quickly realized the important implications of the basistipital process, but my next thought was more terror than exhilaration. If I was right, then Mich’s classic study was incorrect. I would have to tell one of the greatest biologists of our time that he was wrong.

It was with great trepidation, and after considerable procrastination, that I made an appointment to see Mich and brought him my findings. I was well prepared with specimens and my arguments, but was surprised by his reaction.

Mich was fascinated rather than defensive. Without the slightest sign of disappointment he said we needed to reexamine the honeybees and stingless bees to see if other evidence would support changing his 1948 conclusions.

We went on to look at other structures, particularly those on the legs used to collect pollen, and a wide range of social behaviors in the two groups. The evidence was strong, and we published a paper in the prestigious Proceedings of the U.S. National Academy of Science (PNAS) proposing the dual origin of highly social behavior among the bees.

I’m a big appreciator of how moments in life can have lasting impact. That appointment with Mich was one of those moments for me, when he was open to contradicting his own classic and much-cited work if the evidence supported it. He modeled for me how science is not a right or wrong polarity but a continually evolving examination of new data. When the data contradict the theory, it’s appropriate to dump even the most hallowed hypothesis.

I also learned from Mich to appreciate those moments of surprise in science when the evidence suggests the hypothesis you have based years of work on is wrong. My own students have been startled expecting me to be disappointed that their experiments have not proven my pet theory to be correct, and I treat their negative data as a eureka moment. It’s in the negative results that progress in science is born.

I learned one more lesson from Mich through the humble basistipital process. He let me write and be the first author on the PNAS paper, even though this was an important publication, I was an obscure student and he was, well, the Great One in bees. I still choke up recalling this incredible kindness, and hope I have emulated his generosity with my own students.

And there is a postscript: about ten years later new molecular techniques became available that allowed comparisons of proteins and even genes between groups of organisms. When applied to the long-tongued bees, the results suggested that Michener’s original taxonomy was correct, and our dual origin proposal perhaps was not accurate. It remains an ongoing issue in social insect biology, with no definitive conclusion yet possible.

My response? I would love to be proven incorrect.

Science at its best is not about ego but about exploration. I was fortunate to be taught that lesson by the mouthparts of the long-tongued bees, and a wonderful mentor.

 

For excruciating detail see:

Winston, M.L. and C.D. Michener. 1977. Dual origin of highly social behavior among bees. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 74: 1134-1137

Winston, M.L. 1979. The labiomaxillary complex of the long-tongued bees: a comparative study. Univ. Kansas Sci. Bull. 51: 631-667

 

 

The Road Not Taken

We all have our life-fork stories, those crossroads where we could have gone one way but chose another.

I was reminded about one of my road-not-taken moments last week, at the Entomological Society of America (ESA) meetings in Portland, Oregon. My 1975 crossroads decision was whether to go to the University of Kansas and study killer honeybees in South America with Chip Taylor, or to Cornell University and work with Richard Root, studying the effects of crop diversity on beneficial insects such as unmanaged wild pollinators.

Killer bees won out, and I’ve never regretted that decision, but was intrigued to see a wave of studies presented at the ESA meeting demonstrating how habitat heterogeneity is important for the diversity and abundance of wild bees.

The role of habitat diversity as a key factor in maintaining wild bee populations has become one of those hot topics that attract the talented scientists who gravitate to the interesting questions. It’s a challenging research area, requiring sophisticated methods to measure and compare habitat heterogeneity with bee diversity and abundance, all in environments heavily altered by the human impact of farming.

Two research approaches have converged with the same result. The first, sampling bees in a range of simple to complex habitats, has clearly demonstrated that contemporary agriculture is barren for wild bees.

Industrial agriculture is a dead zone for beneficial pollinators due to vast acreages of monocropped plantings kept clear of weeds with herbicides, and limited natural habitats adjacent to farmland in which bees can feed and nest. Wild bees rely on plants whose flowering seasons adjoin each other to provide extended availability of nectar and pollen, as well as on undisturbed nesting sites, neither of which are found in and around today’s habitat-deforming farms.

The second line of research has been more experimental, planting bee-friendly hedgerows and ground cover at farm sites and examining whether wild bee populations increase and thrive. The results of these multi-year studies so far have been encouraging, often showing dramatic increases in pollinators as habitat diversifies.

There is another research direction that is difficult but necessary to make the case for habitat reconstruction to enhance pollinator populations: economic analyses. So far, there have been few studies asking that final dollar value question: Does increased diversity and abundance of wild bees lead to more pollen transferred between flowers, to better seed set, to heavier crop weight, and finally to higher yields and increased income sufficient to justify the costs of habitat improvements?

A student in my laboratory, Lora Morandin, did one such economic study a number of years ago in canola fields in northern Alberta. Her research demonstrated that a high variety of wild plants in and near farmland were associated with more diverse and abundant bee populations that increased canola yield. Farmers who planted their entire field earned about $27,000 in profit per farm, whereas those who left a third unplanted for bees to nest and forage in earned $65,000 on a farm of similar size, due simply to better pollination.

The causes of reduced plant biodiversity on farms are clear, and the solutions easily envisioned and implemented. The two most destructive factors for bees are overly large single cropped acreages and the use of herbicides that clean fields of weeds.

The solutions? Increase farm diversity through multiple crops, reduce herbicide use to allow more flowering weeds in farm fields and plant non-crop vegetation adjacent to farmland.

The encouraging news is that state and federal governments in the United States are beginning to fund bee conservation projects designed to increase bee diversity through habitat renovations. The dollar values are small, and the projects highly localized, but it’s a start.

Fundamentally, we’re faced with choosing between habitat-based farming that uses ecosystem services to pollinate crops, or chemically based industrial farming that harms habitats and requires managed pollinators, usually honeybees, to be brought into the crop to do the job that wild bees could probably do better.

If I were choosing today, biodiversity would be the cornerstone upon which I would build a research career. It makes more sense to enhance the natural diversity and services that ecosystems could provide than to stay on today’s treadmill of high input, low profit and environmentally damaging farming.