Whatever Happened to Pastoral Beekeeping?

I began to keep bees in the 1970’s, when beekeeping was still the most pastoral of pastimes. I vividly recall long days of tedious repetitive physical labor, the heft of honey-laden supers, that inexpressible feeling of turning off a blacktop road in a flatbed truck and heading down a barely passable forest path that suddenly opens into a sun-speckled bee-loud glade with its peaceful apiary.

Being a good beekeeper then meant being in tune with the seasonal cycle of both bees and flowers, manipulating colonies to peak in population just before the honey flow. You had to respect your bees and know the flowering patterns in the meadows and fields they visited, in a way that made you and the bees partners more than your being just their keeper.

The hard physical labor in beekeeping remains, and it’s still important to read the state of each colony and the surrounding bloom accurately. But today we live in a more complicated era when pests and diseases have pushed beekeeping from pastoral to chemical.

Discussions at the coffee shops where beekeepers chew over their beekeeping no longer focus on how to prevent swarming, or what’s in bloom. Rather, beekeepers are more likely to yack about the bewildering array of pesticides and antibiotics required to keep their colonies functioning, many of which have become less and less effective due to overuse and misuse.

I was reminded of this tragic shift in emphasis away from managing bees and towards managing chemicals by the 2014 Ontario treatment recommendations for honeybee diseases and mite control (http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/food/inspection/bees/2014-treatment.htm). Ontario’s guide is a good one, similar to guides found in states and provinces around the world. Almost all jurisdictions recommend similarly intensive chemical-heavy beekeeping, and they share the realistic assumption that chemicals are required if colonies are to survive.

Take control for the varroa mite, arguably the most serious honeybee pest today. It feeds on pupal bees while they develop, and again on adults when they emerge, but its major impact is through the viruses it transmits and activates.

The options for varroa control are grim: use one of a number of synthetic chemicals, most of which the mites have become resistant to, or use organic acids such as formic acid that are marginally effective, noxious to apply, and have a narrow range of temperature conditions under which they can be applied.

Then there’s the bacterial disease American Foulbrood (AFB). It’s a serious disease, and most jurisdictions today require infected colonies to be either burned or the bees killed and the comb irradiated.

Many guides still advise beekeepers to use preventative treatments, applying antibiotics in the spring and fall whether the colony is infected or not. Not surprisingly, AFB resistant to antibiotics from this extensive exposure has become a growing problem, an expected consequence of using antibiotics to prevent rather than cure disease.

There are other pests and diseases treated chemically, such as small hive beetle and the fungal disease nosema, and for these as well as viral diseases there are a host of monitoring regimes that beekeepers conduct to regularly assess their disease and pest loads.

Taken together, monitoring and treatment take up a considerable portion of the time beekeepers spend with their bees. Apiaries seem more like a hospital emergency room than a glade in the woods.

I’d consider myself a curmudgeon on the issue of how chemical dependence has supplanted traditional beekeeping skills, except for one thing: the chemical approach isn’t working. Honeybee colonies continue to die at a rate of about one-third of all colonies annually. You’d think with that kind of mortality we might be inspired to take a step back and ponder whether beekeeping chemicals might be part of the problem.

The peace and calm from the bee-loud glade stand in marked contrast to the dissonant tone created by our growing dependence on pesticides and antibiotics to keep bees.

Here’s the present-day irony: honeybees will die if untreated, but relying too heavily on the treatments has accelerated colony demise.

We’re trapped in this tragic cycle of increasing chemical use. Only a conscious and concerted effort will return us to the beekeeping of yesteryear, when keeping bees was the most natural of pastimes.