The Hush of Hives

By Linda Harper, The Honeybee Conservancy

January 31, 2014

I love my bees and beekeeping is not only rewarding but the scent of rich, moist, fresh honey and bees is a fragrance unforgettable. Connoisseurs testify that there is nothing greater than to bite into fresh honey comb as it’s the first time the honey is exposed to air. But I’m discouraged by all the deaths of honey bees. I fret over the fact that more isn’t happening to educate and rein in beekeeping practices. Honey bees are on the brink of extinction; how far are we willing to let things go before we realize that it’s more than honey.

I look at the hives standing in my yard and love to hear the hum of thousands of bees flying in all directions, perfectly sighted to their business of keeping flora and fauna pollinated so that we humans have ever abundant delicacies to reap.

For me, the fear began in 2007 after the National Honey Board’s winter count came in from 2006. Here in Ohio the year started wonderfully, a hot wet spring that produced a waist-deep carpet of wildflowers. My hives boiled with bees as my colonies survived the winter.

In other parts of the country, Scientists blamed the devastating deaths on weather, then pesticides, then urban sprawl. Then the big label… CCD. It was daunting to learn that bees were dying in mass everywhere. The American Beekeeping Federation survey reads like a casualty list of a horrific battle: ”Maine 80% loss… . Massachusetts 55-75%… . Michigan 60%… . ”

Their final answer, Varroa mites, which cause deformities and paralysis; introduce viruses and ultimately kill entire colonies. The best guess on how the mites got here is that in the 1980’s a beekeeper smuggled honeybee queens from South America hoping their offspring would pollinate more efficiently and produce more honey. But along with queens, the beekeeper brought Varroa mites too. Because bees groom each other constantly, mites spread from one bee to another clinging to them as they go about their busy lives. Since commercial beekeepers often follow blooms across the country, mites easily traveled the continent.

It would be as pointless as it would be easy to blame the die-offs on the smuggling beekeeper. The collapse was inevitable anyway. In February the hills surrounding Modesto, Calif., roll with white-blossomed almond trees. Although miles of almond flowers may be beautiful, they are as unnatural as Frankenstein’s monster. The staggering number of blooms to be pollinated grossly out numbers the capacity of wild pollinators like bumblebees, moths, wasps and beetles to set fruit. This causes almond ranchers to pay commercial beekeepers to bring in truckloads of bees for the four-week bloom.

Almonds aren’t the only crop needing mass pollination. Apples, cherries, pears, raspberries, cranberries, blueberries, cucumbers, watermelons; each of these densely packed crops requires similarly densely packed beehives to set fruit.

The strengths that have made modern beekeeping the foundation upon which the agricultural infrastructure rests are precisely the weaknesses that have made beekeeping and modern agribusiness vulnerable to something as tiny as the mite. These are the woven attributes of standardization; the use of one pollinator across many crops; density: the annual gathering of half a million hives to pollinate a monocrop, and mobility: the transportation of bees, and consequently mites, to and from all parts of the country.

We now know that there are a number of open variables causing the honey bee crisis. They are part of the knitted eco culture we depend on for our world to survive; not as an island, but together unabridged. We have to stop extinction of all species in spite of the nuisance to man. Everything is part of this wonderful whole.

Are you a beekeeper? The Honeybee Conservancy is here to help. If you have questions or responses to this article, let us know. Write to us at PO Box 128, Mount Gilead, OH 43338.