Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bees In An Iron Cage? Part IV- Rationalized and Bee Health

On November 4th at 7:30 pm, I will be giving a presentation entitled "Bees in an Iron Cage?: The Formal Rationalization of 20th Century American Apiculture" at the Stark Auditorium at Winona State University. The presentation is part of Winona State's CLASP lecture series which has as its theme this year, Food. I will be collecting my thoughts for this lecture and writing my notes right here on my blog: Canaries In A Coal Mine.

How might the beekeeper's need for efficiency, predictability, and control conflict with the
biophysical needs of the honey bee? Let's consider a few example!

Varroa Mite Control

Recently, Randy Oliver, commercial beekeeper and “amateur” scientist, tested the efficacy of using two sustainable “folk” methods for controlling the varroa mite, a deadly honeybee pest that came very close to wiping out managed and feral honeybees in the early 90s. He discovered that by periodically pulling out and destroying frames of capped drone brood, and dusting bees with powdered sugar, the level of mite infestation can be lowered to a threshold that the bees own hygienic behavior and immune system can deal with. This management approach does not seem to produce any resistant mites as well. Overall, this management approach is quite sustainable for the bees. (Oliver n.d. B)

While such an approach might be regarded as an excellent option for sideline and backyard beekeepers and their handful of hives, commercial beekeepers see this technique as just too labor intensive and inefficient for their large scale operations. These sustainable techniques demand the opening and management of each individual hive on at least a monthly basis. From a short-term economic standpoint, it is much more cost effective to simply use one of the various miticides available to commercial establishments, and wipe out the mites in that way. Of course, in the long-term, even commercial beekeepers recognize, that this approach is not sustainable, and breeds “super mites” who are resistant to the miticide. (c.f. Hayes 2008: 786)

Swarm Prevention and Varroa Infestation

The second illustration also concerns the varroa mite problem as well. The only way unmanaged hives, as a “superorganism”, can reproduce is by means of “swarming”. To put it simply, if, in late spring/early summer, a hive becomes honey-bound, and reaches a critical density, the bees may begin preparations to swarm. The hive begins to produce dozens of queen cells, and both the old queen and close to half the workers prepare to leave in search of a new suitable home in which to start a new colony. Hopefully, one of the virgin queens in the old hive successfully mates and begins work re-establishing a thriving hive within the old colony. From the economic viewpoint of the beekeeper, swarming is something that should be prevented. (Horn 2005:139) A hive that swarms is set back at least a month in honey production. In some beekeepers’ eyes, not preventing swarming can be interpreted as poor, lazy, and neglectful management of a hive. So, beekeepers have developed various techniques and technology for preventing hives from swarming.

While economically unproductive, it does appear as if swarming has some real positive benefits for the future sustainability of the honeybee, however. For one thing, a hive that swarms breaks up the lifecycle of the varroa mite, keeping the level of infestation down.

The eggs of varroa mites are laid in brood cells, and their larvae feast on bee larvae. Until a swarm finds and/or builds new comb, the old queen cannot lay eggs, and without eggs there are no larvae on which the mites can live off. In the old hive, it will take around a month before a new queen is laying eggs, so again, the life-cycle of the mite is disrupted. The reason, then, that African hybrid bees seem resistant to mites has much to do with their tendency to swarm incessantly.

Honey Comb Re-Use

The final example conerns the re-use of drawn comb frames by beekeepers.

The comb that bees create is one of the most fascinating 'organs' of the honey bee colony. Comb is a collaborative construction of worker bees produced from the wax secreted from the wax gland in the worker's abdomen. The comb serves many functions in the hive including: nursery, food storage facility, 'dance' floor, insulation, and 'cell telephone'. (Tautz 2008)

The production of comb by honey bees takes both time and material resources away from other activities that the beekeeper often deems more important. Beeswax contains a good deal of nectar which might be used instead for honey. Until comb is produced, the queen cannot lay eggs, and workers making comb cannot be involved in other activities like nursing larvae, fanning nectar and the like. From the viewpoint of the beekeeper, then, comb production is a wasteful distraction that keeps bees doing productive things.

For this reason, the "rational" beekeeper may save and reuse the same old comb built in the brood nest for decades, "saving" the bees the effort and materials for rebuilding comb. If you examine the managed hives of many older beekeepers you might find blackened, rigid comb 30 years in age. While old comb may be worth it's weight in gold to the beekeeper, it presents a health hazard to the bees. Comb, in some respects, is equivalent to the liver in mammals; it accumulates the environmental toxins used inside and outside the hive and disease spores brought into the hive by the worker foragers and the drones. A thirty year old comb has accumulated thirty years worth of toxins and spores. Only recently have beekeepers begun to recognize the health risks old comb poses to the bees and it is now suggested that beekeepers dispose of comb every 3 years and have the workers rebuild.

Works Cited

Hayes, Jerry. (2008) “The Classroom.” Bee Culture September:783-7.

Horn, Tammy. (2005) Bees in America – How the Honeybee Shaped a Nation.
Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky.

Oliver, Randy.( n.d.) B. “Tactics: Biotechnical Methods I.” . . Accessed September 12, 2008.

Tautz, Jurgen. 2008. The Buzz About Bees: Biology of a Superorganism. Translated by David C. Sandeman. Berlin: Springer.

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