Will Honeybees Have a Sweet Future?

Feature Story by Jim Piateski and Ray Ladbury

The Past

Although there are as many as a dozen species of honeybee, only two have been domesticated, and the bees that buzz through our lazy summer afternoons belong to only one: the western honeybee.  Although it is also called the European honeybee, it likely originated in Africa or Asia.  They were first domesticated in Egypt, where shards of pottery from 7000 BC carry traces of beeswax.

jim bees and kids 2012
Beekeeper Jim Piateski shows and tells about honeybees to a delighted crowd at Wildlife Achievement

Honeybees were among the first species introduced by European colonists to the Americas during the 17th century. Although there were native pollinators in the Americas at the time, none existed in such large colonies as the honeybee.  Nor did they hoard a surplus crop for our enjoyment. Moreover, a 17th century honey harvest could be a risky affair for both the harvester and the bees.

Wild colonies of bees lived in hollow trees and other available cavities, and harvesting the sweet reward meant tearing into the colony to remove the honeycomb inside. This often meant destruction of the colony and suffering numerous stings.  Domed basket hives called skeps made keeping bees more manageable, but removing the honey still wreaked havoc on the colony. In the middle of the 19th century several clever folks came up with hives that contained moveable frames. The arrangement we see most often today was developed by a Philadelphia minister named Langstroth. This concept allowed easy expansion of the colony simply by setting another hive box, called a super, on top. The surplus honey was stored above the brood rearing chamber and could be removed without damaging the population center of the colony.

One can also see how this improved arrangement lent itself to the eventual commercialization of honey production and pollination services. Beekeepers and the colonies they kept thrived, providing honey in every grocery store and pollinating crops from almonds in California to blueberries in Maine.  Government estimates the value of honeybees to the U.S. economy at over $15 billion per year. Unfortunately, that contribution along with the honeybees themselves is now under threat.

Today’s Threats

As a beekeeper for nearly 40 years, I have seen how the challenges involved with beekeeping have increased dramatically.  Nearly everyone has heard of what has been dubbed “colony collapse disorder” or CCD. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been one clearly defined reason for these phenomena. We used to be concerned about foulbrood, wax moth infestation, and mice during the winter. Bears were a problem in some areas as were skunks.We now have small hive beetles, varroa mites and tracheal mites. A new affliction on the scene is called Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. The hits just keep on coming!

Most of these pests won’t seriously impact a robust hive but if they get a foothold, the hive gradually weakens and then other invaders can take over. As the population dwindles, other bees will rob out the collected stores since the diseased hive can’t defend itself.   Climate change has also increases stress on colonies by playing havoc with the bloom cycles of many plants, which can decrease yields of both honey and pollen.

The bête noir du jour is neonicotinoids (neonics), systemic insecticides that can be
applied to seeds or foliage. They are absorbed into the plant and work against any insect that sucks fluids from the plant. When bees collect nectar and pollen from treated plants, they are essentially poisoning themselves and bringing tainted pollen and nectars back as food for the brood and adults. In some cases, the bees die. In other cases, the poisons affect their navigational skills as well as their ability to communicate food source information. Neonics have been deemed safe by the companies that produce them. No surprise there. The EPA requires notices stating the danger to pollinators but has not banned these products outright. Data collection is ongoing and one day we may see a ban. For the moment, the almighty dollar seems to reign supreme.

The Future

On the bright side, many League chapters have established apiaries (bee hives) on their grounds. At present all Montgomery County chapters and the National Office have managed colonies on their property. This reflects the general resurgence in the gentle art of keeping bees and is encouraging.

Another source of optimism is the “locivore” movement. People that buy locally sourced food often comment on how much better local honey is than what they can buy at the chain grocery store. They learn how important healthy bee and other pollinator populations are to our food supply. Beekeeping demonstrations always draw attention at chapter events and local fairs. These marvelous little insects
always intrigue those who take the time to learn a little bit about them. Local extension services often hold classes to teach what you need to know to get started as a beekeeper and most beekeepers are also helpful to novices.

So what about the future of honeybees? While there are no guarantees in life, it seems the renewed interest in how important honeybees and other pollinators are to our lives will continue to focus attention to the obstacles they face. As more people become aware of the issues surrounding honeybees and other pollinators, they will continue to advocate against misuse of pesticides and for maintaining an environment in which bees can thrive.  Honeybees have been part of our human history for thousands of years.  As long as there are people willing to undertake beekeeping as a hobby, there is a future for honeybees.