Bee farmers: what do you fear? One of the topics I asked bee farmers about, as part of my interview process, was along the lines of “what could go wrong?” and “what are the biggest threats?” Here are some selections of the responses I got:
Mike Palmer French Hill Apiaries, Vermont, USA:
MP “I hope I don’t stay in it one year too long and have a big catastrophe or something right when I’m getting ready to get out of it.”
SD “Such as?”
MP “Like a big varroa crash or a new disease comes along. We don’t have that great an inspection program, so what would happen if a beginner started keeping bees in used equipment by my breeding station?”
SD “It could completely ruin you.”
MP “If they got foulbrood into my mating nucs…I don’t know if I’d ever rebuild it again. So yeah, I’m concerned about that quite a lot.”
SD “Can you get insurance for that?”
On farming practices
MP “I think the problem at least in my area is not the neonicotinoids but the loss of forage caused by farmers turning meadows and hay fields into corn and soya bean fields, so the pasture is being eliminated. If you get right down in the valleys, all that is left is hedgerows. There are no more pastures anymore here. Cattle stays in the barn 12 months per year; they don’t need the pastures anymore, so they dug them up, put drainage in and grew corn and soya beans.”
MP “I got appointed by the governor to be on the pollinator protection committee. We have to come up with a plan to protect pollinators, both managed and unmanaged, honeybees and bumble bees and all sorts of other insects.”
SD “When did that happen?”
MP “In the fall of 2016 through to spring 2017, to come up with some guidelines. Almost the whole thing was about neonicotinoids – how to regulate, should we ban them? I think we finally came down to agree that we don’t want to ban them because they are an important tool for the farmers… “
MP “But we want to regulate them. So rather than every cornfield in Vermont being planted with neonicotinoid corn, you have to show need, so you have to do a survey of the field that’s going to be planted with corn, to find out the wireworm load, and if it reaches a threshold number then you can order your corn with neonicotinoid in it. I would rather see that than see farmers spraying organophosphates all over the countryside and killing every flying thing within range. At least it’s targeted.”
Murray McGregor Denrosa Apiaries, Coupar Angus, Scotland:
MM “Pests and diseases? We’ve seen most of them now. We encounter, on a regular basis, nosema of both types, chalkbrood, sacbrood, European Foul Brood, very rarely American Foul Brood, and varroa of course. One thing that’s disappeared since varroa has been treated for is braula, which was a parasitic fly that lived on the bees. You saw it in every hive, but now we haven’t seen for years.”
MM “The biggy of all these is varroa, and varroa brings along with it viruses, or it brings increased susceptibility to viruses that were already there. The big thing for the rest of my lifetime and probably the next generation is going to be the constant war against varroa, and the continual need for fresh and effective treatments.”
SD “Because they get resistant?”
MM “They get resistant to it. There are a lot of fairly interesting and a lot of fairly romantic notions about the breeding of varroa resistant bees. It will happen in time, but I’m not holding my breath. Most of the schemes to produce resistant bees at the moment either peter out or they produce a bee that’s of little or no commercial value because they are so obsessed with hygiene that they don’t raise enough brood because they’re always picking it out.”
MM “There’s a long way to go before we have a resistant bee that won’t require treatment and will continue to be healthy. A lot of people focus so much on varroa and viruses that they forget that the old killers, especially nosema haven’t gone away. They are still there so you must maintain your hives in decent condition and feed them for Winter with good sound food that is not going to cause any conditions like dysentery, so you can prevent nosema from becoming a runaway problem.”
MM “Nosema is a sneaky one. There are two nosemas; the traditional old one nosema apis which used to cause colonies to collapse in Winter or fail to build up in the Spring, and there’s nosema ceranae which is a relative newcomer, and it has a completely different pattern in that it gets you in the warm weather, in the Summer. There are both around, and they both require you to manage bees in a sound manner without stressing them too much because as soon as they get stressed or start to defecate inside the hive, it just becomes a runaway problem.
Keep your bees fed with as clean food as possible on relatively clean new combs and then you to put them on a site where they are not sitting in a cold pool. Sitting in cold, dank air makes things worse. These things reduce the risk of nosema, but you can’t be completely sure that you’ll be away from it.”
SD “Ok, so from all your years of looking after bees what would you say the worst disease or pest problem you have ever had was?”
MM “On an ongoing basis over the years the thing that has probably lost us more colonies and cost us more income than anything else will be varroa. However, in 2009 this area was hit with a European Foul Brood (EFB) outbreak which was the biggest the UK had ever seen, and we had to destroy 169 colonies that season. “
Peter Little Exmoor Bees & Beehives, Exmoor, UK:
PL “I hate pesticides with a vengeance. I can’t imagine any beekeeper in their right mind liking pesticides. As regards the neonicotinoids that they have now, what worries me is what will take the place of it? I haven’t seen any harm to my bees, but I live in a place that’s not arable. This is wild countryside, we haven’t really got anything arable. All of my bees are on wildflowers and chestnut trees and rosebay and clover; it’s not like some people who have nothing but thousands of acres of oilseed rape.
Even when I’ve taken bees to oilseed rape over the years I’ve never had any problems, apart from 32 hives which were poisoned, but that was a foliar spray, nothing to do with neonicotinoids. In fact, I wish they’d been using neonics back then. Apart from that one incident, all of the times I’ve had my bees working on oilseed rape I’ve never seen any ill effects in any way whatsoever; no harm to the bees, no reduction in the colonies, no after effects, no ill effects, nothing wrong whatsoever. “
On replacing neonicotinoids with the older pesticides
PL “What really worries me if that’s all banned, which it is, is that they start going back to the old foliar spray, spraying the crops, and they don’t always stick to doing it at night time, because when they’ve got thousands of acres to do they can’t keep coming back every night to do it. When they get spray contractors in, the contractors are going to spray that crop. It’s like they did with the lambda-cyhalothrin and triazole; one thing on its own is safe enough, but when they tank mix it the triazole forms the lamba-cyhalothryn into an emulsion, and according to Syngenta you need to keep your bees shut up for three days, at least.
It’s no good overnight, you need to either move them away or shut them up for three days because that emulsion that forms on the plant is toxic. The fungicide mixed with the insecticide together is the problem; if they used one on its own it would be safe the next morning. They mix the two together because it saves time and money – why do two separate sprays when you can chuck it all in one tank and do it at one time? It’s the economics of it.”
PL “Being a beekeeper I hate pesticides but I really worry; better the devil you know…if we go back to some of those old pesticides that were used, and I’ve seen the result of that – piles of dead bees outside hives – that’s what worries me, it’s really indiscriminate stuff.”
On Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus
PL “Now it seems there are lots of other viruses. CBPV is one of the big ones, there’s a real problem with it throughout the country, and that’s why Giles Budge and Professor David Evans have got the funding now at St Andrew’s, through the NBU, to do research on it. I’ve got one of the testing kits which they sent to me, so I can send any bees that I have with CBPV to them. It’s been wiping out colonies big time. Some people have had 40 or 50 colonies in an apiary wiped out with it. It’s been wiping out 50% of some bee farmers’ stocks.”
SD “I thought it was because they had too heavy a varroa load.”
PL “No, CBPV is not varroa related. They think now that this was what acarine was in the past, not the tracheal mite but the virus. Over the last 4-5 years its been getting worse and worse. It makes no sense. I had an apiary last year with 35 hives and one colony got it. It comes suddenly – at first you think you’ve got a spray poisoning incident, you’ve got dead bees all around the front, but not over a big area, just under the entrance. They can be 2-3 inches deep, with dead bees, yet a week earlier there wasn’t a problem. All of a sudden you have piles of dead bees and bees trembling, shaking. They aren’t black and shiny or anything, just normal bees, but shaking.”
SD “What about the black shiny ones – is that a different virus? “
PL “It’s a paralysis, but this one they don’t have to be shiny black. You will get hairless bees in there. They look shiny because they are hairy, the other bees have been nibbling at them, but they are not black, just shiny. The queen might be laying like mad, and they’ll supersede her, and then she’ll die, and that’s the end of them, unless you re-queen, but then she’ll die. Or the virgin will mate and she’ll be superseded again. They keep dying and dying. You’d have to feed them.
You can have a hive hive in the middle of an apiary that gets it – it goes on for 3 months, stinks to high heaven – you have to spade away the dead bees every week, they dwindle down to half the size, then all of a sudden it stops! No more dead bees, just like it’s been switched off. They start collecting honey again, they build up and if you’re lucky they may get strong enough to overwinter, and they may never get it again. You don’t see a sign of it in that colony again ever. “
PL “In another colony, it goes on and on and on, and then they die out completely. I had an apiary with 16 hives and it started in the strongest one, and they dwindled and dwindled, and all 16 hives got it – every single hive. This went on for three months. All the hives survived apart from that first one. I moved it miles away to somewhere remote and they died. One of the colonies went down to 2 frames of bees which I put in a nuc with a virgin, and I moved them away but they lived, and I’ve still got them. All the other hives got over it, the other 14. It stopped like the day it started, and most of them produced quite a bit of heather honey, strangely.”
PL “Why is it that you can have one hive get it out of 35 and none of the others get it, even a hive six inches away, and then in another apiary, they all get it – every hive. It makes no sense.”
Richard Noel Bees In Brittany, Corseul, France:
His perspective on the arrival of the Asian Hornet into the UK
RN “Regarding my thoughts on the introduction of Asian hornets into the UK, I don’t think it will ever be a major problem. I don’t feel that geographically it’s far enough South to really raise big nests. The UK is a quarter of the size of France and has less unpopulated areas. The problem is when you get one nest that does reach maturity, and it does realise a lot of queens then, yes, a lot of queens will start the following year. But I think overall there will be so many people aware of this, that even if that does happen, they’ll do trapping the following Spring to catch the queens.”
RN “The process the hornet has to go through to achieve another nest somewhere else is likely to be halted somewhere along the line more so in the UK than here. We don’t have the foot soldiers here. England has done a great job with the publicity, and they have been proactive in dealing with the nest they found in Tetbury. They have done a lot of talks on it, and they have been able to learn from others in Europe who have had the Asian hornet for a while.”
RN “A lot of people in the UK are petrified that this is going to be a killer hornet, but I can tell you, we are still keeping bees in France, and the problem is that the further south you go the hotter it is, the more water there is, and Asian hornets love water. They hunt for insects on the water. So I think the queens have an easier time overwintering the further South you go. Quite a lot of them die here because it gets cold. In some parts of Spain, it is challenging now; they are inundated with Asian hornets.”
RN “The other thing I’d say is that whenever you get a pest arriving as an invasive species the first year it comes in it’s incredible, it’s so overwhelmingly strong, but then afterwards it seems to decrease. I wonder if the success of the trapping was also to do with the hornet being less prolific in its second year. I don’t know. There’s also the issue that these hornets are from a very narrow genetic line, and they haven’t come from Asia as several queens; it’s been one queen that founded a nest in the Girond, and that’s where all the others have come from.
The scientists say that they reckon the Hornets in Tetbury had the same genetics as our ones. I think that one thing that isn’t helping them in Europe is that very narrow genetic line. But I’m not a specialist, and I’m only telling you what I see and what I know.”
RN “It’s depressing seeing how many hives people are losing in Spain but up here we don’t tend to lose hives. We have issues with hornets taking bees from outside hives, but it’s far worse further South. I think it’s brilliant that in the UK they are proactive and going into it with their eyes open, and not panicking. I think there will be the odd nest, but I don’t think it will be a major problem because there are more foot soldiers and it will be well managed. I think there will be nests, and it will terrify some people, but after a while, they will think, ‘hang on a minute, we’ve had these for four years, and nothing major has happened.'”
Hope some of you found that helpful. Back to transcribing interviews now!
One thought on “Bee Farmers: What do you fear?”
Some fascinating insights here, thanks for taking the time to record these.