An era of populism, conspiracy theories, idiotic social media clickbait and cavernous divides between rich and poor, conservative and liberal values is upon us. Perhaps the last time things were this bad was in the 1930s, and we know how that turned out. Ray Dalio goes into the various economic cycles that continue throughout history in ‘The Changing World Order: Why Nations succeed and Fail‘. I don’t think he mentions beekeeping. Beekeeping is a glorious escape from the world’s troubles, for which I’m grateful. I hope it stays that way.
The Bad Guys
In recent times I have, however, been vexed by some of the information being peddled by various organisations and individuals within the beekeeping community. The divide between bee farmers and hobby beekeepers seems to be wider than ever; these are two worlds that rarely overlap. It’s not just bee farmers. Farmers generally seem to be under fire from all angles, as if they are somehow the bad guys. Meanwhile, everyone continues to eat and drink the produce that farming provides.
Some vital work goes on locally, but the higher up the food chain, the more political it inevitably gets. As a member of the British Beekeeping Association – a secretary of one branch and a committee member of our county BKA – I get some bizarre emails concerning the latest established ‘truth’ about the so-called plight of our bees. It’s not all bad, so I still pay my membership fee, but I’m beginning to have doubts. My focus is on honey bees, but I love all bees and don’t feel great about the dwindling numbers of many insect species.
The BBKA has gone BIG on the neonicotinoid derogation thing for sugar beet grown in certain parts of the UK (mostly East Anglia). To me, it seems hysterical and over the top. Do we consume sugar? Where will we buy sugar if UK farmers’ crops fail due to the spread of disease by uncontrolled aphids? Oh yes, the EU, where many countries have also granted the derogation allowing neonics for emergency use. If we hammer our farmers then buy food from abroad, where farmers have an unfair competitive advantage due to less stringent regulation, how does that help? I respect other points of view but was heartened to see the following letter from Ken Basterfield NDB in the April issue of Bee Craft:
Ken Basterfield NDB
Sugar beet never gets to flower and consequently never attracts pollinators. Farmed sugar beet is what beekeepers refer to as ‘green desert’ – it produces nothing of flowering interest to bees. Pollinators are therefore safe with sugar beets that have been dressed with neonicotinoid pesticides.
To campaign against a pesticide use which has no direct consequence on honey bee activity is an anti-pesticide rather than a pro-honey bee one. I think it is very foolish to be squandering environmental credibility on something which is not a problem for honey bees. Is the BBKA changing, like the RSPB and RSPCA, to go beyond its traditional limits and become ‘conservators of everything’?
I expect someone will raise the old chestnut of residual contamination of the soil. Our experience of providing pollinators for OSR on a big scale showed us how rapidly cabbage stem flea beetle returned to ravage unprotected rapeseed once neonic seed treatment was withdrawn. That was real hands-on experience, not vague theory. Long term, there was no residual contamination or protection at all.
There is the obvious parallel of varroa feeding on adult bees and larvae and spreading viral diseases. Can we expect farmers to call for a ban on the pesticides that beekeepers use to keep varroa at bay? People who live in glass houses…I urge you not to support this silly emotional call for a ban on sugar beet treatment.
When I asked bee farmers (for my book) whether or not neonic treated OSR negatively affected their bees, they told me that their bees did incredibly well on it and showed no ill effects. They believed that insecticides kill insects (doh!), so it would be great if we didn’t need them. However, their bees thrived on treated OSR. Mike Palmer was concerned about soil and water contamination caused by overuse. He advocated a system where neonics are only used under certain conditions – just like those in the derogation.
I saw a silly video the other day in which a beekeeper showed some dying bees and blamed farmers’ spraying. It wasn’t that; it was old winter bees dying off. Bees do die naturally!
There is another theory doing the rounds that says that honey bees compete with other pollinators to their detriment and that honey bees spread diseases to bumbles. Norman Carreck wrote a piece on this in the latest BKQ magazine, showing that the evidence is far from clear cut. Honey bees and wild pollinators visit different plants for much of the season. Some evidence suggests that virus transmission between species is not all one-way; it may be that ABPV actually came to honey bees via bumbles.
While I’m annoying everybody, I might mention (again) the apparently hot topic of the importation of queens. Amateurs probably do some of this, but I imagine that most imported queens go to UK bee farmers. It’s those evil farmers again. Raising queens is a crucial part of my beekeeping operation. Still, not everyone has the time or inclination to do that. If you are a small bee farmer with maybe 200 hives, you are flat out on actual beekeeping. If you need queens, you buy them from somebody professional and skilled at rearing queens. Does it not make sense to use the best available stock for your beekeeping business? You go bust if you import queens that make no honey and drop dead. The proof is in the eating.
If bee farmers import queens from, say, Denmark or Germany, they are great queens that do well here. If they were not adapted to our location, it wouldn’t work. How different is the climate and fauna in northern Europe to my part of Cheshire anyway? If there were more large scale good quality queen producers in the UK, with quality/price on a par with those from abroad, imports would go down. Incidentally, many of the leading queen producers in the UK use imported breeder queens. You are often buying a cross between a ‘foreign’ queen and local drones in the UK, although attempts will be made to flood the area with drones from other imported queens.
This study based in the USA tested the hypothesis that ‘local bees’ would over-winter better than bees from far off locations in different climate zones – they didn’t. They found that the weight of the colony going into winter was a significant determinant of winter survival. The importation of queens from southern Europe is driven by the need to replace winter losses when there is no availability in the north. It’s not ideal, but if you don’t do it, you become an ex-bee farmer after a bad winter – is that what we want? I take queens through winter in nucs, which means I don’t have to buy queens in, but many people don’t.
I would always encourage people to raise their own queens, take some through winter in nucs, and buy from a good quality queen producer when necessary. If that means getting some from abroad, so be it. I don’t see it as the crime of the century. The workers from imported queens get sent off to be tested, and regulations are in place, which, if followed, should mean imports of queens are not especially risky. There is clearly a business opportunity for those who want to raise UK queens. Thousands of beekeepers think imports are wrong but can’t always find local availability. I’ve seen a few suppliers ‘upscaling’ and at least one substantial start-up, which is encouraging.
I only managed to cover a couple of controversial topics before running out of space! There are so many more. Perhaps another time.