For the Love of Bees and Beekeeping
by Keith Delaplane
Last month I indulged in a bit of nostalgia, recalling an abandoned apiary just down the road from where I grew up. It was in a meadow of unmown grass, snuggled along a wobbly fence, and shaded under a big tree. Over the coarse of 18 years I watched its unpainted boxes molder slowly into the ground. In spite of the unpromising facade, this little scene was a happy place full of life, as every summer the air above those boxes shimmered with the comings and goings of the inmates, numerous, healthy, and thriving in complete absence of any human hand.
Fast-forward to today, and one can’t hang around beekeeping circles long before an idea like this comes up in conversation – the idea of minimal human footprint on honey bee management. The variety of its labels underscores the variety of perspectives of its practioners. Called natural beekeeping, organic beekeeping, let-alone beekeeping, or survivor-stock beekeeping, the movement is a reaction against the perception that things have gone too far when it comes to chemical mite control and Big Agriculture. Like so many mega-trends in beekeeping, this one can ultimately be laid at the feet of Varroa mites, given that no other disorder makes such persuasive arguments for chemical treatments inside bee hives. Overnight, the arrival of Varroa mites in the 1980s transitioned beekeeping from one of the most chemical-averse agricultural industries to one of its most chemical-dependent, and this state of affairs has been a preoccupation of these columns the last few months.
So this month I want to linger a little on the idea of natural, survivor-stock beekeeping and the murky mixture of science and ideology that surrounds it. And to begin, let’s note that honey bees occupy a peculiar niche straddling the world of agriculture and the world of natural ecology. In the centuries since its introduction by European settlers, the western honey bee has become naturalized throughout North America. Encountering similar latitudes, seasonality, and plant life here as it had in its native Europe, Apis mellifera was equally at home wild in our forests or managed in our hives. Unlike some other exotic newcomers, a strong case has never been made that A. mellifera is damaging to our native species. To the contrary, it is a credible pollinator for many plants cultured and wild. Overall, among exotic species it is safe to say that honey bees are beneficial at best and neutral at worst. This ambiguity about honey bees’s niche explains how North American beekeepers have become skillful at wearing the “wild animal” hat versus the “domesticated animal” hat, as warranted by political circumstances or municipal zoning regulations.
Now the phrase “survivor stock” borrows from a lexicon attached to Charles Darwin, the great 19th century English naturalist who along with Alfred Russel Wallace first articulated a coherent idea of natural selection and biological evolution. The great insight of these thinkers was that natural forces, things like weather, seasonality, available food resources, predators, parasites, competitors, and any number of interactions with other species affect the ability of any one species to survive and reproduce. Those individuals of a species that possess favorable gene combinations have a greater likelihood of surviving, reproducing, and passing those favorable genes along to a next generation. Thus, genes favorable to a local condition tend to accumulate in a local population. In this manner, over geologic time the environment literally “shapes” a species so that it is finely tuned to survive and thrive in that locality. Those individuals that are “fit” survive; those that aren’t, don’t. Hence the popular phrase “survival of the fittest” to sum up Darwin’s and Wallace’s great insight.
When it comes to survivor stock in modern beekeeping, proponents are usually thinking in terms of honey bees that can withstand Varroa mites without the assistance of any miticide applied by the beekeeper. The idea is that genes for Varroa resistance exist in the western honey bee and that chemical miticide applications, although winning the beekeeper short-term relief, are ultimately counterproductive because they delay the inevitable reckoning of the “unfit”’ bees with the natural reality of Varroa mites. Better that the unfit die off and remove their genes from the population. What this looks like on the ground is, proponents decide in advance that they will forego miticide applications and accept the catastrophic losses that follow, hoping that a fraction of the colonies survive, however small, and serve as breeding stock for a subsequent generation. It is these golden survivors that theoretically possess genes to withstand Varroa mites. If one has the courage to endure the carnage that ensues in the early stages, he or she will be rewarded with a bee line that can increasingly withstand Varroa depredation without the need for environmentally-damaging or ideologically-offensive miticides.
Let’s pause here to note that such a practitioner is clearly wearing the honey-bee-as-wild-animal hat. It’s hard to imagine a similar mind-set taking hold in dairy cattle, beef, or poultry, and my gut reaction is to think it’s a bit severe to single out honey bees for this kind of strong medicine. But as always in these kinds of reflections, a good starting point is to accumulate published data on the matter.