The narrative in the mainstream press about beekeeping tends to be about brave and environmentally conscious beekeepers fighting the scourge of big ag’s pesticides. But the truth is far messier. Step into the world of beekeeping and what you’ll find is a swarm of acrimonious finger pointing and a heavy reliance, by conventional beekeepers, on pesticides. Why would beekeepers use pesticides? Varroa mites.
The varroa mite is a tiny blood sucking parasite that hops on individual bees and infests whole colonies. Originally from Java, varroa first appeared in the United States in 1987. By far the number one topic at any conventional beekeeping conference is the varroa mite. My beekeeping mentor Kirk Anderson likes to quip that the singular obsession with varroa is “like going to dog show where everyone only talks about fleas.”
One of the controversial aspects of what’s come to be called “backwards” (named after an essay by Charles Martin Simon and taught by Anderson) beekeeping has been two practices: keeping feral bees for their believed varroa resistance and not treating bees in order to favor stronger colonies.
Let’s first define what a “feral” bee is. Honey bees are not native to the Americas. They were, most likely, brought here by the Spanish. Since that introduction, some honey bees escaped tended apiaries and took up residence in forests and cities where they have lived, happily, for centuries without much human intervention. To clarify, when I say “feral” bees I mean untended honey bees (Apis mellifera) not any of the 4,000 species of native bees in North America such as carpenter bees and bumblebees.
Most conventional beekeepers buy or breed their own colonies and queens. Backwards beekeepers collect swarms and remove and relocate feral colonies. When it comes to varroa mite these feral colonies have gone through a process of natural selection. When varroa arrived in the Americas, no doubt, many feral colonies died out. But the ones that had natural resistance survived. Over time feral colonies have developed hygiene practices that greatly reduce the varroa problem. They still have varroa, but they don’t succumb to it.
Most controversially, natural, backwards beekeepers such as myself do not treat our bees for mites, believing that such treatment interferes with the microbiome of the colony and leads to bees that lack natural resistance to varroa. No-treatment beekeepers don’t even use so-called “natural” treatments such as dusting with powdered sugar or essential oils.
A technological solution to varroa?
A recent article in Wired Magazine profiled Jerry Hayes, A Swarm of Controversy In Their Struggle for Survival Against Killer Mites, Bees Get an Unlikely Ally: Monsanto. Hayes was a state beekeeping inspector in Florida and an advice columnist in the American Bee Journal before taking a job with Monsanto. The article looks at Hayes’s work at Monsanto which uses RNA interference (RNAi) to target varroa. It’s easy to see why Hayes would be interested in RNAi technology. It has the potential to knock out varroa mite without the many problems of current miticides. Critics of RNAi, however, bring up the issue of risk management: the unintended consequences of using a novel technology such as RNAi. If something did go wrong it could go very wrong, what some scientists refer to as an “oops” moment.
The ideas in the article, like much science reporting in the mainstream press, suffer, in my opinion from what Nassim Taleb calls the “technological salvation fallacy,” the idea that solutions are always technological. It’s an approach that Taleb criticizes as “blind to risk.” It goes hand in hand with an 18th century Enlightenment narrative of continuous improvement that, I believe, is proving incredibly dangerous (see climate change, nuclear weapons, industrialized genocide etc.). To step out of this Hegelian view of history is, in our contemporary culture, to be a crank a description I’ve come to embrace.
My cranky advice for beekeepers
A prescient 1998 paper in the Journal California Agriculture predicted,
It is unlikely that European bees will evolve resistance [to varroa] because commercial beekeepers must treat their colonies with miticides to stay in business. Varroa eliminate feral European colonies that are then replaced either with AHB [Africanized honeybees] or with European colonies derived from nonresistant commercial colonies. In the end, AHB will spread to their ecological limits, wherever they may be.
The future predicted in that article has arrived. I have heard, from three sources in the natural beekeeping community, that conventional beekeepers are secretly buying feral AHB colonies and queens. The reason is simple. AHB colonies live with and don’t succumb to varroa because they were never treated for the problem.
My experience is limited to Southern California and I’ve only kept (well mannered) AHBs. But the no-treatment approach is not limited to AHB. Here’s what Michael Bush has to say about no-treatment beekeeping in an article on his website, Four simple steps to healthier bees,
What is the upside of not treating? You don’t have to buy the treatments. You don’t have to drive to the yard and put the treatments in and drive to the yard to take them out. You don’t have to contaminate your wax. You don’t upset the natural balance by killing off micro and macro organisms that you weren’t targeting but who are killed by the treatments anyway. That would seem like upside enough, but you also give the ecosystem of the bee hive a chance to find some natural balance again.
But the most obvious up side is that until you quit treating you can’t breed for survival against whatever your issues are. As long as you treat you prop up weak genetics and you can’t tell what weaknesses they have. As long as you treat you keep breeding weak bees and super mites. The sooner you stop, the sooner you start breeding mites adapted to their host and bees who can survive with them.
The treatment vs. no-treatment issue is so tribal in nature that, perhaps, we will have to wait for the pro-treatment technological salvationists to depart, along with Elon Musk, for those Martian colonies (good luck with that one guys) and leave us treatment-free beekeepers in peace on good old planet Earth.