Infestations rarer among professional beekeepers
Hobby beekeeping is very common. A European Bee Health Report found that in many countries, the majority of beekeepers pursue the activity as a hobby. They give Germany as an example: 80% of beekeepers keep just 1–20 colonies, 18% keep 21–50 colonies and only about 2% keep more than 50 colonies. They note that improving expertise and education are likely good ways to improve honey bee health.
They may be on to something. In fact, in the past months two scientific publications – a large European surveillance study, and an essay in Journal of Economic Entomology – turn the spotlight on bee management, holding handling factors, like the lack of appropriate treatment, largely accountable for the spread of bee mites and diseases.
Bee epidemics have become a growing problem for both wild and cultivated bees thanks to the spread of the cultivated European honey bee. The Varroa Destructor mite is at the core of the problem, because it also passes on bee diseases (I have discussed this more at length in my earlier bee health piece).
The recent Pan-European epidemiological study reveals that honey bee colony survival depends on beekeeper education and disease control. It shows that it is first and foremost hobby beekeepers, who have trouble with epidemics:
[…] honey bees kept by professional beekeepers never showed signs of disease, unlike apiaries from hobbyist beekeepers that had symptoms of bacterial infection and heavy Varroa infestation.
The Essay in Journal of Ec. Entomology, Role of Human Action in the Spread of Honey Bee (Hymenoptera: Apidae) Pathogens, similarly asks beekeepers to look in the mirror, pointing out both inappropriate and un-approved use of treatments, which has hastened development of resistance, as well as the failure to treat Varroa infestations, especially among hobby beekeepers. As reported in the ScienceDaily:
The opportunities for arresting honey bee declines rest as strongly with individual beekeepers as they do with the dynamics of disease.
These ‘poor management practices’ pointed out above, however, may have less to do with errors or lack of education, and more to do with the personal convictions of the beekeeper, as one hobbyist beekeeper recently led me to understand. I decided to investigate, and I didn’t have to look long.
It turns out that for thousands of beekeepers, ‘management’ is a dirty word.
There are blogs, groups, a podcast, even a conference dedicated to going ‘treatment-free’, or ‘TF’ as they call themselves. Some go as far as to say that any interference on behalf of the well-being of the hive is wrong. They think the Varroa mite should simply be allowed to run its course.
I had stumbled upon the anti-vaccine equivalent of the beekeeping crowd. Let me walk you through what I found.
Hobby beekeepers flock to ‘treatment-free’ trend
I had to follow up to see if this ‘treatment-free’ philosophy really was a thing. True enough, there is at least a Facebook page called Treatment-free beekeeping, and it has more than 16,000 members. They define their group ethos like this:
[…] treatment-free beekeeping and the promotion thereof. We do not talk about treatments except to mention, in passing, the damage they cause.
The rhetoric is chillingly alike to that of the anti-vaccine proponents’: only expressing ideas about the purported dangers of the treatments is okay. This is concerning, considering that there are always risks to every choice we make, as with whether to treat or not to treat. It is only careful evaluation of those risks in context that can tell us which is the best choice to make.
In this case, thinking of risks in context goes out the window, however, for ‘treatment-free’ philosophy encourages allowing Varroa mites to kill bees. The infestation is seen as something ‘the hives must go through’, whereas any potential harm from treatments is to be avoided, period.
I continued looking to find out how widespread this line of thinking might be. I found the Treatment-free beekeeping podcast, which has over 100,000 downloads. I even stumbled on a Treatment-free beekeeping conference, held in the US for the 10th time in March 2017. Among their list of speakers, the official sounding title of ‘the director of the International Natural Beekeeping Federation’ caught my eye, represented by its director, Laura Ferguson. I quickly discovered that the federation seems only to exist on Facebook, however, but her other title ‘director of a Center for Sacred Beekeeping‘ yielded a web page. Reading from it, her aim is to bring a more ‘holistic’ view to beekeeping, so that it will be more ‘in tune with nature’. On her page she also refers to a ‘Bee healing guild’, a ‘non-profit BE-ing’, where Lady Spirit Moon teaches courses on ancient healing with bee venom. I feel we have come rather far from the earthly realm, where bees live, at this point.
It appears that this ‘treatment-free’ movement may be opposed to most scientific recommendations on bee management, and are more interested in what appeals to them as ‘natural’. Part of the attraction may also be a sort of ‘laissez-faire’ attitude, having an approach to beekeeping that requires less work – one ‘TF’ beekeeper and blogger I found, at Parker Farms, says his aim as a promoter and practitioner of ‘TF’ is to ‘eliminate dependence on the back-breaking and time and energy intensive manipulations’ in beekeeping.
In fact, he argues that ‘treatment’ should be avoided on all levels, whether it be pest repelling substances or other ways of beekeepers interfering in bee survival. Anything ‘introduced by the beekeeper into the hive with the intent of killing, repelling, or inhibiting a pest or disease afflicting the bees, or in any way “helping” the bees to survive’ – even artificial feeding of a weak hive is a no-go. Being TF, he says, means also swearing off ‘manipulations or equipment that are done/introduced with the intent to “help” the bees survive’. He writes:
So, what is ‘treatment-free?’ Treatment-free is the way bees live in the wild. It’s the way the species ultimately survives. And it’s why I don’t treat my bees and you shouldn’t either.
[…] It’s a harsh reality, but nature consists of one harsh reality after another. It’s why gazelles are fast and cheetahs are faster.
This gives me pause. By this logic it is very much okay if a number of bee species should die out thanks to the Varroa mite and disease – those bees just weren’t strong enough as species. Too bad?
Many conservationists seem to disagree with the idea, and consider that if wide-spread cultivation of honey bees has caused a disease-epidemic, we should take steps to control it, and stop it from spreading to susceptible wild bee species. Diseases do spread when they have the opportunity to do so – that is perfectly natural. But ‘natural’ does not equal good, and if we are focused on the naturalness of things, current spread of bee disease does not fit the bill to begin with: a study from 2016 supports the view that the spread of bee diseases is man-made – commercial honey bee trade emanating from Europe is largely responsible for the spread of Varroa and Deformed Wing Virus.
Taking these factors into account, a ‘treatment-free’, ‘natural’ beekeeping philosophy may often result in exacerbating a human-made spread of epidemics, allowing human-introduced animals to suffer, and then in defending that experiment as the ‘natural way’. (European honey bees are, quite literally, a non-native, introduced species in the US).
It is not to say that we should not look for strains of bees with better resistance to mites and disease – but as an experienced beekeeper and blogger over at Scientific beekeeping points out, there are breeding programs and better choices of queens on one hand, and then there’s just bad management that creates problems for your bees on the other:
allowing untreated colonies of commercial stock to die from varroa year after year benefits no one, and hurts both your neighboring beekeepers, as well as the evolutionary process. […] So long as beekeepers continually replace varroa-killed colonies with fresh colonies of similar bloodlines, we artificially maintain the situation of an initial invasion, favoring the most virulent strains of the parasites. This makes it nearly impossible for any colonies with genes for resistance to survive, due to their being overwhelmed with mites from their collapsing neighbors.
From organic to ‘treatment-free’, to realizing beekeeping itself is not natural
The Parker Farms blogger laments that the organic label has gone downhill, having approved the use of too many ‘chemicals’ for his liking – he also scorns organic-approved treatments like essential oils. The Organic beekeepers Yahoo group (with over 6,000 members) supports this view as well, swearing off artificial feeding as well as any treatment of bees, whether natural of synthetic in origin.
The Parker Farms blogger is of the view that only professional beekeepers need treatments, because their bees are more stressed due to transport (migratory). What ‘needs’ means exactly, is unclear, as the presence of Varroa mite among TF beekeepers is definitely common – according to their philosophy it just doesn’t warrant treatment. Another TF blogger from Vermont talks about how a TF beekeeper will as a rule ‘have to watch’ one’s bee colonies die off at least twice due to Varroa infestations. He underscores that the Varroa Destructor mite should be treated as a ‘friend, ally and mentor’. In fact, he thinks beekeepers have a disproportionate role in ‘choosing which path to follow’, and hopes that by letting Varroa reign ‘as a friend’, it will result in a ‘world based on creativity and biological energy’.
This trend in thinking that humans should not interfere at all seems to have escalated to the point where even the TF beekeepers Facebook-group has had to take a tighter tone with their members, forbidding further topics of discussion – such as how bees should not be put in man-made hives to begin with.
Can’t fault those who made such suggestions, for it makes sense, if you follow the logic. Interfering is interfering… Beekeeping and honey-production itself can’t truly be considered ‘natural’. From the group’s pinned post:
We have had a number of threads with people proposing, essentially, that ‘all Beekeeping is a treatment’ – all bees should be in hollow trees and we should simply pack up out kit and go home. This line of reasoning is extended to say that if we are ‘treating’ by putting them into hives, then we aren’t Treatment Free so should allow other ‘treatments’ as well.
This line of argument is seductive to some, but flawed. It is seductive because it opens the door to allowing some forms of treatments, which makes beekeepers feel they can ‘help’ their bees. However this whole principal of ‘helping’ bees with mites works against the objectives of this group.
The TF beekeepers outlooks seem nothing if not optimistic. They seem to think that bees will be just fine without any help. The objective of TF proponents appears to be to let the evolutionary game play out, and see whether bees survive or not.
What happens to bees without treatment?
Does the ‘survival of the fittest’ experiment allow hobby beekeepers to sail clear of bee epidemics? Well, so far, the recent European study (discussed in the beginning) reported Varroa infestations exclusively among the hobby beekeepers (professional beekeepers seem less inclined to follow the TF philosophy). I can’t find exact data about the prevalence of TF beekeepers in Europe, so I can’t tell if this effect may be in part due to a refusal to treat the bees, but a 2016 analysis of the same Epilobee data (used in the European study) may hint at such a trend. They found Varroa mite infestation to be correlated more with hobby beekeepers with lack of cooperation with veterinary treatments. They found smallest losses among professional, migrating apiaries:
the highest winter mortality rate (14.04%) was affected to a cluster including hobbyist beekeepers over 65 years of age with small size apiaries, with a production including queens and a small experience in beekeeping. The lowest winter mortality rate (8.11%) was affected to a cluster with professional beekeepers between 30 and 45 years of age, with large migrating apiaries. The management promoted the increase of the livestock.
Looking at the situation in the US, a five-year -study clearly reports that the majority of hobby beekeepers do not treat for Varroa infestations. The US also continues to have the highest overall colony losses, with 44% during 2015–2016 according to Beeinformed 2016. In Europe, losses are much lower (see detailed sources of both US and Europe in the next chapter).
The US five-year -study paints quite a gloomy picture of the consequences:
National winter loss surveys indicate that 60 % of hobby beekeepers do not treat for Varroa (Steinhauer et al. 2014). Without beekeeper Varroa management interventions, these colonies almost inevitably crash (Francis et al. 2013), releasing abundant mites that invade healthy colonies by switching from nurse bees to foragers (Cervo et al. 2014) and swapping hosts via communal foraging or robbing (Frey et al. 2011).
The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations has a guide to honey bee diseases, where they outline the sad consequences of an untreated Varroa-mite infestation in a very similar fashion:
Without treatment the colonies normally die after two to three years […] In this way mites may cause colonies to die, as in some kind of domino effect, over wide areas.
The FAO guide notes that ‘The control of V. destructor is one of the most difficult tasks facing apiculturists and beekeepers throughout the world.’ Seems they haven’t considered the TF-beekeepers’s philosophy – it’s not difficult at all if you don’t have to lift a finger against it.
Key findings show that the varroa mite, a major honey bee pest, is far more abundant than previous estimates indicated and is closely linked to several damaging viruses. Also, the results show that the previously rare Chronic Bee Paralysis Virus has skyrocketed in prevalence since it was first detected by the survey in 2010.
So, how are honey bees faring?
While discussion about definition of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and which kind of losses constitute CCD, can be complex, the fact remains that honey bee losses in the US have remained higher than usual – according to the USDA, before Varroa epidemics, over-winter losses were 10-15% each year. Now, between 2007-2016, winter losses have been at 22-36%. Managed bee populations are able to compensate for these losses, split hives more often, buy more queens and bees when necessary, so honey production is not in danger.
However, the summer losses are high as well, as documented by the Bee-Informed survey (funded by the USDA), highlighting that there are significant problems facing bees still. Their piece points first and foremost to the problem with Varroa mites, noting, surprise surprise, the problem of hobby beekeepers, who may not know how – or as noted above – choose not to correctly stop their spread.
European honeybee situation looks a little better. Most of the European surveillance programs track winter losses, but at least one large data collection, Epilobee, in 2013 looked also at summer figures, and found them to be lower than winter mortality rates, ranging from 0.3% to 13.6%.
Europe-wide average statistics for winter losses fluctuate between 9-18 % (2010-2016 – see graph below), as tracked via the COLOSS project (see a recently published paper on its data, the project itself, or the Bee Health in Europe report presenting that data). In the lack of weighted summary statistics for the earlier years, various country averages in Europe ranged between 7-22% in 2008-2009, and 7-30 % in 2009-2010, according to Opera Research Center report on Bee Health in Europe.
Historical variance for some European countries can be found quite far back, like in Sweden, where average winter loss rates have been recorded to range between 6-27% in the last century (1920-2012). In the last decades, Finland recorded 10-34% average losses (1998-2008) and France 17-29% (2005-2008).
Best advice to beekeepers?
It is clear that honey bees do suffer fluctuating losses, and the reasons are many – as I have discussed before. At present, pests and disease are among the largest concerns for bee health. The honey bee industry is coping with the situation, but the pest problems are real and in need of solutions – and letting the bees battle it out against their adversaries without outside help is not the recommended course of action from bee researchers or invertebrate conservationists. The scientific advice to beekeepers is summarized well by the Honey Bee Health guide to Varroa management:
remain vigilant to detect high Varroa mite levels and be prepared to take timely action in order to reduce mite loads. Effective mite control will reduce colony losses and avoid potential spread of infectious disease among colonies.
Luckily there are many beekeepers out there who listen to this advice, and help promote an evidence-based outlook to best bee management – see for instance the resourceful blog Scientific beekeeping by Randy Oliver, who tries to bridge the gap and reach also the ‘treatment-free’ hobby beekeepers, providing knowledge about when and how being treatment-free is realistic. He offers some great advice for beginner beekeepers, and makes the following plea:
I beg all beekeepers (professional and hobbyist) to become part of the solution to The Varroa Problem. Either get involved in a realistic breeding program, or support those who are by purchasing stock from them. And most importantly, monitor your hives for varroa, and treat them (if necessary) before they collapse, so that you don’t become a nuisance to the beekeeping community.
What is especially worrisome is the increasing concern that wild bees are taking a hit too, thanks to disease epidemics spread by commercial honey bee populations, recently reported by InsideScience, in How the Bees You Know are Killing the Bees You Don’t:
…the leading suspect in their disappearance is disease spread by other bees — commercial bumblebees raised by humans to pollinate crops.
It is important to remember that one big factor in the bee situation is habitat loss – if you would like to help the bees, plant native flowers to help create more natural habitat for all bees. Please think twice, however, before starting a honey-bee hive, especially if you do not think you want to put in the work needed to keep the hives disease-free. Please don’t join a movement bent on increasing the man-made spread of bee disease.
Update: While I am happy that my piece has attracted the attention of many beekeepers, unfortunately I don’t have time to keep up with all the commenters and address all of their questions and claims, many which seem to miss some of the points presented in my piece.
For those interested in bee breeding, please get in touch with scientists and strive to take part in realistic breeding programs. Please don’t simply assume that the scientists researching bee issues, as well as the USDA, FAO, etc, must simply be ignorant of the issue and you know better. It just may be more complicated than that.
Things in life and nature are seldom black-and-white (or boiling down to never treat / only treat). In the words of my local evolutionary biologist with a PhD in bumblebee disease (who also recommends formic and oxalic acid treatments): “I get the idea/hope that without treatment the bees will evolve resistance, but it doesn’t quite work like that and it definitely doesn’t work quickly.”
Echoing that sentiment, please do not dismiss the words of the leading American bee scientists, vanEngelsdorp, as being the result of simply not knowing better, from Scientists Recommend Treating Bees for Varroa Mites:
…research shows mortality is much lower among beekeepers who carefully treat their hives to control a lethal parasite called the Varroa mite.
“If there is one thing beekeepers can do to help with this problem, it is to treat their bees for Varroa mites,” said vanEngelsdorp. “If all beekeepers were to aggressively control mites, we would have many fewer losses.” […]
“Every beekeeper needs to have an aggressive Varroa management plan in place,” vanEngelsdorp said. “Unfortunately, many small-scale beekeepers are not treating their bees, and are losing many colonies. And those colonies are potential sources of infection for other hives.”
- Be respectful.
- Back up your claims with evidence.