Prior to setting out on our research adventure and purchasing our first hive in the spring of 2010, we did what most novices would do... we asked the experts. Five separate Commercial Apiaries assured us, that no hive could survive in our area without treatment for the Varroa Mite. We are happy to report in Spring of 2015, our hives are going strong. We were not discouraged, and neither are independent Bee Keepers across the country. Ours is not the first experiment with chemical free bee hives, and ours are not the first to survive. In order to prove our findings, trials must be conducted in different areas across the country, and certain parameters must be maintained, as is true for any legitimate research project. Our bees were purchased from a local apiary containing 14 hives. This became our Control Group since they were treated in a conventional manner in keeping with industry standards. Sadly, all 14 hives in the control group have perished.
We are currently seeking grant funding to continue our honey bee research, which may prove to be most crucial to maintaining the integrity of agriculture in the United States. Our goal is to present a viable, achievable solution to the problem at hand, and preserve one or our most important resources. The American Honey Bee.
The following brief summary is written in laymans terms, since it is the general public to whom we make our appeal.
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Honey Bee Solutions
The Solution to the Honey Bee dilemma is quite simple, really. What is difficult, is initiating the plan. For over a century, commercial beekeeping practices have changed very little. But after all, if it works, why fix it?
The problem is, it no longer works.
Bees, being the resourceful and resilient insects they are, have survived the less than ideal environments that humans have created for them in the Commercial Apiary (Bee Yard). Exposure to full sun, crowded living conditions, honey cropping, destruction of native queens and constant trafficking in and out of the hive by Beekeepers are at the top of the offence list. In the last 15 years, the cosmetic industry has also taken its toll on Bee resources, demanding more honey, wax, propolis, and royal jelly than ever before in history.
These stressors, coupled with the recent introduction of Varroa Mite into the US, has proved to be the proverbial “last straw” for the Honey Bee. All of the plagues apiaries currently combat, (sudden hive death, colony collapse, foul brood, and others) increased or followed the invasion of Varroa Destructor.
The answer to improving their survival rate in a commercial setting is as follows:
1. Hives need to be separated by at least 200 feet, or one hive per acre. Why? There are many reasons actually, but the most prominent, is the prevention of disease, fungus, and predatory insects spreading from one hive to another. (You can’t rid your house of roaches, if they keep walking over from the house next door.) Large clusters of any prey species, attract predators. In nature, Honey bees do not choose to live in close proximity to one another, even if resources are abundant.
2. Hives need to have southern exposure for winter heat and deciduous trees providing summer shade. Observing hives in the wild is a clear indicator that bees prefer these conditions in Southern Climates. Overheating in the hive causes eggs to be less viable. A portion of the workforce must be set aside to keep the hive cool and the life of a worker bee is considerably shortened by continuous fanning and water carrying to cool the hive. Over-worked bees consume more resources.
3. Discontinue all chemical treatment of Varroa and Bee Mites in hives. Bees have the ability to genetically alter themselves (evolve) through queen building (Supersedure) and selection, as needed, to cope with all manner of environmental problems, from pesticides to predators. Our rush to intercede on their behalf with chemical treatments has exacerbated the bees decline, while strengthening the predator mites with each new chemically resistant generation.
4. Discontinue the removal of Swarm and Supersedure Cells. The removal and destruction of queen cells is standard practice among commercial apiarists. The presence of these cells means the introduction of a new queen. The emergence of a virgin queen not yet able to lay brood or a battle for power over the hive would leave the it at least temporarily in chaos, interrupting honey production. The process of replacing queens through Supersedure and swarming out old queens is the most important element in the hives ability to adapt and evolve. In commercial bee yards, hives are 're-queened' manually early in the spring when honey flow will not be interrupted. These queens are not produced by the hive, but are generally grown and imported from other states. Since the queen is directly responsible for the genetic material passed on to the worker bees, the hive receiving a foreign queen never benefits from the natural evolutionary process designed to preserve the hive.
5. Reduce honey cropping per hive by one half for two years, and by one third permanently. Why Now? Because Honey Bees under stress consume more resources. Apiaries who focus on honey production routinely remove the majority of honey and 'feed' their bees through the winter months with a liquid syrup made from sugar. Considering the powerful antibacterial and nutritional properties of honey, refined sugar is not a suitable replacement. It is important to remember: Bees produce honey for their own consumption, not ours. Beekeepers who do not supplement, often will not admit that heir hives are simply starving to death, and pass the loss off as hive collapse or some other mysterious ailment. It is worth noting, that most hive abandonment occurs in late winter and early spring, when stored resources in the hive would be exhausted.
We have not created a 'Bee Utopia' that cannot be replicated in other areas of the country. In fact, we continue to use Pesticides and Chemicals on certain plants. Why? Because they can be found in our air, water and soil in some amount, worldwide. Pesticides and Chemicals are here to stay, and almost every life form on our planet has been touched by them. We have forced the evolution of many species (good and bad) to withstand pesticides, for their very survival. Given a choice of Pesticide treated versus untreated resources, our bees completely avoid flowers from treated plants. One of the most interesting observations we have made, as a result of our choice to continue using pesticides on specific plant varieties. Arial spraying of pesticides is a serious threat to all pollinators Nationwide, and we advocate stricter regulations on how these chemicals are broadcast in the environment and above all, moderation of use. We have planted Spanish Lavender and common Spearmint in front of our hives to discourage mites, beetles and any other insects that would make the beehive their home. This simple addition could aid a recovering hive in initially combating Varroa and other Mites, or it may just make us feel better. We have observed our bees rubbing or vibrating their wings on lavender leaves. Our hives also include reusable beetle traps filled with mineral oil.
Simple, Yes? Not Really
Honey production and Crop Pollination is a multi-billion dollar industry. To initiate step 1. and separate Hives to a reasonable distance, would drive most commercial apiaries into bankruptcy. Commercial farms and Orchards could easily implement these steps, but most do not keep their pollinators (Bees) on-site. Why? Aerial or mass spraying of pesticides. Many large farms bring bees in from an outside Apiary for pollination and then the bees are removed back to the Apiary. For this reason, the solutions to Bee deaths have focused on chemical treatments and deliberate genetic alterations that would accommodate the current commercial environment. These are quick fixes with long-term negative residual effects. It is left to the individual, private beekeeper to initiate these practices, so that there will be Honey Bees in our future.
Postlude: Green Chapel Farms has conducted 5 year trials with hives in Watha, North Carolina. We wish to establish a database of feedback from hives across the country that are kept in the manner described above. A crowd-funding champagne is being discussed to purchase the hives. While we respect the dedicated academic and scientific research on pollinator survival and preservation, investigating the diverse and ever-changing Apis Mellifera requires field trials with actual environmental and biological contingencies. Any and all research documents are available upon request.
About the Author Joan Olsen Davis grew up on a tobacco farm in rural North Carolina in the 1960's. Her lifelong quest for natural sustainable solutions to environmental problems was strongly influenced by her parents, John H Olsen and Emma Turner Olsen, who were pioneers of the Naturalist movement. Emma Olsen hosted a health and nutrition morning show in the 1950's. Ms Davis' professional career has included environmental engineering, eco-friendly sub-division design and construction, horticulture and a restaurant in Wilmington NC. Ms Davis currently owns and operates Green Chapel Farms in Watha, NC