You may have heard that honey bees are “disappearing” or “dying out” or being poisoned by agricultural chemicals. To paraphrase Mark Twain, the reports of honey bee death are greatly exaggerated. There have been problems, with individual (usually commercial) beekeepers losing vast numbers of colonies, but it isn’t a problem we all have. And so far, there’s no clear cut answer, in spite of reports that point to agricultural chemicals.
Let me say first that I am a beekeeper (also a wife, mother, soap and sundry maker, former UNIX system admin, and a few others things). But nowhere on my resume is either “biologist” or “chemist.” Or any other title that would qualify me to offer more than an opinion based on what I’ve read in the popular press and in beekeeping journals, and what I’ve heard from other beekeepers.
My opinion is that beekeeping’s biggest problem right now (and for the last 25 years) is parasitic mites. They feed on the lymph of growing pupae, weakening them and spreading viruses through the hive. Mites weaken the immune system of individual bees, and weaken the hive overall with that parasitism. Keeping mites under control is a beekeeper’s biggest concern.
How is the question. If you’re like me, you prefer to start with bees that are mite tolerant (meaning they have found strategies to minimize the numbers and damage mites do), paired with pest management techniques that give the bees support. As a last resort, formic acid can be used to knock down mite numbers. Formic acid is present in honey, coffee, and many plants. I haven’t had to use it in my apiary yet, but it’s good to have a tool in reserve, just in case.
Back to the stories of dying bees: overall, we seem to be doing fine. The numbers of managed honey bee hives in the United States have been going down since World War II, but that is a long term trend. We aren’t falling off a cliff, but we might be sliding down hill.
If you want to help, you can try your hand at beekeeping–look for a local club to help you get started. Or plant a bee friendly garden. Bees love a wide variety of flowers: thyme, lavender, sunflowers, anything in the mint family, St. John’s Wort, balms, clover, dandelions (oh, you already have those, do you?) and trees like maples, willows, basswood, black locust, and more.
Encourage beekeeping in your area by helping remove outdated laws that prevent urban and suburban beekeeping.
Head to a farmer’s market and buy local honey (it tastes better than the stuff on the grocery store shelf, I promise!).
Ask your local grocery store to carry local honey and other local produce.
Buy organic, when you can.
Every little bit helps!