Honey Bees are an imported species used to pollinate commercial food systems. Domestic honey bees have been developing in direct relationship with humans for thousands of years. Their abundant success lasted until about one hundred years ago, when cumulative chemical pollutants and devastation of habitat was just beginning. Now, with so much destruction of pollination larders, and food growing no longer in practice in most backyards, honey bees are feeling a lot of pressure. In the 1970s, a green revolution in better living through chemistry exploded onto the agricultural market. You can read more about post war to current age (there have been three) military industrial complexes here. There was understanding of what those chemicals would do, but little science on how these chemicals would impact our very molecular structure, once released in large quantities throughout our environment.
Science makes the world a better place, like feeding starving people around the world through bountiful chemical miracles. Humans thrive, while the clean air, water, and food we rely on to survive, saturates with poison. Many others in the animal kingdom, besides ourselves, have disappeared almost overnight in what scientists are now calling another mass extinction. This one is human induced, and more recent chemicals (industrial evolution in the past 100 years) we’re spraying on crops to counter our zealous for mono-systems, are fully vulnerable to catastrophic loss. Should the genetic modification prove faulty, which it always does, massive global starvation is inevitable. We’ve also spent so much time trying to fight off insects and fungi <- (this link is ominous at best), that we’ve stopped caring about what death chemicals do to ALL life.
For bees, the mono-chemical death blow was, and still is, a nicotine synthetic, neonicotinoid. This pesticide used widely in crops around the world, has been slowly weakening bee immune systems as they fight to stay alive in a slow poisoning. It’s also detrimental to many “pest insects” <- I have lost many plants to insect predation, but also gained much biodiversity, thriving bird populations, and good pollination on most production species, like orchards. The native plant pollination is usually exemplary, with our two most common invasives (blackberry and knot-weed) being corner stone pollination options for domestic bees. This all sounds so out of balance because it is. Bees are loosing the battle to sirvuve, and human use of industrial chemicals in agriculture is just the beginning.
In their immune compromised state, mites took hold, and you have to treat hives with other chemicals seasonally to keep the parasite count low enough for the colony to survive. You can use formic acid treatments, which are organic, but you still stress the hive and loose a lot of bees in the process. Hives are piled up next to one another in close setups. These social, physical animals will contaminate the entire colony rapidly with only a few initial infections. You have to keep treating for mites all the time, which does not feel very holistic or sustainable for the bees.
Meanwhile, why do we keep bees? HONEY! That medicinal wonder is in a highly concentrated form, please don’t think the chemicals in the bees isn’t also going into the honey, and we’re eating it folks. BE aware! The earth is a closed loop system, meaning all the chemicals we make stay, and sicken us as they do the bees, and all living things. Our pollution output has added up over the years, gotten into the soil, air, and water- even human blood carries a toxic signature, and we’re eating about a credit card of plastic each week. The bees are one of many indicators that things are at a serious tipping point.
After a recent war with another colony during a rough spring of slow starvation, the colony fled its rotting hive filling with maggots. The bottom super, usually a thriving nursery for brood, was half full of dead bees, and what was left of the colony could not clean them out fast enough. Rot set in, and the brood died, adding more death. The queen packed up and shipped out, swarming into the Japanese Viburnum, and then into a black cap raspberry shrub for protection. I set out a new, clean super, and, without a bee suit or any protection, slowly scooped up the branches holding the bees, and dropped them into the new box. I still have no idea if there’s a queen in this hive, but I have continued feeding the bees still there, and some do float in and out of the entrance with pollen. Perhaps the colony will survive, but EEC is not looking to perpetuate bee keeping, as we cannot produce enough food, or contend with the chemical treatments expected in keeping a colony mite free.
Our goal was to care for an important indicator species on the land, not harvest honey for any commercial gain. Perhaps, if the hive survives, and we continue feeding them 100lbs of sugar a summer (for one hive), we might take a frame of honey for medicine, but that would be it at this time. EEC does not use any pesticides or other synthetic chemical treatments in the soil or water. We do run engines, so chemicals are around, and we cannot control what our neighbors do, and some do use chemical agents on their lawns and on their flower beds. We do not know of any commercial agriculture operation near us now, but in the 70s, dairy happened up the hill. We test our well annually for nitrogen, which could eventually contaminate through the water table. Luckily, we do not have any evidence of PFAS in our area- yet. Because it’s all connected, even our atmospheric rain carries chemical pollutants around the world. Our bees have to take the stress of all these human inputs, then also provide food- a super food, which us usually what allows the bees to thrive and survive. Now that bees are barely surviving, they really don’t have extra for us, and we should acknowledge the loss.
It was a cold, wet June in 2022, so the bees were already struggling. Looking at what’s left of the brood comb with my mentor, she pointed out that many of the bees are butts out in the comb, instead of face out to be fed. My mentor called that starvation practice, which is another signal to me that the bees don’t have enough food, that our land cannot support a hive with other hives in the area. It’s ok, I’ve learned how much goes into propping up domestic honey bees and I’m making the choice to stop funneling energy in that direction at EEC. Instead, we’ll keep planting our more diverse flora and monitor the native pollinators, supporting them with good habitat and no chemical poisons. For insect control, we encourage beneficial friends like Coccinellidae, and apply neem oil on heavily predated plants when necessary (I’ve actually only used it once- on our Kaffir Lime).
We’re sad about loosing our bees, but recognize they are not a realistic system at EEC, for now. Our neighbor who is keeping bees will help us pollinate the orchards and be a source of local honey, so we’re happy to see this as an opportunity to encourage her bees while developing our habitat for denser plantings of pollination species. Our next update on the recently planted pan handle will feature these expanded habitat plans. There is also some amount of grief in giving up the hosting of bees. Learning from them was amazing, and their signal for us to develop stronger pollination habitat rings true. We’ll keep planting and restoring for our bumble bee and hover fly (too name a few), and enjoy seeing our neighbor bees flying through too. Recognizing the problem is the solution always reinforces the relationship of change in all living things, and to adapt as nature dictates.