Monocultures and the honey bee
Intensified beekeeping explores the biological potential of the species to the limit. It pushes the colony’s genome to it’s maximum, to produce the most honey, in the shortest amount of time possible. It happened with chicken, pigs, cattle, and bees as well.
Bee decline is caused by several factors combined, and it is this example of complex causation that warns us the most. The constant decline in colony numbers in the last twelve to fourteen years is the consequence of many factors aligned.
Pest and disease outbreaks are rampant, with bacteria, viruses, fungi, and mites decimating colonies. Their impact on honeybees is catalyzed by weakened immune responses due to heavy pesticide use, both used for agriculture and applied inside colonies to chemically control outbreaks.
Resistant diseases and pests emerged after chemical overuse by beekeepers. Reduced diversity and abundance of nectar and pollen-producing flowers afflict both honeybees and wild bees, a direct impact of contemporary mass agriculture.
Most species of native bees hibernate for as many as 11 months per year and live in small colonies. They do not produce massive amounts of honey, and the little production is not worth the effort required to steal it from them.
“I never encountered a producer with ill will toward bees, but growers are trapped in a system that pushes farming toward an industrial scale with heavy input of chemicals and fertilizers. We can do better, although it’s going to take systemic change to overcome the inertia of contemporary agriculture. But change we must, or the next generation of farmers may not have the bees to provide essential environmental services.” — L. Winston, Mark. Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive. 2014
Although native bees are more effective pollinators, farmers continue to rely on factory-farmed honeybees for pollination so that the honey industry can take in more than 176 million pounds of honey every year, at a value of more than $215 million.
Pushing too far, too quick
When you do it, it bites you back. In the States for example, monoculture farming dominates the scene. These environments are extremely poor in biodiversity but produce a huge amount of flowers in a short period of time. Think about orange and almond monocultures. Bees are pushed to the limit in these environments, and beekeepers try to help them. However, all the colony’s balances and interactions are still unknown.
Consequences for the bees
Intensified industrial beekeeping manages the colony while hopping from monoculture after monoculture until it’s inevitable doom. Single crops bloom for a week or two and then turn into a floral desert due to herbicide treatments. These clear the fields from the blooming weeds, which used to provide the mixed nectar and pollen sources essential for adequate bee nutrition.
Widespread insecticide use kills bees as well as pest insects, resulting in direct damage particularly to wild bees, which, unlike honeybees, can’t be moved away from fields during spraying. In addition, plowing and planting disrupt potential nesting sites for wild bees, further challenging these vulnerable creatures.
It could start with almond pollen for 3 weeks, then the colony travels 500Km. After being fed with sugar water mixed with antibiotics. Then they work another huge monoculture of sunflower or orange. And so on. The cycle lasts as long as the colony survives. All year long. Unsustainable long term.
Beekeepers try to compensate with nutrients and minerals, vitamins, exo-treatments, or even replace queens or import broods from other colonies. None are long term solutions. Intensified beekeeping, pushes bees too hard in contaminated environments. These huge monocultures require a lot of input. Fertilizers, pesticides such as neonicotinoids, changes in the genome with GMO, imported sugar for food, pesticides to keep mites away, and so on.
Consequences for the bees
The diseases, pollution, the trip’s stress, malnutrition of the colony, and the colony’s management style constantly pushing it to the limit. All these problems won’t bring the colony down alone, but often doom it when combined.
Ultimately, there is no comparison between traditional and industrial products. Not only from a technique point of view, but also because the environments industrial bees work on, are highly contaminated. Regarding the colony’s health, the simple death rate and constant need for human input demonstrates how devastating industrial beekeeping is to the honey bee.
It’s a grim picture and a particularly compelling one as we face a blend of similarly far-reaching and complex global perturbations that threaten our human populations. The growing effects of climate change, health challenges from exposure to a vast array of pesticides and industrial pollution, diminished access to diverse foods in many parts of the globe, and increased outbreaks of bacterial diseases resistant to antibiotics all seem eerily reminiscent of the plight bees find themselves in. Whether we’re about to collapse, as honeybees have, is arguable, but learning from their plight provides insights into how we might best face our human challenges.
But not all is doomed, many traditional beekeepers keep it real respecting the honey bee and nature's rhythms.