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Why modern beekeeping causes declines

Trucking honeybeesWe've all heard that modern beekeeping is in trouble, but The Barefoot Beekeeper opened my eyes to problems that I hadn't considered.  Yes, large-scale beekeepers are mean to their bees, stressing them out by stealing all of their honey and then feeding them nutrient-free corn syrup to get them through the winter.  The bees are often given access to only one type of pollen, which leaves them perpetually malnourished, and they have to put up with pesticides in their foraging grounds and even in their hives.  We truck bees across the nation, letting pests and diseases piggy-back with the traveling bees and spread to other areas.  But there's a lot more to the decline of honeybees than that.

According to PJ Chandler, the honeybee decline began nearly as soon as the Langstroth hive was invented.  For those of you who don't keep bees, Langstroth hives are the wooden boxes you're likely to see in modern apiaries.  These hives are built out of wooden boxes with moveable frames inside, the combination of which allows us to easily look through a whole hive like paging through a book. 

SkepsThe Langstroth hive replaced a much more lethal method, in which bees were kept in skeps that had to be destroyed to harvest honey, so it was lauded as a great invention at the time.  However, Chandler argues that the Langstroth hive harms bees in several ways:

  • Drastic temperature changes --- In a natural hive, bees maintain a temperature of 94 degrees Fahrenheit year round.  When we open a Langstroth hive to page through those frames, the temperature in the hive drops dramatically even on a warm summer day.  Did you know that varroa mites can only reproduce at temperatures below 92 degrees?  Chandler doesn't have data to back this up, but his thesis feels sound --- the temperature spikes in the Langstroth hive make it easier for mites to gain a toehold, and the loss of heat also stresses out the bees who have to work hard to bring the hive back up to optimal levels.
  • Premade foundation --- As I've written previously, the cells in the foundation most beekeepers buy are larger than the natural cell size.  These large cells promote the spread of varroa mites.

ApiaryIn addition, we have to consider other aspects of modern beekeeping, such as the tendency to concentrate our hives in large apiaries.  As I mentioned about my native bee nests, if you house a lot of bees together, pests and diseases are much more apt to spread through the populations.  This makes me wonder if we wouldn't be better off keeping our hives on opposite sides of the property rather than close together.

All of that said, most of us aren't ready to go back to tearing skeps apart and killing colonies just to get at the honey.  Stay tuned for a modern solution that still keeps the bees healthy.



This post is part of our The Barefoot Beekeeper lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:





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Can you talk about how to manage time to turn out these good posts once a day? Do you spend one day making a few posts, and then that leaves time for full days of farm stuff? or are you switching gears each day, going from writing/blogging and then to farm stuff the rest of the day? Is it a function of this custom blog platform you're using? Your blogging seems to have hit a stride in the last six months or so, and I don't know how you keep it so consistent, esp in the summer...
Comment by J Tue Jan 3 15:05:40 2012

Usually, we work from 9 to 4, with a one hour lunch break. In the summer, that's inside work in the morning (making chicken waterers, going to town (Mark), or making posts for our chicken blog (me))), then outdoors work in the afternoon. In the winter, we swap the day around so we can be outside when it's warmer.

At 4, we "quit", which means we each retreat to our own computer and write a post about the day. (I save mine to put on the blog the next morning.) Since we've been living the post all day, it usually takes a half hour or less to jot it down on the computer.

Lunchtime series are a bit different. I only make them if I felt like reading non-fiction that week, and often piddle around with them on the weekends. I don't think of them as work --- more of a way to clarify my thinking on a subject. If they feel like work, I just don't make a series that week.

However, with this book project, things are a little different. After I've been writing all day, I don't want to write a post, so I'll sometimes make several in a row during "working" hours and then space them out through the week.

Thanks for saying that about us hitting our stride! I'm glad you're enjoying reading.

Comment by anna Tue Jan 3 15:22:54 2012
It's my understanding that skep beekeepers of old intentionally culled the weaker hives every year and only kept their strongest ones over winter... Nowdays we keep them all and medicate the weak ones... add into the fact how small the genetic pool is now so small, poorly designed housing like you mentioned and no wonder they're so sick and vulnerable to pests. I'm hoping to get a top bar hive built this winter!
Comment by Phil Wed Jan 4 03:40:17 2012

Phil --- I know it sounds crazy, but I have to admit that I sometimes wonder if we should go back to a skep type hive. I guess the Warre hive is a modern incarnation of it that's not quite so destructive.

The genetics is tougher to deal with on a small scale. I'm a bit stumped as to how to find hardy bees that aren't going to require chemicals. (This is a bit like finding chicken varieties that haven't had the foraging and brooding abilities bred out of them.) A friend of mine recently found a colony that had been abandoned years ago and been happily going about its business in its Lanstroth hive with no help from anyone --- I wanted those bees!!

Comment by anna Wed Jan 4 09:37:32 2012