Bee keeping and the decline of a crucial pollinator

Evidence from rock-paintings, dating from around 13000BC, suggests that honey gathering from wild bees is one of the most ancient human foraging activities. It is still practiced by Aboriginals and Bushmen in South Africa.  The Middle East was the first center of domestication of bees at around 2400BC. Ancient bee farming methods were very inefficient as entire colonies were killed by fumigation with burning sulphur to extract precious honey.  It was not until the 18th and 19nth century, and the development of the Langstroth system of movable wax combs, that commercial bee-keeping was revolutionized allowing preservation of colonies for a continuing, annual honey harvest.

Bee hive activity

It is not difficult to pick up beekeeping and to extract honey from your own hives. To avoid early disappointments it is recommended to join an experienced beekeeper to learn the tricks of the trade.  There are also numerous bee-keeping courses available, as small-scale urban bee-keeping is becoming a very popular past-time crops pollinated by bees. I don’t have any bee-hives myself, but my father is a beekeeper with over 30 year’s experience. They were always a prominent presence in my youth and I enjoyed helping out.  Needless to say, he played a large part in writing this section (thanks Dad!).

Bee Biology and Beekeeping

Opening of a Langstroth bee hive

In the next paragraph I will briefly encapsulate the life-cycle of the honey bee and to keep it simple I’ll start after the winter hibernation period.  This is a worrying time for the beekeeper, as all bees of the colony might have simply disappeared and have left the hive to die somewhere else. This phenomenon is caused by a relatively new and devastating lethal combination of disorders, whose exact origin is still unknown. It is a global trend, better known as honey bee colony collapse disorder (CCD), and there was a decline of over one third in bee populations in 2009-2010 in the USA – despite the presence of abundant food sources.

Often bee-hives are transported and deployed to assist in the pollination of many different crops world-wide. For instance, my Dad takes his hives to commercial apple orchards, which need bees to assure pollination and a good fertile apple harvest. It is not difficult to imagine that the increasing loss of bees through CCD, which is already causing a disastrous reduction in pollinators, will lead to further decline world food production of over 90 commercial crops (see those listed here; wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_crop_plants_pollinated_by_bees ), if nothing is done. This will undoubtedly increase the risk of famine in vulnerable areas of the world. …More on possible causes of CCD later on.

A healthy hive will stimulate the queen to produce over 2000 eggs a day in early spring, when they wake up from hibernation, by feeding her a rich diet of pollen protein and honey. This is the result of the previous year’s fertilization by male drones.  The continuous productions of offspring is the queen’s only task, her eggs change into larvae after 3 days, and are fattened up by worker bees before they pupate.  This transformation from larvae to adult insects takes place in nursery cells which are capped with beeswax. Worker bees appear after 21 days but the development of drones takes a little longer.

clusters of drone cells

Drones need to be high-flyers during mating flights, as those perceived to be fittest are picked by the queen are and are allowed to fertilize her (the lucky drone dying in the process!).  Although the other drones don’t fare much better, they are expelled from the hive later in the season, as they have fulfilled their duty, and are now a burden on the colonies winter food supply.

Partially sealed honey comb

Tens of thousands of workers (and drones) can live in a bee hive, but bees have a self-limiting mechanism for colony growth.  If the hives become over-crowded at the end of May (in the northern hemisphere), the workers in the hive raise additional queens. This emergence of new queens, if left unchecked, will often result in the breakaway of large parts of the colony to establish a new colony elsewhere, this is known as swarming behaviour.  The good bee-keeper intervenes and prevents loss of bees by transferring the current queen and some of the bees to another box hive to subdue swarming. The resulting ‘queenless’ hive will continue to feed the new queen larvae royal-jelly until she hatches and establishes herself as the ultimate reproductive monarch. Bee-keepers can also unite bee-colonies, if they don’t want to increase hive numbers, by stacking boxes of hives between newspapers to mix their unique scents. This prevents fighting between bee colonies who see those with a different scent as ‘invaders’.

Winter time dormancy for bees

Honey is collected from hives using centrifugal force, after wax-decapping of sealed honey cells by the bee-keeper with a special fork and takes place at the end of summer when bees have finished collecting their winter honey supplies.  An average bee-hive also collects about 20 kg of pollen per year as a protein source for growing larvae, which is gathered by bees on their hairy hind legs.  An equivalent amount of honey is used by the bees themselves, mostly to power flight. The remainder of honey, about 10kg per hive is extracted by the bee-keeper, and replaced with sugar to see the hive through the winter.  Bees require either honey for energy, or a sugary alternative (i.e. sucrose or fructose-glucose corn syrup) to replace their traditional energy source. The sugar source is given on top of the hive in a feeding tray and over the winter the hive will consume about 10-15kg of sugar.

Bees and colony collaps disorder (CCD)

Now, as promised, more on colony collapse disorder (CCD) – Several speculative factors have been suggested to contribute to CCD. These include environmental toxins, genetically modified crops; migration of hives for pollination, electromagnetic radiation and climate change.

One of the more plausible contributing factors is current intense agricultural practices resulting in a lack of diversity. When bees feed on a single pollen source from vast monocultures, it is thought to lead to malnutrition and depressed immune systems, leaving the bees vulnerable to an array of diseases such as the Varoa mite, several viruses (eg Isreali acute paralysis virus), and several fungal infections caused by species of Nosema fungi. These fungi also affect bees’ flight muscles, leading to flight problems in early spring after the difficult winter-hibernation.  Hygiene practices of the beekeeper are also thought to play an important role in promoting the hives well-being and keeping disease at bay.  This includes cleanliness and provision of new wax combs and destruction, or uniting, of weak colonies.  In addition the correct arrangement of nursery, honey and pollen combs within a hive are crucial for the well-being of the hive.

It is truly a worrying time for the beekeeper in light of CCD and the agricultural sector supplying foods which depend on bee pollination.  And I don’t understand why there isn’t more research into this.

Nevertheless…..as William Blake (1757-1827) said:  “The busy bee has no time for sorrow”

2 comments to Bee keeping and the decline of a crucial pollinator

  • EMM

    I had read somewhere that the honeybee is not native to the Americas. . . so what pollenated plants before the bee did? I feel that the bee’s decline is related to the huge monocultures we grow. Nature’s trying to kill them off before they ruin the soil forever. The bees, sadly, are the first to go.

  • There are other insect pollinators including bumblebees, wasps, and many types of solitary bees. The solitary bees are particularly abundant where I live. Sometimes dozens can be seen on one flowering plant. I would suppose that honeybees are required to pollinate crops where there are few pollen-bearing native plants to keep other pollinating insects healthy and abundant.

    Best wishes,
    Alan Detwiler: rural resident, gardener, and advocate of self sufficiency and resilient living. Bio at http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/alandetwiler

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