I won the book Interviews with Beekeepers by Steve Donohoe in a draw and so, although it is most definitely NOT in tune with natural beekeeping, I decided to read it and thought I would share a review as it does include some tidbits any beek may find of interest.
The author himself imports Carniolan and Buckfast queens, raises more queens from these and sells them around the UK, diametrically opposite to my interest in promoting a focus on local bees. The interviewees are, or were, all large scale breeders or bee farmers from the UK, France, USA and New Zealand – so, well outside my usual reading orbit, which is exactly why I did read it.
It is an excellently written book packed with fascinating information and the interview format works well, but I found it a really uncomfortable read: the tone can be gathered from the author’s comment on p.50, “there’s no room for sentimentality in farming” – something though that perhaps some other bee farmers, like Tim Malfroy for example, might take issue with.
Although this article is partly a book review, this blog is primarily for hobbyist natural beekeepers, so the first part of this post covers useful and interesting things I learned from the book for our core audience. In the second part I will briefly deal with some of the more upsetting aspects, commercial necessities and ethics but do not intend to cover that in any detail given the nature of this blog.
To cut to the chase: if you are a natural beekeeper I do not recommend that you buy this book. If you are, or wish to be, a commercial bee farmer (unlikely on this blogsite), it is a five-star volume packed with distilled information from experts who share an immense amount of their experience. Perhaps the real value of the book, though, is that there is no other book like it as it gives a snapshot of where commercial beekeeping really is right now, and I expect will be a core reference for researchers of the commercial field long into the future.
Useful and interesting insights
Pollen: European honeybees co-evolved with European plants and can suffer a nutritional deficiency issue in New Zealand, where many local pollens lack key amino acids. Bees can mine their bodies for protein for young during pollen dearths, but if they have poor pollen for a long time the colony weakens itself and eventually cannot recover (diminishing returns). Western honeybees were lucky to find usable pollens in Australia. Doug Somerville’s book “Fat bees, Skinny Bees” has more information on this.
Monocultures whose pollen lacks protein also cause this, so you can get loads of honey one year then the colonies collapse the following spring. California has some large scale bee farmers, and not enough pollen. So they have to feed pollen patties to their bees, or move them to e.g. Montana to stock up on pollen over summer / autumn. NZ beeks lack the ‘bee winter superfoods’ of Europe’s widespread gorse, broom and willow, and are beginning to rent good overwintering sites with decent pollen. All the bee farmers interviewed stressed the importance of adequate and varied pollen for health and resilience against disease, but the British & European bee farmers can rely on locally available sources.
Honey testing: Brazilian honey often fails the European tests for genuine honey – different plants, different sugars in their nectar. Tests can be misleading. Genuine manuka honey gets flagged as “fake!” when tested by America’s C4 “adulterated with sugar” test. This casts the Apimondia honey adulteration scandal in a new light.
Swarming: we all know swarms can be triggered by overcrowding, but have you ever considered this way of running out of room? –
If all the cells in all the combs are full of nectar being processed to honey, the queen has nowhere to lay – the colony is ‘honey bound’. This is relatively common with new swarms which have only built a little comb. But established colonies with masses of comb can get honey bound too, and in their case it tends to trigger swarming. Mike Palmer in Vermont describes how he sees swarms triggered by rain (the local plants produce a surge of nectar); in the UK, a related problem can occur with a late heather crop or a late bloom – the bees fill all the cells and the queen has no room to lay the winter bees.
Mike Palmer has a couple of other interesting opinions:
- Queen excluders select for less prolific queens because the fecund ones run out of room and swarm away.
- Packages are poor quality – he much prefers nuclei – packages have an inherent problem due to the use of virgin queens, leading to the bees being quite old by the time she begins to lay after 3 weeks, so no nurse bees available; and many virgins are superseded by the packages. So 30% fail in the first season and he sees lots of drone laying packages. Mike believes that package failure is NOT usually due to a beekeeper’s inexperience or mishandling. [ I had always assumed packages were supplied with mated queens, but apparently that is not guaranteed. Strange how the package sellers don’t mention this. Just to be clear, I would never recommend packages for a variety of reasons: they are not a true colony (she’s not their own queen), they are not cohesive, they suffer being posted, they are not in the same “ready to build a new home” mood of a swarm etc, etc – I always prefer swarms for populating hives, they are local, they want a new home, they have the correct age mix of bees, they are a true colony.]
Asian Hornets had been established in France for 4 years when Richard Noel was interviewed. Although the first year was bad, the local beekeepers found mass trapping of queens in Spring dramatically reduced numbers (they got 9,000 queens in his area alone). One nest can eat a ton of biomass / insects so reducing nest numbers is critical. The traps catch some common hornets, but AH start flying 3-4 weeks earlier (March-April vs April-May).
A big AH nest is much nastier to deal with than the fairly chilled out European hornet. LOTS of workers, they chase you, spit venom, and are much more enthusiastic about stinging.
Some people trap an AH worker, stun it with a zapper, put poison on its back – usually fipronil based, which kills the nest (probably illegal).
As the UK is cooler than France he does not think we will see the really big nests. Also the UK is more densely populated so more nests will be spotted. More queens will die over winter. Their narrow gene pool (all from one queen) may hamper them too.
Genetics: Foreign queens need 21C to go on a mating flight. So imported queens sometimes don’t get mated in Britain.
Breeder Peter Little mentions drones are not hardy like workers: they need looking after by workers, and keeping warm.
Brother Adam, the Buckfast creator, deliberately aimed for strength through hybridising different races to get a strong bee, not for purity. This is exactly what we proponents of ‘local bees’ do in that big laboratory called Natural Selection, but the bee farmers and breeders in this book dismiss that as “too slow”. I take issue with this as we are not trying to select for one specific trait or a new trait, which would indeed take many generations, but instead we are enabling the bees to re-express dormant behaviours. Tom Seeley noted that the wild bees of the Arnot forest didn’t become varroa resistant by developing one super-trait, but by shifting a lot of behaviours a bit.
Peter Bray in New Zealand describes how the original black bee strain imported from England to NZ was hanging on against the Italian types they prefer now: “We used to run hives in one valley which had a lot of black bees. We had 360 hives for 30 years there … We swamped that valley for 30 years and the black bees stayed.” Although almost every bee farmer interviewed mentions that black bees are susceptible to varroa, and varroa resistance is not going to be developed for years, it’s clear that local genes are highly conserved, and such bees survive without human help.
Pesticides: One interviewee had a cautionary tale about a hive full of dead bees, poisoned by the early and extremely toxic pesticide hostathion (aka triazophos). He scooped up the dead bees with his bare hands… and within 5 minutes got the worst headache of his life.
Ray Olivarez in California (15,000 hives, 160 employees, 370,000 queens /year) discussed pollination services. He only pollinates almonds now because “there are way too many chemicals on other crops” (and the pollination pays much less). He goes on to say they find the sub lethal effect of the sprays means it is better not to use brood from almond colonies for queen rearing.
Related to this is the use of chemicals to control varroa. Peter Little mentions trying an oxalic acid trickle but his winter losses shot up from 0-7% to 35%. This is reminiscent of Ron Hoskins’ observation that when he began using miticides, he began seeing queen failure – so he stopped using them to concentrate on developing varroa resistant bees, whereupon the queens’ fertility returned to normal.
Apiary sites: siting a hive in a cold pool promotes nosema. In hilly areas, beware cold air streams rolling down hills: the damp cold weakens the bees over winter. Sometimes a location looks rubbish but surprises: in Scotland, boggy forest patches seem to be good.
Heather is such a rich nectar source that some Scottish sites could support “1,000 hives” while the heather is producing nectar, but 40 hives per spot is the norm, to limit risk if a site experiences problems.
An American professor took a colony through winter with no walls, just a roof and a mesh versus predators, and the cluster survived. In America, moisture is the problem, so they have a top and bottom vent.
Other stuff from this book
This section discusses commercial practises some readers may find unpleasant
Bee farming is a low margin business. There’s a lot of overheads – labour / time, trucking hives around. The income from honey varies wildly from year to year. Above 500 hives, they work 7 days a week, and in Spring it’s dawn to dusk. One thing they all stressed was, don’t move into bee farming without a second job to fall back on! This impacts their business ethics. They cannot afford to let weak colonies limp along, they have families to feed, so they treat queens as expendable robots to be squashed when their laying rate declines. Unhealthy bees cost money, but their approach is to go for consistent, maximum size colonies (large colonies are resilient) and chemicals. They can only budget 6 minutes to inspect a colony and address any problems. Some live in climates where the bees fly and breed almost continuously so cannot rely on brood gaps to limit varroa, instead they rely on chemicals.
Even the smallest and gentlest operator says: “I clip wings because I can replace a queen easily, but not 50,000 bees hanging up in a tree, it just breaks my heart losing all that honey.” Another telling comment was “healthy strong colonies create wealth out of thin air.” This sort of encapsulates the philosophy of commercial beekeeping – everything is justified in terms of cost / benefit to them.
Murray McGregor says “people will say that you are importing all these diseases, exotic pests, and that sort of thing. It’s not happening. It never has done, not with legal shipments of bees done the correct way”. Yet he then stresses that varroa is THE no 1 problem in beekeeping, and you are probably aware it has spread from its origin via bee shipments – it does happen: elsewhere in this book, David Kemp describes how Brother Adam smuggled queens, drones and eggs into the USA. In the last couple of years Small Hive Beetle has popped up in Italian apiaries, which then ignored standstill orders…
Killing colonies for winter was standard in Canada until recently. When they could buy a new package of bees from the USA in April for $150 it was economic to kill the bees in Autumn, take all the honey, and restock next year. When varroa reached the USA in 1987 the Canadian government closed the border to imports (people still smuggled them over) and the beekeepers who survived, switched to importing more expensive packages from New Zealand and Australia, except in Manitoba where they now raise their own bees one year to use them the next, rather than force-feed up them early like the southern US packages. (I’m not clear if Albertan beekeepers still routinely kill their colonies.)
Why do bee farmers import queens and bees? Because farmers now need earlier mass pollination. Cool regions have new crop varieties that need pollination up to a month before the local bees are numerous enough to do the work. By using bees from the south of your continent, they ensure the bees have built up in time. However, interviewee Randy Oliver points out that this isn’t the only possible strategy, as shown by Manitoba raising their own bees (see previous paragraph). There is an obvious gap in the British market here, perhaps trade barriers due to Brexit will tip the economics. However, as British queens don’t mate at a predictable time – due to weather fluctuations – early buildup here is not reliable.
Why do bee farmers use foreign strains of bee? Unlike static beekeepers, their bees forage right through the season. They need numbers continuously maximised. So they use queens bred to lay early, lay often, no brood break. These tend to be Carniolan, Italian or Buckfast bees.
This is a huge problem because when races mix, the F2 progeny can be really vicious, so these bee farmers and queen sellers are basically creating a hazard for everyone else using local bees – which is most of the beekeepers in the UK. Even the BBKA promotes the use of local bees and disapproves of imports. The foreign race users argue that the problem is with the local bees contaminating their stock, but they are the ones bringing the problem into others’ homes, not the other way around. Basically they place their profit ahead of hazards for others. Obviously the moral situation in the USA, where honeybees are not native, is different.
Example: the book opens with an interview with a Scottish bee farmer who imports and crosses Buckfasts and Carniolans. I had heard of this fellow before – in terms of the ferocity of his bees.
None of the interviewees believe there will be varroa-resistant bees soon, apparently oblivious to the widespread steady improvement in amateurs’ stock, commercial strains developed by Baton Rouge, Ron Hoskins, BIBBA, the well funded European SMARTBEES project, LASI etc.
Bees don’t need to evolve rapidly versus varroa. The bee farmers don’t seem to grasp this. The bees don’t have to adapt to a completely novel threat like a new insecticide, which needs new genes. They are simply turning dormant behaviours on. They have encountered ectoparasites before.
Randy Oliver comments that [intensive] beekeeping is selecting for varroa and DWV, not because treatment removes selection pressure on the bees, but because we have removed any penalty for the mite if it kills its host. It disperses before the host colony dies (“mite bombs”) and we restock deadouts with fresh prey in the Spring. Randy is selecting for varroa resistance in his queens, to show larger American queen breeders it is feasible.
Michael Palmer comments, if breeding varroa resistant bees ‘was simply down to letting the susceptible bees die then mites would have been a non issue in 5 years, like with tracheal mites’. However, Isle of Wight disease was not mites (further info here) and meanwhile, large scale breeders have kept flooding our countries with varroa-susceptible strains which rather hampers evolution.
Love ’em or hate ’em, bee farmers are here to stay and we have to get on together. I hope the above gives you some insight into the pressures they face and their blind spots. I have barely mentioned how their operations have to revolve around the requirements of increasingly intensive agriculture, or how they’ve found black bees just don’t match their requirements. If any bee farmers read this I would welcome them pointing out other gaping holes in my review. We can’t learn from each other if we don’t know what we don’t know!
Regarding the book, there is one other area I would have loved to see covered – crime. Bees are at a premium in America and New Zealand, and you hear stories about mass hive thefts, rivals poisoning hives and organised crime. But you can only fit so much into 358 pages. Thank you Steve, for such an interesting read.
- Title: Interviews with Beekeepers
- Author: Steve Donohoe (blog)
- Publisher: ZunTold
- Year: 2020
- 370 pages
- ISBN: 978-1-9162042-5-6
- Available from Northern Bee Books, Abe Books, Amazon, or here