Importing Bees: High Demand Creates a Huge Dilemma

"...a beekeeping renaissance is occurring that is bringing back a once-dying art. Yet the bees are still dying"

Date June 26, 2012 at 12:28 PM

Publication Green Fire Times

Categories Community Food Home & Garden

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From an article in the Green Fire Times ...

As a professional beekeeper, having dedicated 15 years learning how to keep healthy bees, I have witnessed radical changes throughout the industry—both nationally and locally. I write this article with the hope of further educating those who already have bees or are interested in establishing sustainable local resources. Since the emergence of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in 2006, a beekeeping renaissance is occurring that is bringing back a once-dying art. Yet the bees are still dying. Some venture to ask, “What can I do to help the bees?”

First, the issue arises of where to get bees. There are but a few large-scale bee operations here in La Tierra Encantada. There are even fewer bee producers/farmers. This is a direct result of our challenging landscape—one that is both a blessing and a curse. It is a true blessing to not have large-scale industrial agriculture with its negative consequences. Yet, because our landscape does not offer reliable and substantial water and forage, the number of operations able to share their local bees with community members is limited. This is irreconcilable with the increase in demand and has created a deadly dilemma.

Importation of varied bees from varied sources is occurring at an alarming rate. Thus, a vicious cycle has begun. Newer beekeepers may not have the mentorship or the time needed to do the necessary research into the health and genetics of bees they import. They go online looking for what is available and for competitive pricing. They click and order. Or they call a beekeeper advertising imported bees, get their hive boxes ready, read a book or two, and anxiously wait to become proud parents of their very own colony.

But the reality is that the majority of bees imported from high production zones are falling prey to malnutrition, rushed production and harvesting issues that harbor toxins via pesticides, fungicides and environmental stresses. Imported bees that have high viral, pathogen and pest loads are having detrimental effects on local bees and their keepers.

The NM Dept. of Agriculture doesn’t fully regulate imported honeybees or other bee species. There are laws and acts on the books simply stating that bees brought into the area without comb or equipment are not required to be inspected. These bees are defined as “packages” and are sold by the pound (loose bees and a queen). On the other hand, bees sold with some honeycomb and a queen are called a “starter nucleus colony” and are subject to inspection. Higher production zones that offer packages include parts of California, Texas and several southern states. These zones experience an earlier spring and thus can create artificial swarms in time for the rest of the country’s spring commencement.

Some of these locations are home to Africanized honeybees. Others are situated near industrialized agricultural zones that are routinely monocropped and sprayed with pesticides and fungicides to gain higher crop yields. Toxic residues remain on pollen grains and in nectar. Some are systemic and are present in the whole plant. Bees and other pollinators exposed to these toxins must deal with them for a long time, as they are stored in the wax and slowly consumed and fed to developing larvae. The toxins affect bee behavior, their immune systems, the quality of their nutrition and also their progeny. It affects the queen mothers and their ability to mate successfully, and it also affects their male counterparts’ (drones) semen. Compromised bees are shipped around the nation and allowed to pass on their ailments, which can cross species and debilitate native populations.

I am not writing this article to discourage those interested in learning to keep bees, but rather to encourage everyone to do their homework. Read and learn as much as possible about what is available so that you can make an informed decision. As with anything farmed, there are questions as to how it was grown: What sort of soil? What kind of water? Was nature able to nurture? If the questions you ask do not produce acceptable answers, then the appropriate choice is to wait.

Bees from other areas may not be the same as bees here in New Mexico. Though all honeybees were imported from Europe several centuries ago, today they are experiencing genetic bottlenecking. In tthe U.S. today, there are European honeybees and Africanized honeybees (AHB). European honeybees are diverse; there are the Italian, the Córdovan, the Russian, the New World Carniolan, the Caucasian and their hybrids.

Africanized honeybees are very pest- and disease-resistant, but unfortunately carry very aggressive dominating genes that can end up displacing European honeybee genes if the climate is conducive. These bees can be mean. The areas where they are prevalent necessitate hypersensitive placement and management. While AHB have been reported in southern and central counties of New Mexico (and even in a couple of northern counties), their perpetual establishment isn’t immediate. Our distinct seasons prevent AHB from establishing at higher and colder elevations. AHB can be unintentionally imported. There still aren’t regulations requiring them to be inspected when brought in without comb.

Here are some questions that should be asked of all suppliers before purchasing bees:

What are the genetics? Are they European or Africanized (reared in an AHB zone)?

What are the bees fed and exposed to? High fructose corn syrup? Pure cane sugar? Herbs? Antibiotics? Acaricides (miticides) Pesticides?

When were the queen mothers produced? How were they produced and where?

If the answer is near industrial mono-cropped agriculture like the Central Valley of California, then care should be given to understanding the nature and quality of the forage and also that drones available for mating may come from hives of varied colonies of questionable genetics.

When were they harvested?

With anything less than 18 days post-virginal emergence, there is a higher rate of supercedure loss of the queen.

If they are early spring queens, how was the weather—volatile or calm? 

If there was a volatile spring, mating could have been compromised. If a supplier is unable to thoroughly answer any of these questions, red flags are present. If sick bees are imported, will the keeper be knowledgeable and experienced enough to recognize and react appropriately? Most likely not. Therefore, it is best to wait to find healthy bees—preferably those that are regionally fortified.

In disclosing these issues, I seek to not only spare people the heartache of losing bees during however many attempts; foremost, I seek to protect the bees. 

There have been increasing reports of managed hive losses from unknown causes. The most likely culprits are the newer viral pathogens. As many large-scale commercial beekeepers take their bees cross-country to California’s Central Valley almond bloom in February, it is akin to being at summer camp where damp, cooler spring weather conditions fuel and spread illnesses. As these caravans of bees leave when the bloom is done, the spread of any ailments is fast and furious. Beekeepers with bees for sale may inadvertently spread the debilitating condition nationwide.

While New Mexico hasn’t yet been labeled as having experienced CCD, it is no surprise that higher losses are being reported and that bees are dying from unknown causes. We are experiencing the effects of CCD through importation of stressed bees. Add on drought conditions, wildfires, bears and environmental stresses, and it is no wonder that our bees are struggling.

Another significant concern is that with the increase of imported honeybees, native bees are competing for the same marginal resources. More honeybees in any single area can be detrimental to native species of pollinators if the foraging resources are limited. And while managed bee colonies are better in communities than unmanaged ones, too many beekeepers and too many bees in any area will not yield healthy bees or produce extra honey and other bee products for consumption.

So—what do we do? Ban all importations of bees? Regulate and enact registration so that we know where, when and what kind of bees are being imported? Only allow bees in from certain areas/companies? I do not have the answers, and I admit that I cannot, without reservation, say to stop. It is a very difficult time indeed to get into beekeeping, even for experienced beekeepers. Yet, if we work together, communicate and hold ourselves accountable, then we may be able to reestablish equilibrium and promote informed decisions.

Several area projects are underway that seek to address some of these issues and help establish sustainable resources for quality bee stock. PollinatorNation.org, part of the New Mexico Bee Collaborative, seeks to establish native bee corridors and nesting sites. The Southwest Survivor Queenbee Project (www.survivorqueenbees.org), founded by Mark Spitzig and myself in 2007, collaborates with regional beekeepers to exchange quality survivor stock and promote chemical-free management. The New Mexico Pollinator Project focuses on creating pollinator-friendly zones. The group works with beekeepers, farmers and gardeners, youth and parents, and other citizens through education, outreach and capacity building. Their aim is to build local and regional policy to support healthy pollinator habitat on farms, gardens, schools, community garden sites and wild places. Coordinator Loretta McGrath can be reached at loremcgrath@gmail.com.

As a result of a new 2012 Western Sustainable Agriculture Research Education grant, the Rocky Mountain Survivor Queenbee Cooperative is being established to assist five northern New Mexico women and three Colorado women in creating a regional breeding and rearing cooperative of chemical-free, hearty survivor honeybees. New Mexico beekeepers include Kate Whealen—founder and coordinator of Santa Fe’s Sangre de Cristo Beekeepers—Meg McGee and Resa Sawyer of Mora Valley, and Taos area beekeepers Angela Lewis and Moira O’Hanlon. Colorado beekeepers include Spanish Peaks Beekeeper Janet Fink, DenverBee’s Marygael Meister, and Fort Collins’ Kris Holthaus.

To conclude, this article is to encourage research, discussion and cooperation. It takes a community to raise bees. I pray that established beekeepers will share their extra bees. If the season is conducive and nutrition is wholesome, bees will reproduce by swarming. Caught swarms and even colony splits can then be offered to area enthusiasts, which will help curb importation risks. While it may seem daunting to the inexperienced or overly time-consuming, it will be well worth the effort to be proactive stewards. 

For those wanting to do their part for area pollinators, planting diverse blooms and melliferous plants will assist in keeping regional nutrition wholesome. Diet is a large contributing factor to how bees are faring. With marginal weather scenarios and compromised blooms, it is all the more necessary for us to promote natural and medicinal cultivations. We are what we eat—and the same goes for our bees. If we can promote healthy nutrition, then sick bees (who have not been genetically compromised) will be able to overcome their ailments and curb their spread.

Join area clubs and find mentors. For info on the Santa Fe Sangre de Cristo Beekeepers, contact katewhealen@earthlink.net or www.sdcbeeks.org. They provide a wonderful active listserve and hold regular monthly meetings. For info on Albuquerque area beekeepers, visit www.abqbeeks.ning.com. ABQ Beeks coordinators Chantal Foster and Jessie Brown have a wonderful website and organize many diverse educational events. Both of these clubs are FREE! There is also the NM Beekeepers Association (www.nmbeekeepers.org).

Melanie Margarita Kirby grew up in southern New Mexico. She resides and breeds survivor bees in Truchas. Email: ziaqueenbees@hotmail.com Sangre de Cristo Beekeepers founder/coordinator Santa Fean Kate Whealen is also an active member in the Rocky Mountain Survivor Queenbee Coop.

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