Private Collaboration is the Best Way to Address Hive Health Problems

CLAIM: We need regulations to address honeybee survival challenges.

REALITY: Technological development, improved hive management, and private collaboration offer the best solutions.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could waive a magic regulatory wand and solve the world’s problems? New regulations are often sold that way. Yet regulations are often slow to develop, governed by political rather than practical and scientific goals, and hard to repeal, improve, or modify, even when they become counterproductive. Indeed, while environmental activists may press for regulations, the resulting rules may serve other interest groups—including industry and agricultural interests—with whom the activists are not ideologically aligned.

In the case of honeybees, the best solutions will emerge with collaboration among the parties with an interest in protecting bees—beekeepers, farmers, conservationists, entomologists and other researchers, consumers, and even chemical companies. A balanced, proactive approach that recognizes both the need for food production and wildlife conservation will leverage current knowledge and technological advancements to address ongoing problems.

Ultimately, the survival of honeybees will result from careful hive management in the commercial bee industry. That means beekeepers need to continue to research and follow the best available science in beekeeping husbandry, just as farmers who care for cattle and other animals do. And they can work with other parties to achieve those ends.

Such improved hive management is already ongoing and progress is evident. For example, as noted, during 2013-2014 hive losses were lower and at manageable levels after several years of relatively high losses. What explains the improvement? Beekeeper and policy scholar Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center explains: “Such a significant decline in winter mortality indicates beekeepers are effectively changing their management techniques in response to losing hives. It also shows how hyperbole about honeybees is harming thoughtful discussion about the causes of CCD.”

Bee researcherDennis vanEngelsdorp noted that losses could have been much lower if beekeepers better managed varroa mites, which present a major challenge to honeybee health. And pesticides–which beekeepers use in hive to fight mites and other insects that harm honeybees–are part of the solution. A press statement on the study explains:

Every beekeeper needs to have an aggressive varroa management plan in place. Without one, they should not be surprised if they suffer large losses every other year or so. Unfortunately, many small-scale beekeepers are not treating and are losing many colonies. Even beekeepers who do treat for mites often don’t treat frequently enough or at the right time. If all beekeepers were to aggressively control mites, we would have many fewer losses.

In addition to providing a better understanding about hive survival, recent studies on hive health provide insights on some of the solutions. For example, studies have found that some bees have a propensity to basically isolate and essentially quarantine diseases and contaminants that enter hives, such as mites. This “hygienic behavior” is a genetic trait. Therefore, beekeepers can breed larger numbers of these hygienic bees into hives to reduce risks and produce healthier, stronger hives.

Farmers and chemical companies are also part of the solution. They can work with beekeepers to ensure the careful and strategic use of neonicotinoids and other chemical products necessary to control pests. For example, Florida citrus growers have negotiated a deal with beekeepers to continue neonicotinoid use but are employing measures to limit impact on bees, such as timing the spraying so that beekeepers can temporarily relocate nearby hives to prevent exposure.

Other assistance can come from environmental groups that can help promote private conservation efforts to improve and diversify the food available to honeybees. Simply planting wildflowers near farms and even in residential settings will not only help honeybees, it will help other pollinators and nectar-feeding creatures, such as hummingbirds. Creating such habitat in and around farms that otherwise plant single species of crops can be particularly helpful in providing a diverse diet for both honeybees and native bees that also play a role in pollination. In addition, homeowners and anyone with a piece of land or flower box can contribute by planting certain wild flowers that are of particular value to bees and other wildlife. Such activities may play an important role in helping not only wild honey bee populations but also native bees, which may play a larger role in pollination than originally believed.

Collaboration on habitat cultivation and research efforts are already being promoted by public, non-profit and industry players. To that end, there is the Bee Informed Partnership between federal agencies and academic researchers, Operation Pollinator to advance pollinator habitat organized by Syngenta, the Bayer Bee Care Program to support research, and the nonprofit group the Keystone Center has established the Honeybee Health Coalition to bring together farmers, chemical companies, nonprofits, beekeepers, and other stakeholders. But more importantly are the many local collaborative efforts between beekeepers, farmers, and communities.  And anyone with a yard or flower box can also be part of the solution by planting flowers that provide food for our pollinators, native or otherwise.


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