Haulin' Bees
August 24, 2023 3:52 PM   Subscribe

As the U.S. crept toward an overreliance on mono-agriculture, it eroded native pollinator populations, forcing the country to rely more and more on a species (European honeybees) that is both invasive and increasingly unstable. We strip the land to make more of the same crops and in doing so refortify our economic tentpoles and hasten our agricultural demise. The more the system grows, the more it precipitates the upheaval of the very thing it is most reliant on. from America’s Bee Problem Is an Us Problem [The Ringer]

Natural beekeepers leave their bees alone. They seldom treat for disease—allowing the weaker colonies to fail—and they raise the survivors in conditions that are as close as possible to tree cavities. They fill their hives with swarms that come in on the wing, rather than those which come from dealers who trade on the Internet. They treasure the bees for their own sake—like a goldfinch that nests in the yard—and have an evangelical spirit, as if they have stumbled on a great secret. They are disdainful of conventional beekeepers. “They’ve completely lost sight of the creature,” John told me. from Is Beekeeping Wrong? [The New Yorker; ungated]
posted by chavenet (28 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
“We see the canary, we know it is unwell,” Maggie Shanahan, a bee researcher who recently completed a Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota, wrote, last year, in the Journal of Insect Science. “But focusing solely on individual aspects of canary health actually keeps us from asking more fundamental questions: Why are we keeping canaries in coal mines in the first place? Why are we still building coal mines at all?”

Not directly about beekeeping but I enjoyed this quote.
posted by subdee at 5:44 PM on August 24 [11 favorites]

Also the mystery! The suspense! That the New Yorker piece ends on. Now I also want to know what's up with the bees ...
posted by subdee at 5:45 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]

A friend who's a bit of a crank told me there's a fued among American bee keepers, except the way he said it, if you aren't a commercial bee keeper there are commercial people coming into your hive at night and killing your queens. Now I wonder if they aren't just taking them, or if there isnt something else going on.
posted by subdee at 5:48 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]

Our yard, neglected for decades, is a small jungle that I've been hacking out spaces in to start planting natives - it's ugly, but full of pollinators. Over the summer, I've seen dozens of different kind of bees, wasps, and hornets, as well as bunch of different pollinating flies, and a few things I couldn't class. Burdock, fireweed, white avens planted in the 60s that has run amok, as well as our basil and mint - all teeming with them.

This is in a century-old suburb, next to a busy road and across the street from people who soak their yard in Mosquito Squad broad spectrum insecticide twice a year. It's amazing what shows up if you just provide some decent forage or let it grow on its own, and get out of the way.
posted by ryanshepard at 6:01 PM on August 24 [22 favorites]

So Long And Thanks For All The Nectar?
posted by notoriety public at 6:02 PM on August 24 [3 favorites]

monoculure is evil.
posted by j_curiouser at 6:55 PM on August 24 [6 favorites]

I’ll speak here as a former beekeeper who *always* (for the 12 years we kept bees anyway) saw the commercial beekeepers as a problem. I’ve expounded on why before, so I’ll spare you that rant.
The past few years we kept bees a few things happened that convinced us to quit.
Our hives started dying every year, completely. Contrasted with our first queen, who produced a swarm and lived another year, her descendants kept us in bees for about 7 years. Sometimes *a* hive would die, but not all (we usually had 3-5 hives).
Bees got more expensive - a LOT more expensive. When we started, one could get a package of bees (a queen and a pound of bees) for $25; when we stopped it was $125.
The queens we did buy we poorly bred, which means that they laid a ton of drones (who are just a burden on a colony), so we were paying five times as much for way crappier queens,
Because of all the above, it just wasn’t fun anymore,
I’ll add that we only took honey at the beginning of nectar flow, so we always left them with their own food for the winter, vs taking all the honey at the end of the year, and feeding them HFCS in solution.
Since we’ve stopped keeping bees, I’ve noticed many more of the small pollinators in our garden - I’m pretty sure our honeybees were outcompeting them. But, I’ve noticed fewer bumbles, and I haven’t seen a leaf cutter bee in a couple of years. I hope our hives weren’t vectors of disease for the natives. It all makes me very sad.
posted by dbmcd at 9:02 PM on August 24 [13 favorites]

my dad's hives die off every year; he's stopped taking honey from the hives. if commercial beekeepers are coming to his tiny suburban house outside philadelphia, then there is a huge conspiracy that metafilter has broken a major story on. otherwise it sounds like bullshit and the problem is probably with pesticides fucking with the bees.

i also keep a wildflower garden every year, and the number of bees that show up has dropped year over year for the last decade. something bad is happening but it isn't a fucking conspiracy of commercial beekeepers ffs.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 9:20 PM on August 24 [7 favorites]

It’s possible there are multiple independent causes behind bees dying ffs
posted by armoir from antproof case at 9:56 PM on August 24 [5 favorites]

Nonsense. It's clearly all the work of aliens from outer space. Or perhaps from another dimension; witness statements remain slightly unclear on this point though we have no reason to doubt their credibility otherwise.
posted by flabdablet at 11:29 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]

Seriously though, the problem with the bees is the same problem as with agriculture generally, which is that there are now so many human beings on this planet that only by means of relentless drawdown of resources from the deep past and ongoing theft from the future can we possibly all remain fed and housed.

It's completely obvious to anybody who studies any kind of natural colony - bees included - that colonies do better and stay healthier over time when they're not packed so close together as to spend most of their time competing with one another for resources. From the New Yorker piece:
“None of us knew at the time how strong the selection would be in the wild,” Seeley told me recently. “It turned out that the bees had the variation needed to develop the traits to resist the mites.” While beekeepers were experimenting with chemical treatments and hive designs, the bees in the forest were changing genetically. Their life styles helped them, too. “Colonies living in the wild have many things going for them,” Seeley said. The bees lived in smaller groups, relatively far apart, which made it harder for varroa to spread. They swarmed every year, which broke the reproductive cycle of the mites. (If a colony swarms, the nest is left without bee larvae, which is where varroa mites take hold.) Wild nests were hygienic and coated in propolis. ... Seeley shared his findings in books and papers, but they weren’t what most beekeepers wanted to hear. “My phone didn’t ring off the hook,” he said. Seeley is gentle and plainspoken, but his conclusions were totalizing. “As I see it, most of the problems of honey bee health are rooted in the standard practices of beekeeping,” he told me in an e-mail, “which are used by nearly all beekeepers.”
And there's a reason why those practices are used by nearly all beekeepers, which is that there's more demand for bees than the less intensive methods can meet. And the reason why there's that much demand for bees is that there's a huge demand for food. And the reason there's such a huge demand for food is the absurd number of human beings now populating this planet.

We are stressing the bees, along with every other ecological subsystem upon which we ultimately rely, to breaking point because we have packed ourselves too tightly into our habitats. We have done this because so many of us have allowed ourselves to be lulled into believing that we're such special snowflakes that concepts such as carrying capacity simply don't apply to us. But people who believe that are just wrong and it's well past time for that view to stop being taken seriously.

Call me an ecofascist if you will: I no longer care. There are far too many of us and that is that. This planet will lose biodiversity at an ever increasing rate until the human population drops to about a billion at most. Had we slowed our growth earlier the planet could have carried a higher population than that, but we didn't; instead we collectively embraced growth for its own sake as good in and of itself, and the universally impoverishing consequences of that failure are now locked in.

There exists no sound argument against this position. All that exists, to plagiarize Wilhoit, is an elaborate backwash of pseudophilosophy amounting over time to millions of pages, all of it axiomatically dishonest and undeserving of serious scrutiny.

The only ethical way to get humanity back to sustainable proportions is via cultural norms that confer high social though not economic status to voluntary non-reproduction, and the most ecologically urgent places for that to happen are the countries with the highest per-capita rates of resource consumption. The sad part about that is that high per-capita rates of resource consumption are themselves a direct consequence of the growth-at-all-costs mindset.

So I don't think it's going to happen by ethical means. Instead, I expect a population crash to be forced upon us, one that proceeds according to the same gradually-then-suddenly pattern that applies to any other overpopulating species. I think the people best fitted to survive the oncoming collapse will be those of us who have spent our lives valuing care, both for each other and for the niches we occupy, and who look reality square in the face and respond as reality demands rather than running an internal version of We're An Empire Now.

Or maybe this time it will be aliens.
posted by flabdablet at 1:11 AM on August 25 [6 favorites]

monoculure is evil.[sic]

Evil is so often just applied stupid.
posted by pompomtom at 4:08 AM on August 25 [4 favorites]

Monoculture delivers the cheapest macronutrients. If “commercially”-kept bees actually do collapse, than some other agricultural business model — perhaps one using non-“commercial” beekeeping — will become the cheapest way to produce macronutrients, and thus the prevailing mode of agricultural production. Invisible hand, yo.
posted by MattD at 5:42 AM on August 25 [1 favorite]

I kept bees for years, and really enjoyed the process, largely because I used top bar hives and Warré hives, which let bees work the way evolution and breeding designed them to work, rather than Langstroth hives, which force bees to use plastic comb foundation to maximize argricultural yields. I had happy, successful hives, a few disasters (warm snap in mid-winter, a derecho bringing a tree down on my apiary), but what did me in ultimately was the stupid PR campaign about "saving the bees" (in the context of the US).

We'll all starve if not for honeybees went the initial volleys…but that's plainly not true. The claim that honeybees are a natural part of the environment in the Americas is just not true. The fact is that honeybees are a recently imported agricultural animal that has no place in our environment except to support massive agribusinesses, and the problems they're having, like disease, parasites, and other hive calamities, are entirely the product of the industry behaving as an industry, like those Langstroth foundations that trick bees into building comb to our specifications and not their own patterns. In free comb, honeybees don't build brood cells that are inviting to varroa mites, for instance, but hey, you can't mechanize the process with less intensive hive design (or use a centrifuge to max out your honey yield). In nature, hives don't spontaneously cross continents, where they can pick up and spread hive beetles and diseases.

Besides, the appeal to our own survival is similarly troublesome. We'll starve in the US without imported industrial honeybees? Seems unlikely, since none of the native crops in the Americas require pollination from apis mellifera. In fact, it's the importation and widespread installation of honeybees that wiped out large segments of the native pollinators.

There's just this weird, inexplicable thing, though, where people who genuinely care about the environment of the world around them, but just retweet, repost, repeat and repeat and repeat this "save the bees!" meme without the slightest examination of the science or history of apiary agriculture, and the same people who will encourage wonderful defenses of animals and advocate for green tech and harmonious coexistence with the natural world will look at you, doe-eyed, if you point out that "save the bees!" really means "help massively money-driven industrial agribusiness fix the problem they, themselves, created, and then resume pushing the cuter, kinder-sounding narrative. It's frustrating. If you live in the Americas, saving "the bees" is a call to save big businesses from their greedy, stupid decisions. Fuck them and fuck their honeybees.

And that's why my hives are out in the barn, empty, and will probably stay that way. Instead, I've built tons of habitat for native bees, even though they're nowhere near as fun to watch. The latest science on how much damage honeybees have been doing to native pollinators just clinches it.

I miss my bees, and the sort of zen composure they gave me with all their rituals and enforced gentle practices, but when everything is added up, fuck 'em.
posted by sonascope at 6:10 AM on August 25 [16 favorites]

This planet will lose biodiversity at an ever increasing rate until the human population drops to about a billion at most.

If that’s your goal, focus on improving women’s rights and access to birth control.

When women have the power to choose and kids survive to adulthood, birth rates drop dramatically. Win/Win
posted by leotrotsky at 6:11 AM on August 25 [16 favorites]

A sobering and complex problem. Here's one story on the situation with commercial beekeepers in the Niagara region of Ontario..

Related somewhat - we just came back from a road trip in/around central and eastern Ontario. If we'd done that trip 30+ years ago, we'd have been cleaning bug goo off of our windshield every hour. This trip, just a couple of hits. There's something wrong and it's more than just bees.
posted by Artful Codger at 6:47 AM on August 25 [5 favorites]

It's amazing what shows up if you just provide some decent forage or let it grow on its own, and get out of the way.

This has also been my experience, for what it's worth: my backyard is full of sunflowers* and we've been adding new natives as we go and throwing clover and daikon into the yard along with fescue seed, and then providing the whole yard with mostly benign neglect. I routinely see four or five species of native bees out and about, plus pollinating flies and all manner of other neat things, like the three or four goldfinch pairs that nest either in our yard or in our neighbor's giant tree. I don't usually see a lot of domestic honeybees, though.

As a note about the commercially sold "bee houses" or "bee hotels" intended to provide overwintering spaces for native bees: either plan to replace them every year, or skip those in favor of letting dead stalks from your garden stay put for the winter to produce their own places for bees to overwinter. Otherwise, they tend to accumulate parasites that can actually result in less survivorship for your native bees than simply not providing them.

*we are talking eight-foot sunflowers in clusters that have colonized maybe 30% of the yard, most of which were volunteers. next year I'm going to introduce some giant-seed varieties into the population and see what comes back the year after. next year I am also going to pull some of them instead of going "ah what fun we love them" every time I saw one coming up and then being bewildered a month later when they have almost consumed the deck and attempted to eat the patio seating.
posted by sciatrix at 6:49 AM on August 25 [7 favorites]

Related somewhat - we just came back from a road trip in/around central and eastern Ontario. If we'd done that trip 30+ years ago, we'd have been cleaning bug goo off of our windshield every hour. This trip, just a couple of hits.

I've noticed this too. From Wikipedia: Windshield phenomenon; Decline in insect populations.
posted by Gerald Bostock at 7:25 AM on August 25 [3 favorites]

The "windshield" gauge is by no means definitive, but it is something that just about anyone with 20+ years of experience driving in the same areas would notice, and research confirms the loss of insect biomass and diversity. Insects are a big part of the base of the terrestrial food pyramid, and integral to pollination of many plants. Nuff said.
posted by Artful Codger at 7:38 AM on August 25 [3 favorites]

When I moved to the house I currently live in 6 years ago, I made a decision to focus as a gardener to planting native plants that provide food and habitat for pollinators and birds.

At this point I have added about 70 different species of native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers to my 1/3 acre suburban yard.

This is not as hard as it may sound! Remember, I've been doing this for 6 years. So that's really only 12 new plant species per year. And it's not expensive as it may sound, either. I didn't buy all of the plants. Some of them I got from friends and neighbors who also grow native plants and had volunteers or divisions or cuttings looking for good homes; some I got from a local native plant swap group, where I've found a lot of people don't even ask for trades but just give native plants away for free. A few I've started from seed, which is less expensive than starting from nursery plant size. And I've also taken advantage of native plant giveaways and sales by my state's department of conservation.

I started seeing more native pollinators visiting my yard in the first year of adding native plants, but over the past two years, I have seen an absolute explosion in pollinator diversity in my yard. I've seen species of native bees and wasps I have never seen in my life before even though I have lived in the same state for my entire lifetime. I've seen all sorts of predatory insects, too: native ladybugs, native mantises, and long-legged flies, who come to eat the aphids and the mosquitoes, which stops me from feeling a need to do much about insect pests.

And yes, I've seen honeybees, also. Enough to notice that the honeybees will visit native plants, but prefer to forage on the non-native, Eurasian plants I still grow like basil, thyme, and various edible mints. The honeybees will cover my blooming imported catnip plant and ignore my native common mountain mint, which gets covered in native sweat bees and bumblebees instead. So it seems, at least in my own little habitat space, I am managing to feed both native and imported bees without much resource conflict, though of course there is still the risk of honeybees passing diseases and parasites to the natives.

I do wonder how many more native pollinators I would see if my next door neighbor weren't committed to pouring poisons all over his golf-course style lawn. Sometimes I get a little upset about the idea that some of my bees (I don't keep them; I just feed and shelter and watch them, but they still feel like my bees) are at constant risk of dying just from landing in the wrong spot on the wrong day right next door. But there's only so much that's in my control. And I can see very clearly that I am making a difference, even by changing one yard.
posted by BlueJae at 8:52 AM on August 25 [12 favorites]

I'm a beekeeper in urban MN just a few stoplights from skyscrapers. My front yard is fully planted and my backyard is half, giving the dogs a place to pinball around at full speed away from my four hives.

I have found a balance over the last seven years: my honeybees help the neighborhood fruit trees and even get to what is considered one of the last two WW community gardens; the front is heavily trafficked by bumblebees and hundreds of smaller native species of bees, hornets, and flies.

Yes, I have to replace half of my hives almost every year, and that's with careful maintenance. But with the work and breeding by the U of M Bee Lab started by Dr. Marla Spivak, there is an effort to create hygenic bees that may help handle varroa issues and return longer lives to these pollinators.

So, do what you can: offer pollinator gardens with variety for bloom season and for the great number of workers we don't think of in the pollinator spectrum. If you can talk folks out of grass, you're saving water and usually a lot of chemicals as well.

And hey, if you're at the MN state fair, stop by the Bee Booth in the Agriculture area-- I will be there!
posted by Arch1 at 11:06 AM on August 25 [6 favorites]

The "Poor Proles Almanac" did a very good mini-series on bee-keeping from various perspectives and I highly recommend it.

Don't let the multi-causal nature of decline distract you from addressing any one cause.
posted by AnchoriteOfPalgrave at 11:25 AM on August 25 [2 favorites]

i also keep a wildflower garden every year, and the number of bees that show up has dropped year over year for the last decade

not just honeybees but all kinds of bees, to make that clear to the troll
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 8:05 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]

Monoculture delivers the cheapest macronutrients.

….for a specially circumscribed version of ‘cheapest’. This discussion is largely around uncosted externalities.
posted by pompomtom at 8:26 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]

The past few years we kept bees a few things happened that convinced us to quit.
Our hives started dying every year, completely. Contrasted with our first queen, who produced a swarm and lived another year, her descendants kept us in bees for about 7 years. Sometimes *a* hive would die, but not all (we usually had 3-5 hives).
Bees got more expensive - a LOT more expensive. When we started, one could get a package of bees (a queen and a pound of bees) for $25; when we stopped it was $125.
The queens we did buy we poorly bred, which means that they laid a ton of drones (who are just a burden on a colony), so we were paying five times as much for way crappier queens,

I think it’s quite possible that queens who won’t produce another queen are produced intentionally in order to enhance revenue.

Here is an article from 4 years ago about using CRISPR/Cas9 to knock out a gene that allows future queens to respond to the special nutrients that normally would make them queens:
Queen bees differ physically from their sterile sister workers, with a much larger body and ovaries that are needed for her prime responsibility in life — to be tended to just so to produce all the future offspring in the hive. As such, future queens are fed a bee delectable, sugar-rich “royal jelly” from the time they emerge as larvae — while future workers receive relatively sugar-poor “worker jelly.” But the degree to which diet alone determines the difference in gonadal size between queen and worker has been unclear.

To explore the genetic influences on gonad size, the authors first showed that reduced sugar had no effect on male gonad size, indicating that diet isn’t the sole influence. Next, using CRISPR, they knocked out the so-called feminizer gene in early worker larvae.

With the feminizer gene turned off by CRISPR, they found that a low-sugar diet had no effect on gonad size. In fact, their gonad size was similar to those typically found in male drones. The authors conclude that the feminizer gene must be switched on not only to produce ovaries but also to permit nutrient level to affect gonad size.
This isn’t the same as producing a queen that can’t give rise to,another queen, but it’s well along the path to that goal.

Of course, it’s also not in their best interests to tell you that's what they’re doing, but I would guess it was a necessary preliminary to being able to raise the price 500%.

If all the suppliers are doing that and keeping it quiet, that would amount to a conspiracy, as well as a crime against nature in my opinion.
posted by jamjam at 1:56 AM on August 27 [1 favorite]

Speaking of hauling bees... here's a story about hauling bees.

5 million bees fall off truck on Guelph Line in Burlington, Ont.
posted by Artful Codger at 6:53 PM on August 30 [1 favorite]

Mod note: MeFi Mail sent to Artful Codger for correct URL in the 'hauling bees' comment.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (staff) at 5:34 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]

[solid blush] Sorry.

Correct link to CBeeC story

bonus BeeBeeC link
posted by Artful Codger at 5:49 AM on August 31 [1 favorite]

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