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Mares: Beekeepers' Challenge

As serious beekeeping hobbyists, researchers and lecturers from Kenya, the United Kingdom, Bolivia, and Canada recently gathered in Pennsylvania to discuss the global crisis in beekeeping, the atmosphere was somber.

Death hung over the conference like a pall. The jargon was riddled with references to mortality: LD-50, sub-lethal doses, Dead-outs. People bemoaned bee deaths by pesticides and herbicides, death by pests and pathogens, death from a host of viruses.

Concerns about rising bee mortality has been going on for about seven years. During this time there’s been a lot of loose talk about how, if the bees die, we die. Wrong. How a third of our diet comes from honey bees. Wrong. How the bee losses were caused by cell phones, GM plants, or The Rapture. All of which is Wrong.

Anti-pesticide crusaders have made bees a poster child for their apocalyptic predictions. But beekeepers themselves share in the blame by having used illegal pesticides - that also harm bees - to treat the pests that are the real culprits - because legal pesticides are ineffective, too expensive, or unavailable.

The chief villain is the aptly named mite varroa destructor, a parasite of the Asian honey bee that jumped species 100 years ago and has plagued European honey bees ever since. It has resisted frantic, but mostly ineffectual attempts at breeding resistance, as well as eradication by numerous chemicals and mechanical treatments. And its worst characteristic is that it spreads throughout all the bees of a hive, causing rapid and widespread death of entire colonies.

There’s more. At the industrial level, bees in the U.S. have become their own kind of monoculture, linked at the hip to several crops but dominated by California almonds. Almonds have become both the engine that drives the beekeeping industry, and the bane of our existence. As Kim Flottum, the editor of a national beekeeping magazine says, "Beekeepers have become almond junkies, mainlining pollination fees for survival."

The most talked about new factor at this conference was how to provide enough good food for our bees all year long. Planting soybeans and corn to the absolute edges of our fields, and using herbicides to kill other plants and weeds deprive bees of a balanced diet. And the combination of herbicides, fungicides and limitless insecticides constitute a poisonous synergy that brings the battle between Big Ag and Little Ag into sharp focus.

The big challenge now is to fix these problems. And that’s hard work. Science and agriculture must change. Agriculture must make land available for honey bees and all pollinators. Science must get serious about choosing bees that resist Varroa. And everyone must stop using the poisons.

Without the bees, we wouldn’t starve, but our diet would be a lot duller. Reminds me of something fellow-Vermonter and professional beekeeper Kirk Webster has said of this marvelous creature, “…bees are the color; everything else is black and white.”

Writer Bill Mares of Burlington is also a former teacher and state legislator. His most recent book is a collection of his VPR commentaries, titled "3:14 And Out."
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