To better understand what has been happening it is helpful to take a step back and see what had been happening nationally since World War II. At that time there were well over 5 million managed honeybee hives in the country. Feral hives, those that had taken residence in hollow trees and the like, also numbered in the multiple millions. As with other animals, bees were subject to some losses from viral and bacterial disease but most hives were relatively isolated from each other on hundreds of thousands of small and medium sized farms with a mixture of crops and animals. There were also plenty of hives owned by hobbyists and a few larger scale honey producers.
Over the following decades agriculture became far more mechanized. Efficiency became the name of the game. Farms became larger, specialist operations. Transportation became very efficient. In the colder northeast of the country, many farms could not compete with much larger farms in warmer locations. Small farms sold up. Large farms became monocultures.
This saw a steady decline in both farmers keeping bees and a reduction in bee forage areas like pastures. Loss of forage and loss of food diversity made more areas less well suited to honeybees and other pollinators. Soon the monocultures were limited by the lack of pollinators as when the main crop was not in flower, there were no other plants in the area to provide food for the rest of the year. This gave rise to a growing need for migratory beekeeping. Commercial beekeepers with thousands of hives would truck bees all over, following the blooms of various commercial crops up and down the country.
The need for large numbers of hives to pollinate increasingly large monocultures saw hives being imported from overseas. In the mid 1980’s some hives came to the country carrying a pest common in Europe and elsewhere, the Varroa mite. This blood sucking parasite carries viruses and bacteria which sicken or kill the bees. With over a million hives per year being trucked around the country in high concentrations, then moving on to the next locations, the mites spread across the whole country in just a few years. Once hives had mites they multiplied in the bee’s brood doing further damage to the bees. With no natural defense, and left unchecked, the colony of bees would usually die within a year. Treatments to kill the mites were not very effective and the mites had an uncanny ability to develop resistance to those treatments which did work. Having lost their hives several years in a row, many hobbyists gave up keeping bees. Feral honeybees fared even worse, as with no one to treat those hives for mites, they died out in the millions.
In the last decade we hit (hopefully) rock bottom with the number of managed hives dropping to just above 2.5 million. The problems honeybees faced with pesticides and the headline-grabbing colony collapse disorder brought to the attention of the world just how serious this problem of honeybee decline was. Though the condition of colony collapse disorder, where bees disappeared from their hives, appears to have stopped, losses of bees has not. We still, nationally, lose more than 25 percent of managed colonies each year.
The days of my childhood and “easy” beekeeping are gone. Back then I just had to give them lots of room in the spring and harvest lots of honey in the fall. Now we have to understand our bees better. We need to know what’s going on in the hive and how to prevent problems, particularly mites, from building up. If we control mites we control 90 percent of the things which are likely to kill our bees.
Treatments for mites are now very effective, and there are a lot of them. The trick is to know when your bees need them. Education is essential to manage mites successfully. Ironically, the need to understand my bees better, to keep on top of mites and other issues, makes me enjoy them even more. For those times we do lose a colony, replacing lost hives is very easy. One thing the industry has had to learn with high mortalities, is how to replace bees.
The rise of public awareness of the dangers of losing our bees has seen great numbers of people become active in improving the environment for bees and to take up beekeeping. In my view this is how the decline of the honeybees is being, and will continue to be, reversed. It’s far better that we have hundreds of thousands more beekeepers with a few hives, than to have a few hundred beekeepers with thousands of hives.
The relative isolation of backyard beekeepers and the tender loving care we can give them will see a more stable growing population of bees.
The numbers of beekeepers is rising and so too the numbers of managed colonies. Schools like Hampden Academy have honeybees on campus and a host of young beekeepers to look after them. Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, “If bees should disappear from the face of the Earth, mankind would follow within four years.”
With the help of many new beekeepers, hopefully that day has been put off for now!