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Migratory beekeeping and honey bee health

We often hear that migratory beekeeping is bad for honey bees. But why, exactly, is this so? I’ve put together a list of the most commonly cited reasons.

  • Migratory beekeeping disrupts the natural rhythm of the colony. Like most things in nature, a colony has a life cycle. It begins to expand in late winter, the population explodes just before the honey flow, and then the colony swarms one or more times. The original colony and each of the swarms use the rest of the summer to prepare for winter. During the fall the populations decrease and “winter” bees are born. The winter bees see the colonies through until spring. But colonies that are trucked across the country—say from Maine to Florida and back again—to pollinate both summer crops and winter crops, get their signals crossed. The change in latitude changes the hours of daylight as well as the temperature, humidity, and floral types. These rapid changes and mixed signals are thought to stress the bees. Should the colony be raising winter bees or foragers? Should it be getting ready for spring or fall? Is winter coming or not?
  • Migratory beekeeping brings billions of bees together in one place where they can most effectively exchange disease organisms and parasites. Migratory beekeeping is responsible for the extremely rapid dissemination of disease we have seen in the last few decades.
  • Migratory beekeeping caters to the needs of monocropped farmlands. These monocultures do not provide the large variety of nutrients bees need for maximum health and immune response. In addition, the vast number of bees trucked to these areas means there is stiff competition for the food that is available.
  • Most crops are treated with one or more pesticides. When bees are trucked from one monoculture to the next, the colony is exposed to a greater number of pesticides. This increases the possibility of synergistic effects among pesticides that have been collected with pollen and stored inside the hive.
  • A colony may spend days during the hottest part of the summer confined on the back of a truck along with 400-500 other colonies. High heat, poor ventilation, and lack of water are the norm.
  • Freeway noise is not natural to bees. The incessant, high-decibel assault on the bees from road noise, traffic, and wind is thought to stress the bees. High noise levels are not normally found in the pastoral environments where bees live.

I still find it odd when people express surprise that honey bees are in trouble. The only surprise is that they have survived at all. It’s hard to believe any animal could withstand such harsh and constant abuse and still survive to work for us the next day. Truly amazing.

Rusty

Comments

Alex Wild
Reply

Excellent post, Rusty. I’d like to think the current bee crisis will force a re-evaluation of the lack of regulation on both migratory beekeeping and the package bee industry, but I’m not hopeful. We’ve created a perfect set of conditions for both the transmission of disease and for the evolution of increased pathogen virulence.

GuideToBeekeeping
Reply

I too find bees to be remarkable creatures. However, I doubt that everyone understands how important they really are. Thank you for this post.

Phillip
Reply

I recently saw a documentary while on a plane called “The Last Beekeeper” that follows some migratory beekeepers working for the almond industry. The film seemed to exploit the stress these beekeepers go through when they discover most of their colonies are DOA after shipping them across country. I’m not an expert, but throughout the film they kept asking, “Why are the bees dying?” when the answer seemed obvious: Just look at how they treat the bees. It’s crazy.

The situation also seems hopeless because migratory beekeeping for pollination of monoculture crops is an established industry, one that keeps pushing unsustainable practices because there’s so much money to be made. I feel sorry for the beekeepers who can’t escape it.

marti siebert
Reply

It is also the case that migratory bees are always foraging under extremely competitive conditions; the bee:nectary ratio is always very high for them.

Rusty
Reply

Marti,

Excellent point. Thank you.

Derek
Reply

Forget about the honey bees, migratory beekeeping is bad for all the other pollinators and the rest of the ecosystems. Without migratory honey bees, farmers could not use high levels of pesticide, and grow the same crops year after year. Instead you would need to provide habitat for other insects and reduce insecticide usage levels and do crop rotation. Would this be bad for beekeepers? No because now you could have permanently-based apiaries because the wide variety forage to sustain honey bees would return to farmlands.

William Payne
Reply

It sounds like this list of “commonly cited reasons” that “migratory beekeeping” is “bad” for bees is mostly aimed at migratory POLLINATING. Keeping bees for the purpose of pollinating commercial crops is distinct from keeping bees for other various purposes, which may include production of wax, propolis, royal jelly, and of course, honey. I’m an Arizona beekeeper, and I’d love to think of myself as migratory. I move my bees all the time from the early spring desert blossom, where it too hot in many places for bees through the middle of summer. Just like sheep, I take them up to high desert for mid summer, Northern AZ for high elevation alfalfa (where there is no need to spray with anything) and after that, I may even move with them to the mountains of New Mexico for fall golden rod. Then, as it gets cold I bring them back to the warm desert winter. That’s migratory beekeeping, too. It is not “bad” for my bees. Bees are never more contented than when they are on a good nectar flow, with temperate days, and a water source. An overnight truck ride is behind them as soon as the sun comes up and they re-orient to a fresh productive expanse of flowers.

Rusty
Reply

William,

You make an excellent point, and I’m surprised it hasn’t come up before. I’m guilty as charged in that I think of migratory beekeeping as it relates to pollination, not honey production. I will have to rewrite the post. Thank you so so much for taking the time to point out my error.

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