Why is beekeeping so hard?
Beekeeping is tuff. Much harder than I ever thought it would be. I mean, how hard can it be to raise bees that have been raising themselves forever? ——John
When you are feeling overwhelmed by the difficulty of beekeeping, the thing to remember is this: Although bees have been raising themselves forever, they haven’t raised themselves in our present environment.
Evolution is a glacially slow process. As the environment changes, lifeforms slowly evolve to fit the changes. But humans have altered the planet so fast—especially since the close of WWII—that only species with multiple generations per year and extremely flexible genetics have been able to keep up. Cockroaches, mosquitoes, and many single-celled organisms, for example, have managed just fine. Many species have not.
The bees’ environment is not natural
So even if you are a natural beekeeper following biodynamic or organic principles of beekeeping, the environment where the bees are living is not natural. Like it or not, our present conditions are clearly man made.
For example, the air is polluted. It has been found that bees in polluted air have more difficulty finding forage because it interferes with their sense of smell. Some of the air pollutants stick onto raindrops and fall into the world’s water bodies, causing them to be more acidic. The acidity of water changes what will live in it and affects the things that drink it. We don’t know the details of how it affects all living things, but we know the potential for harm is there. We know there is much we don’t know.
In addition to the air, the soil and water are also tainted with industrial pollutants, pharmaceuticals, pesticides, fertilizers, and nuclear waste. For example, high levels of progestin and estrogen have been found in fresh water supplies. These hormones have been found to persist in spite of water treatment and they interfere with the development of aquatic animals. Although some places are worse than others, the earth is a closed system. Eventually everything spreads everywhere; like oil on water, it gets thinner but it doesn’t go away.
Monocultures are not limited to farms
Agrochemicals have allowed us to take something nature hates—the monoculture—and put it everywhere. Farms, which for thousands of years were a tapestry of plants and animals, have been split into various specialties. The corn is grown here, the pigs there, the cows somewhere else. Each of these monocultures requires more and more chemical intervention to keep them alive.
Even honey bees placed in an almond orchard are a monoculture in a monoculture—all the other insects and plants are killed before the honey bees are brought in, which means our bees are competing with each other for resources, and their pests are free to move from bee to bee with nothing to get in their way. And don’t forget: the residual poisons are left for the bees to eat.
We tend to think that other people are responsible for monocultures: it’s them, not us. But the biggest monoculture in the U.S. is lawn grass, and homeowners tend to use higher concentrations of weed killer than farmers–weed killers that wash off the lawns and into the water supplies and fish-bearing streams.
A missing American beauty
Hardly anyone remembers the majestic beauty of the American elm. The tree was tall and stately. It had few, if any, lower limbs which meant it was perfect for lining streets and parks and ball fields. It was so shady, so magnificent, that it was planted everywhere in the Northeast and Midwest. The towns became tree monocultures. So when Dutch elm disease struck, it ripped up and down those leafy roads and byways and knocked out virtually every tree, state after state, until not an elm was standing.
But monocultures and pollutants are not the only features of the modern Earth. The World Wildlife Fund recently reported that monarch butterflies are covering just 1.65 acres of their wintering grounds in Mexico this year, down from 44.5 acres in 1995. The reason? Habitat fragmentation, urban sprawl, herbicides: cities too big to span, food too hard to find. This egregious loss, like many others, has happened on our watch. If it continues, our grandchildren will read about monarchs they way we read about passenger pigeons, eastern elk, and silver trout.
Beekeepers must not become discouraged
I could go on, but the point is that it is not always your fault when bees die. You cannot get discouraged. You have to remember that everything is different for them regardless of how natural you attempt to be. The modern Earth is not the planet they evolved on. Your attempts to do things right will always be tempered by environmental conditions that are new and rapidly changing.
Perhaps there will be a breakthrough: A chance mutation? A better breed? A magic bullet for mites? We don’t know what it might be or whence it may come. But every last beekeeper is an important part of the process. So hang in there. Believe in yourself. Keep learning. Who knows? The ultimate answer may come from you.