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Reflections on the Honey Bee Health Summit

First published in: American Bee Journal, August 2013

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(And Other Random Thoughts)

Randy Oliver

 Reflections of the Honey Bee Health Summit

(And Other Random Thoughts)

Into The Belly of the Beast

Plant Breeders

Drop the Demonization

Let’s Be Logical

Take Home Sound Bites

Colony Health

The Varroa/Virus Complex

Pesticide Issues

Agriculture and Nutrition


Sentinel Apiaries

Weighing the Costs and Benefits

The Varroa/Virus Complex

Watch What You Say

The Two Worlds of Beekeeping

The Evolution of Beekeeping

The Forage Issue, or Weeds, Bees Love’em

Economics and Meeting the Demand for Almond Pollination

The Nitty Gritty

We Need a New “Silent Spring”

Action Items and Resources



In early June, Project Apis m. held a Honey Bee Health Summit hosted by Monsanto at the company’s research headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri.  The organizers invited speakers and stakeholders from the scientific community, the major beekeeping organizations, the pesticide companies, the EPA, various agricultural companies, the almond and cotton boards, economists, etc.  Monsanto also opened the conference to any interested employees, picked up the transportation tab for them to attend, and filmed the proceedings for live webcast open to all 20,000 Monsanto employees worldwide.

Into the Belly of the Beast

Many of us found it hard to believe that we were actually sitting in the “belly of the Beast”—Monsanto being popularly (and perhaps unjustly) demonized by many activists (especially in my home state of California).  But the Summit wasn’t about winning us over–rather its purpose was to allow the major stakeholders in beekeeping and agriculture to interact, to put each others’ issues into perspective, and to make suggestions for improvement.  Let me make clear that the Summit was not a corporate sales pitch, and that there were few presentations by Monsanto itself—the Summit was about honey bee health, the problems that beekeepers are having with Big Ag, and about the survival of our industry.

Monsanto was a logical choice as a corporate host for the conference, since the Israeli start up Beeologics recently asked (an important point) the company to acquire it in order to bring their RNAi technology to market for the benefit of the bee industry.  Monsanto, in return, got access to Beeologic’s proprietary RNAi technology in order to help it to develop the next generation of plant protection products, which, if successful, should reduce the need for toxic insecticides.  Monsanto hired beloved apiary inspector and writer Jerry Hayes (The Classroom) to head its honey bee division, and recently completed its first large-scale field research project (in which I was a collaborator) which will likely give us the best insight into the causes of colony winter mortality to date (collected the very winter of the meltdown of bees for almond pollination).

Plant Breeders

I have no intention of making this article a fluff piece for Monsanto, but feel that the reader might benefit from some background information.  At the research facility, one certainly gets the impression that the focus of Monsanto is upon plant breeding.  We found a group of cheerful [1] and very interested scientists and technicians busily at work breeding better cultivars of crops (a thousand scientists at this facility alone).  I should make clear that most of Monsanto’s breeding work in not dependent upon genetic engineering (surprisingly, Monsanto produces seeds for organic, as well as conventional production). 

In order to produce these cultivars, Monsanto breeders cross, say, a highly productive corn cultivar with a variety resistant to a particular blight.  But first they sequence the crop plant’s genome to look for genetic markers for the most desirable traits.  This process is called “marker assisted selection,” and is completely acceptable for organic certification.  They then use an amazing machine to take each of the hundreds of thousands of seeds from the progeny of the crosses, and grind off a tiny snip of the seed coat which is then genetically analyzed for the desired markers.  This process cuts out the need to grow to maturity the vast majority of those seeds in order to determine whether they carry the desired combination of traits or not.

I asked some of the scientists about the popular Bt (genetically engineered) trait for pest control, and reports that some insects are becoming resistant. The breeders felt that they will be able to keep ahead of resistance by employing slightly different cry toxins (each of course is carefully tested to ensure that it is not toxic to humans or bees).

Then to further speed up the tedious process of plant breeding, there are acres of greenhouses atop the buildings, which allow the breeders to grow three generations of that crop plant each season, thus tripling the rate at which better cultivars can be developed.  Monsanto invests more money in plant breeding than all its major competitors combined, to the tune of $4 million dollars a day, 365 days a year!

Drop the Demonization

I’m not writing this article to defend Monsanto or any other corporate agribusiness (personally, I have an innate distrust of mega corporations and abhor the consolidation of agribusiness).  Rather, I’m pointing out that Monsanto employees hardly consider what they do to be “evil.”  Far from it, the ones that I spoke with are excited to be developing new cultivars that produce more food on healthier plants with less water, fertilizer, or pesticides (Fig. 1).

Figure 1.  Considerable progress has been made in lessening the environmental footprint of the growing of major crops such as corn.  Field to MarketTM graphically illustrates such improvement in charts such as that above.  Each colored pentagon represents the overall footprint based upon the five indicated metrics.  As you can see, the footprint has gotten smaller year by year, especially in soil erosion (largely due to the adoption of reduced tillage practices).  To their credit, the organization is looking to add additional metrics, such as for water quality and biodiversity (which would directly apply to pollinators).  Image courtesy [2].

Figure 1. Considerable progress has been made in lessening the environmental footprint of the growing of major crops such as corn. Field to MarketTM graphically illustrates such improvement in charts such as that above. Each colored pentagon represents the overall footprint based upon the five indicated metrics. As you can see, the footprint has gotten smaller year by year, especially in soil erosion (largely due to the adoption of reduced tillage practices). To their credit, the organization is looking to add additional metrics, such as for water quality and biodiversity (which would directly apply to pollinators). Image courtesy [2].

In reality, the problem is not any one company or product; rather, we need to step back and look at the entire agricultural system as a whole.  Monsanto is clearly part of that system, but as far as corporate players go, perhaps more invested in sustainability than the norm.  It might help to remember that it is the farmers themselves who made Monsanto wealthy—the company simply had the foresight to develop products that farmers wanted to buy.

Monsanto appears to genuinely want to be good a corporate citizen [3].  This is not merely lip service or “greenwashing”–the Gulf of Mexico Program recently announced that the Monsanto Company will receive a First Place 2013 Gulf Guardian Award for their Mississippi Watershed Project [4].  Monsanto’s funding of the Honey Bee Health Summit, and its donations to Project Apis m. for the forage planting pilot project are of clear benefit to our industry—I suggest that we take advantage of their willingness to help us.  The cynic may suggest that the Summit was about pitching a product to us, but that couldn’t be further from the truth—Dr. Alex Inberg made quite clear that any such products were only in the earliest stages of development.

Let’s Be Logical

I get plenty of alarmist emails forwarded to me every week parroting some “hate Monsanto” message.   With each one, I check the facts behind the claim, and in most every case, have found them to be based upon exaggeration, misinterpretation, or distortion of the truth.  When I informed a friend as to the truth behind a recent anti-Monsanto blast, she replied, “I just figured it was yet another crappy thing Monsanto was doing to try to kill us all.”  I must confess, I question the rationality of anyone who can think that a major agricultural company is truly trying to kill off its customer base (or all its employees)! 

I realize that I am touching on emotional subjects, largely due to the fear factor drummed up by dedicated activists.  I beg any reader that before sending me hate mail, that you first go to the trouble of carefully checking the facts for yourself–not someone else’s interpretation, but go to the original sources!

The arguments by the anti-whatevers are often rife with fallacies in their logic.  May I also suggest that you review these fallacies at [5], and put each argument by the anti’s to the test.  In the pesticide and GMO debate, I’m especially concerned about the overall effect of the logical fallacy called “The Middle Ground”–thinking that the midpoint between two extremes is likely close to the truth.  The problem with that logic is that when one hears unsubstantiated extreme claims (such as that GMO’s or glyphosate are the cause of every human health problem [6]), the natural (but illogical) tendency is give perhaps unmerited credence to such claims.  This may lead us to erroneously conclude that our ignorant regulators are not watching out for our health.  I do not purport to know where the truth actually lies, but I want to base my conclusions on hard evidence, and I assure you, all regulatory agencies look very carefully at all the evidence (check for yourself—their risk assessments are online, and you are free to comment [7, 8, 9]).

I do not wish to dwell on the GMO/human health issue, but let me put it this way: the vast majority of GM corn goes to animal feed.  The livestock industry meticulously follows every detail of animal health.  It’s likely safe to assume that if GM corn were indeed unhealthful, the livestock industry would be the first to know!  In any case, the scientific community is carefully investigating any potential health issues of GM crops, and since GM corn is such a tiny portion of most peoples’ diets, I’m willing to trust our regulatory system on this one.

Take Home Sound Bites

I’m not going to name all the presenters, and information often came faster than we could scribble.  Here are some notable “sound bites.”

Colony Health

  • The clear common consensus was that the main causes of colony health problems are poor nutrition and the varroa/virus complex, sometimes exacerbated by pesticide issues. 
  • I put nutrition first, since without food, other health issues are moot! 
  • Provided that the colony is adequately fed, then the varroa/virus complex still remains the major problem for bees. 
  • And if you place hives in an agricultural area, pesticides may enter the picture, either as outright kills, or as subtle sublethal effects.
  • Based upon 10,000 samples of beekeeper’s hives by the Bee Informed Partnership, varroa is our number one problem.
  • In the year 2000 it was difficult to find viruses in colonies; now they are ubiquitous.
  • The consumer demands cheap, cosmetically-perfect food, so we will need to deal with pesticides.
  • You can’t necessarily extrapolate from what happens in the lab to what will happen in the field.
  • We need to look at the total toxin burden to the colony.
  • We should amend FIFRA to register formulations rather than active ingredients.
  • Bees tend to do poorly on commodity crops.
  • The bee industry is having deep troubles at the same time that the rest of agriculture is experiencing increased returns.
  • We need to educate Big Ag.
  • Based upon the economic contribution of various livestock, the USDA should fund bee research right behind cows and swine, but above poultry.

The Varroa/Virus Complex

  • Based upon 10,000 samples of beekeeper’s hives by the Bee Informed Partnership, varroa is our number one problem.
  • In the year 2000 it was difficult to find viruses in colonies; now they are ubiquitous

Pesticide Issues

  • The consumer demands cheap, cosmetically-perfect food, so we will need to deal with pesticides.
  • You can’t necessarily extrapolate from what happens in the lab to what will happen in the field.
  • We need to look at the total toxin burden to the colony.
  • We should amend FIFRA to register formulations rather than active ingredients.

Agriculture and Nutrition

  • Bees tend to do poorly on commodity crops.
  • The bee industry is having deep troubles at the same time that the rest of agriculture is experiencing increased returns.
  • We need to educate Big Ag.
  • Based upon the economic contribution of various livestock, the USDA should fund bee research right behind cows and swine, but above poultry.


The EPA is caught in a tough spot between the powerful agricultural lobbies, environmentalists, strident foodies, and beekeepers (who to the EPA’s dismay, consistently fail to file adverse effects reports).  When I asked EPA risk manager Tom Steeger how many pesticide incident reports he’d gotten so far this year at Beekill@epa.gov, he told me less than half a dozen.

Practical application: without incident reports, there is officially “no problem”!  File that report if you experience a pesticide problem [10].

Understandably, some beekeepers are hesitant to “create waves” with local landowners.  Dr. Steeger explains:

If they report to Beekill@epa.gov, they will be asked whether they reported to the state.  They will also be asked if they would mind if the report is relayed to the state.  If they do not wish to have the information relayed to the state, then it will not be relayed.  While all incident data are useful, some are more useful than others.  The most useful data are those reports that have been thoroughly investigated by the state.

I will elaborate upon pesticides and their sublethal effects next month.

Sentinel Apiaries

I asked major players at the Summit what we beekeepers could do toward getting bioindicator sentinel apiaries set up in agricultural areas across the country.  Although all agreed that it would be a great idea, no one could come up with suggestions for funding such a program (the USGS is the most likely candidate).

Suggested idea: if carefully-managed stationary apiaries were set up across the country, we could firmly document which agricultural environments bees survive in, and in which they can’t.  Such bioindicator sentinel apiaries would help us to figure out which ag chemicals are causing the most problems.

Weighing the Costs and Benefits

Everyone these days seems to be worried about “toxins.”   And most people erroneously assume that “toxins” refer only to ag chemicals.  Sure, the potential impacts of the sublethal effects of pesticides were discussed at the Summit, but a couple of interesting facts relevant to Monsanto’s products have come to my attention.  I’m no fan of widespread herbicide use, but while researching plant toxins, I came across a benefit of herbicides of which I was previously unaware [11]:

 Another example of an agricultural change that has virtually eliminated many toxicity problems in the U.S. is the introduction and almost universal use of herbicides to control broad-leaved weeds in grain fields.  In the past, before herbicides were used, grain fields were frequently heavily contaminated with many weeds, and both human and livestock toxicities occurred because of contamination of the grain with toxic weed seeds….There is a certain amount of irony associated with efforts in the U.S. to ban the use of herbicides.  There is no known case of injury or death from residues on food, while prior to their use, public health and livestock problems existed because of natural toxins in grain.  This situation still exists in many parts of the world. 

Also of interest are the fungus-produced mycotoxins, which are among the most carcinogenic substances known to man, and clearly associated with human and animal disease.  When insects feed on corn kernels under the husk, this opens the door for fungal growth, and the harvested grain may contain mycotoxins.  Most countries set a regulatory “allowable level” in corn and other grains. 

But since mycotoxins can’t be completely avoided, the agencies must decide the levels of mycotoxins to be considered as “safe” in our diet.  Not all agencies agree, so the allowable level varies substantially from country to country.  For corn grain intended for human consumption, the U.S. allows at least twice the level as does the E.U. (another serving of mycotoxins anyone?). 

What the heck has this got to do with Monsanto?  Well, genetically engineered Bt corn, due to reducing insect damage, contains less mycotoxins.  So here’s some food for thought–should we be more concerned about the naturally-occurring plant and fungal toxins that are well known to cause human illness and cancer, or about glyphosate and Bt, neither of which have been clearly demonstrated to cause health problems?  I’ll let you think on it…

The Varroa/Virus Complex

Bee researchers voice a common message that regarding bee health issues, the varroa/virus complex is still the 800-pound gorilla.  Monsanto is in a position to help on two fronts.  First, the data from the aforementioned winter survival study in which I participated promises to help us much better understand the dynamics of what is actually taking place in our colonies over the winter.  Monsanto agreed to allow me to share this data, and we are drooling in anticipation.

Secondly, Monsanto is investing serious funding into bringing the former Beeologics RNAi antiviral product to market, and is in the early stages of “non chemical” varroa and nosema treatments.  We should be grateful that Monsanto is willing to take the gamble of working not only on an animal product, but doing so for such a relatively tiny market as ours.

Watch What You Say

I was glad for the chance to speak with stakeholders outside of the bee industry.  Something that I had not previously thought of was how beekeepers had once again shot themselves in the foot.  The U.S. commercial beekeeping industry is nowadays largely dependent upon almond pollination income to sustain itself.  The fortunes of the bee industry and the almond industry are closely linked. 

An almond grower at the Summit had me imagine a scenario in which a food manufacturer was trying to make the decision as to whether to include chopped almonds in a new product.   And then that manufacturer hears some beekeeper on network TV suggesting that the almond industry was facing imminent collapse due to an upcoming shortage of bees.  How do you think that sort of press plays to the almond industry?

The Two Worlds of Beekeeping

What really struck me at the Summit was that hobby beekeepers are barely considered as stakeholders in the economic analyses of the bee industry.  The reason was made clear by Gene Brandi, who did some quick math for our benefit.  Gene pointed out that there are about 2.5 million managed hives of bees in the U.S.  The average winter loss rate is running about 30%.  That leaves about 1.7 million strong colonies for almond pollination.  This winter the demand was for 1.6 million hives.  And in the next few years, an additional 200,000 hives will be required for new orchards reaching bearing age.  You do the math!

Few hobby beekeepers pollinate almonds, so as far as agriculture is concerned, the commercial migratory beekeepers are the only stakeholders of interest.

The Evolution of Beekeeping

I found the above observation to be worth some thought.  In my own career, I’ve evolved from being a hobby beekeeper to an (albeit small) commercial migratory beekeeper.  During that time I’ve also witnessed some major evolution in the honey bee and in beekeeping practices.

Back in my early days as a beekeeper, bees were essentially semi-domesticated wild animals for which the beekeeper merely provided wooden nest boxes; it was generally up to the bees to take care of themselves, foraging in the wild for whatever they could find.  At best, the beekeeper would feed a bit of syrup in spring or fall, and perhaps hand load the hives for a move to better pasture.   There was a robust population of locally-adapted feral bees, often genetically distinct from the managed populations.

In cold winter areas, colonies were typically cyanided in fall, and all the honey harvested; the beekeeper took the winter off, and restarted with package bees in the spring.  Honey production was the only reason to keep bees unless you were a package producer.  The only disease that we worried about was AFB, but massive pesticide kills were commonplace.  And California beekeepers asked almond growers for permission to move their hives to the orchards to take advantage of the nutritious bloom.

Then things started to change; not necessarily for the better.  Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz famously exhorted farmers to “get big or get out.”  Agricultural production grew more intense and the diversified family farm started down the path to extinction.  Larger farms required more bees for pollination than the local population could provide, so beekeepers learned to use forklifts and semi trailers to move loads of hives.

Some California beekeepers twisted the arms of almond growers to start actually paying for pollination services—at 25¢ a hive to start with, finally reaching $8 by the time that I started moving bees to almonds.  The semi-wild bee was replaced with selected breeds such as the Starline and Midnight.  And then the bee got hit with some new parasites—chalkbrood, tracheal mite, and varroa.  We suffered massive colony losses upon the arrival of the mites, and the feral population of bees disappeared.  Canada closed the border, and the trend shifted toward the overwintering of colonies, or moving south for the winter. 

Successful beekeeping now required additional skills and costs—and colony survival depended largely upon the degree of husbandry practiced by the beekeeper, whether hobby or commercial.  We routinely treated colonies with antibiotics and miticides (although some of us started selecting for AFB- and mite-resistant stocks).  

And then in the winter of 2004/2005 a perfect storm of poor forage, miticide failure, and the varroa/virus complex caused large-scale colony collapse.  The almond growers were forced to bid their offered price for pollination rent from $45 up to $155 in one year.  This changed everything!  Midwestern honey producers tried something new—hauling their hives to California for the winter “gold rush.”  And as during the actual Gold Rush, many learned that gold mining was harder than it looked!

I did some math at that time, and brought to the attention of the editors that the bee industry had gone through a watershed event—in some years the industry as a whole now was making more income solely off almond pollination rentals than from total honey production nationwide (the low price of Chinese honey had much to do with this).  Since almonds bloom in the dead of winter, and since colonies build up to swarm condition by early March, beekeepers who formerly took the winter off now no longer got a break!  Beekeepers depended upon almond income to make ends meet, and modified their practices to this end.

At this point in time, the schism between hobby and commercial beekeeping has never been greater.  The hobby beekeeper still wants to simply provide the box for bees to live in, while the commercial beekeeper invests formerly unthinkable amounts of money into each hive every season. 

And this is where it gets really interesting–watching the genetics of the two populations of honey bees diverge.  Most commercial beekeepers nowadays are truckers as much as beekeepers—modern day cowboys moving their herd from pasture to pasture (or from paying pollination to paying pollination).  And their bees are bred for this model.   The queen producers are selecting for a more and more “domesticated” bee—highly productive, with early build up, more resistant to miticides and pesticides, and largely dependent upon chemical parasite control and supplemental feeding. 

Bottom line:  the vast majority of managed colonies in the U.S. contain a population of bees that requires intensive husbandry, chemical control of parasites, and is dependent upon supplemental feeding, similarly to other livestock.  This is not a criticism; it is simply a hard fact.

Concurrently, there is also a rebounding population of “wild type” feral and survivor colonies in many areas.  These bees tend to be locally adapted, resilient, and have apparently worked out how to deal with the varroa/virus complex.

So let’s consider the genetics of the small fraction of colonies managed by hobby beekeepers, most of whom have stationary apiaries.  The BIP survey suggests that despite the fact that virtually 100% of commercial beekeepers treat their colonies for parasites,   fully 70% of hobby beekeepers do not apply any treatments whatsoever!  Not surprisingly, hobby beekeepers often suffer from a higher rate of winter losses [12].  But let’s investigate this aspect more deeply.

I’m going to divide hobby beekeepers into two groups—those who start with commercial stocks of “domesticated” bees, and those who start with feral/survivor stock.  One would expect that the “domesticated” commercial stocks would need the same sort of “help” from the beekeeper (miticides, antibiotics, supplemental feeding) that the package producers use in their own operations.  It is not surprising then that when a newbee hobbyist goes “treatment free” with these bees, that the colony often succumbs.  It is unreasonable to expect an animal bred for dependency upon human intervention to survive without assistance!

On the other hand, those beekeepers who are keeping a more “wild-type” survivor/feral stock find that these bees often survive quite well with little beekeeper intervention—even when kept in agricultural areas.  I can’t help but notice that there is a growing number of successful “natural” beekeepers.  I suspect that their success has not so much to do with their management practices (or lack thereof), but is rather because they are keeping a more “natural” bee.

Practical application: it appears to me that our feral population of bees is finally rebounding from its decimation due to the invasion of varroa, and that the hobby beekeepers who are keeping feral/survivor stock are the first to be taking advantage of this event (this is not to discount the relatively few queen producers who are also breeding survivor stock).  Could it be that we are finally seeing the tide coming back in, and that we will be able some day to go back to the “semi-wild bee in the box” model of beekeeping?  I sure hope so!

But this now brings us to the important issue of forage.

The Forage Issue, or Weeds, Bees Love ‘em

A major point at the Summit was the impact of changing agricultural practices upon commercial beekeeping.  Crop plants provide only brief nutritional “boom or bust” events for bees, if at all.  The short period of bloom may provide copious quantities of nectar and single-source pollen, but for the rest of the season they are a green desert so far as bees are concerned.

What is important to bees, other pollinators, and beneficial insects are the weeds, native plants, and brush between the rows, on the field margins and ditch banks, and in hedgerows and woods.  It is these plants that provide the steady mix of diverse nectar and pollen upon which colony health is dependent.  Such bee-friendly flora used to be a common feature in agricultural lands.  But today’s farms often appear “sterile”—all the pasture and biologically diverse “natural” areas have been cleared and herbicided right down to bare soil [13].  In some states, bee-friendly plants such as the sweet clovers are now considered to be noxious weeds [14].  And in California, “non crop vegetation” is discouraged in field margins around vegetable crops due to E. coli fears—leading to a conflict between food safety guidelines and environmental goals [15].

The major conversion in recent years of pasture/range/CRP lands to corn and soy has further eliminated the last good bee forage from large areas in the Midwest.  Corn and soy are today largely grown using reduced tillage practices, which can have huge environmental benefits [16] when done with crop rotation and cover crops [17].  But in the short term, the reduction of tillage lends itself to the excessive use of herbicides to eliminate any sort of weed.

And this brings us back to Monsanto.  I addressed the elephant in the living room at the Summit by pointing out that the flagship Roundup Ready® crops developed by Monsanto allow farmers to eliminate all extraneous vegetation from their land with impunity by using the herbicide glyphosate (formerly under Monsanto patent, and sold under the trade name Roundup®).  I questioned what Monsanto, in their desire to be a responsible corporate citizen, was doing to mitigate its indirect contribution to the loss of bee forage.

I must point out that these agri-deserts are certainly not the goal of Monsanto, but are rather due to the application of the recommendations of agricultural extension agents and the economic reality of farming.  Monsanto and many other companies sell products demanded by agriculture—they can’t really be blamed for the outcome, and if they weren’t supplying those products, other companies readily would.  In fact, the patents for Roundup Ready expire next year, so theoretically anyone will then be able to propagate Roundup Ready seed [18, 19].

 To the company’s credit, it has donated significant funds to Project Apis m. for a pilot program to plant bee forage on California ag lands.  On a larger scale, the answer is less clear.  Monsanto is clearly passionate about breeding cultivars that produce more food on less land.  This is a net benefit to the environment, since it means that less natural habitat need be converted to cropland.  But Monsanto really has no control over how farmers manage their lands—any landowner is free to plant from fencerow to fencerow, and kill any weed he so desires.  And with high commodity prices, and government incentives to plant every available acre, they are doing so.  In any case, we put the bug in Monsanto’s ear that biodiversity on farmlands was a critical issue for the beekeeping industry.

Economics and Meeting the Demand for Almond Pollination

Our current model for supplying enough strong hives for the almond industry is dependent upon there being adequate summer pasture for our colonies.  For the largest beekeepers, that has meant moving bees from California in winter to the Dakotas for summer, due to the previously vast swaths of pasture/range/CRP lands.  But this bee-friendly, pesticide-free acreage is rapidly disappearing, and that is becoming a serious economic issue for beekeepers. 

How serious?  Let’s do some math!  Dr. Eric Mussen keeps track of the annual operating costs for a California commercial beekeeper to bring a strong hive to almonds—the current figure runs about $220.  Even if that beekeeper gets $150 for almond rent, that hive still needs to earn another $70 before it breaks even (even more in a drought year).  The beekeeper needs to do another couple of paid pollinations or make at least a 35-lb surplushoney crop before he turns any sort of profit.  And that’s only if he doesn’t suffer from excessive winter losses (a number of beekeepers are not going to make it out of the red in 2013).

Almond grower Dan Cummings could easily tell me off the top of his head what percentages of his operating costs went to fertilizer, water, pollination services [20], etc.  I was surprised that when I asked a few large-scale beekeepers a similar question regarding feed costs that they didn’t know the answer offhand.  One who later checked with his accountant found that 22% of his operating costs went to feed.  This may help us to put into perspective the value of good forage.

Practical application: American agriculture used to rely upon the “free” pollination services provided by native insects and honey bees.  Change in land use practices has now created a market for a pollination service industry.  This industry initially relied upon natural forage to support its bees.  But some of the same land use practices that created the need for migratory pollinators are now eliminating this natural forage, forcing the large commercial beekeepers to adopt the artificial feeding practices of the livestock industry.  Change is the name of the game, and the Big Boys are having to adapt.

And how about that surplus honey crop?  I was recently going over figures with various commercial California-based migratory beekeepers.  Last season it was not unusual to feed 100 lbs of syrup per hive plus several pounds of protein supplement.  The fed syrup far exceeded the weight of any honey crop!  And the income to those beekeepers from almond pollination clearly exceeded any “profit” from the honey harvest.  Commercial beekeeping is largely becoming a service industry to the almond growers.

And that pollination service industry is following in the footsteps of the livestock industry.  Similar to our bees, livestock used to be provided a “nest area” and then left to forage as “semi-wild” animals.  No longer–today’s completely domesticated chickens and pigs never see the light of day nor green pasture—they live their entire lives in the carefully-controlled and very artificial environment of the concentrated animal feedlot operation.  Cattle still forage naturally when young, but again are hustled off as soon as possible to confined dairy or feedlot facilities.  The nutritional need of livestock are no longer obtained by them foraging in pasture and woodlots, but rather from them being brought formulated rations made from harvested monocultural corn, wheat, soy, and alfalfa (cut before it blooms).

And this seems to be the direction that commercial beekeeping is going.  Traditional beekeeping practices may become as antiquated as the buggy whip.  In order to service the almond industry, beekeepers who traditionally relied on “free” Midwestern forage are going to have to adapt.  Some are already following the model of California beekeepers, who have long used supplemental feeding to get their bees through our normal summer drought.   Unfortunately for the almond growers, they’re just going to have to pay for the additional cost if they expect strong colonies in their orchards in February.

I hate to see it come to this.   For over twenty years, I moved my hives from my home yards to almonds to summer pasture on irrigated alfalfa, and never had to feed a drop of sugar syrup or single pollen supplement patty.  But now I keep them near home and carry feed to them when things dry up.  It’s neither natural nor romantic, but it works.  Although today’s pollen substitutes can’t hold a candle to natural forage, they can be used to maintain (or even build) colony strength.

The hobbyist and sideliner:  for the small-scale beekeeper who is less burdened with logistical issues, the situation is actually improving as we and the bees get a handle on managing the varroa/virus complex—small apiaries can nearly always eke out a living (or even produce  big honey crops) in the woods and margins of ag lands or suburban areas. 

The Nitty Gritty

There was a goodly amount of discussion at the Summit about the value of honey bees as pollinators to the agricultural industry, the economics of beekeeping, and suggestions that farmers should be encouraged to maintain more bee forage acreage for our benefit.  I applaud those almond growers and other landowners who are experimenting with planting bee forage—this is clearly a step in the right direction.  But do the math.  Even the intense almond bloom can only support about two hives per acre for about three weeks of the year.   So no matter how much forage fruit and nut growers plant, it won’t get the bees through the summer—they will need to be moved elsewhere.

Pragmatic view: for the near future, the changing face of agriculture is going to change beekeeping practices more than beekeepers are going to change agricultural practices.  We should continue to promote more environmentally-friendly agriculture, but in the meantime learn to deal with what we’ve got!

Let’s consider whether our strategy of promoting pollinator habitat for its financial value to U.S. agriculture has merit.  I’m going to set my smoker aside for a minute, and put on my objective (and perhaps cynical) analyst’s hat.  I’ll go through my analysis step by step:

  • The consumer/voter wants cheap, abundant, cosmetically-perfect food.
  • We will only get such food if farmers make money growing it. 
  • Any regulations that deny farmers the use of effective pesticides, or that force them to provide habitat for honey bees, will cost them money. 
  • Politicians are scared to death of either rising food prices or opposition from the farm lobby.
  • There is strong political pressure to reduce direct payments to farmers.
  • There is no need for honey bees for the major commodity crops (corn, soy, wheat, rice, cotton) or vegetables.  Only some fruit, nut, oil, and seed crops require bees.  So Big Ag doesn’t really have a financial incentive to care about bees. 
  • Although honey bees may be worth $20 billion to U.S. agriculture, it is only the $4 billion almond industry that appears to be in any danger of a bee shortage.  And even then, a good crop was set this year despite a severe shortage of strong colonies (good weather was likely a factor).
  • The supply of bee colonies to pollinate other pollinator-dependent crops is easily provided by the glut of hives following almond pollination.
  • Essentially, the country’s pollination needs are being subsidized by the almond industry.
  • Beekeepers can offset the loss of natural forage by supplemental feeding.
  • Almond growers are making money, and if beekeepers need a few more dollars to feed their bees, the California almond growers (who grow 82% of the world’s almonds) will simply pass that cost on to the consumer of this “luxury” product.
  • Conclusion: So, what’s the problem?

Pragmatic point: to Big Ag, the pollinator issue is mainly a problem for the almond growers and the beekeepers to work out on their own.  Our “you should do something about bee forage because of the economic value of honey bees to agriculture” is going to fall upon deaf ears.  May I suggest that the bee industry instead adopt two talking points:

  1. 1.     Pollinators (including honey bees) and other wildlife are threatened due to massive habitat conversion to agri-deserts.  This is an environmental cause for action to promote and protect natural habitat in rural areas.
  2. 2.     The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) specifies that the registered uses of any pesticide “will not generally cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment.”  We need to sway public and legislative opinion that the death of pollinators to pesticides is an “unreasonable adverse effect on the environment.”

We Need a New “Silent Spring”

Luckily, our charismatic honey bees are becoming the poster child for our destruction of the natural environment, and everyone wants someone to help them.  But talk is cheap, and it’s going to be a hard sell to convince farmers to tithe a share of their productive acreage over to honey bees (unless they get something in return). 

The plight of the honey bee in many areas today is less about pesticides (although those are clearly still an issue), but rather about them simply not being able to find enough to eat.  Back when the diversified family farm was the rule, the accepted “inefficiency” of land use allowed plenty of wildlife (including pollinators) to coexist on the land.  But in the name of progress we have “improved” agricultural technology to the point that we have eliminated all wildlife habitat from the model farm.  The overwhelming financial incentive is for today’s farmer to practice fencerow-to-fencerow scorched earth planting, leaving precious little remaining habitat for any form of life other than the crop. 

What can we do to reverse this sad state of affairs for the displaced species?  The driving force for change will need to come from the consumer and the voter.  What we need is a groundswell of public support for more than just honey bees, but for wildlife habitat in general, particularly in rural areas (it may be surprising to some that bees often do much better in suburban areas than in the country).  I suggest that we refocus our energies toward the specific issue of maintaining and recreating pollinator/wildlife habitat across the country (this focus still includes pesticides, since pollinators can’t survive in poisoned habitat).

  My dream is for another “Silent Spring” awakening of the American public.   But the plight of the honey bee alone is not enough—we need to follow the lead of Western Europe and raise the environmental consciousness that natural habitat is disappearing at a rapid rate, and wildlife, birds, bats, and pollinators of all stripes are declining or going extinct.  This is a Big Picture paradigm—for us to respect all species of life, big or small, and conserve their habitats.

Beekeepers are going to need to work with potential allies–a dicey proposition, since many of the environmental groups are dead set against honey bees (since honey bees are not native to this country).  Luckily, the one thing that we have going for us is that whatever is good for wildlife habitat in general will also be good for honey bees.

Action Items and Resources

Stick to the two talking points mentioned above.  The only way for an industry to get the attention of legislators is to present a unified message, and even better, to have other stakeholders presenting the same messages.  Again:

  1. 1.     The preservation and promotion of habitat is necessary for the survival of pollinators and wildlife, and
  2. 2.     That the death of pollinators due to the registered use of any pesticide is an “unreasonable adverse effect on the environment.”  We need to start putting some teeth into the enforcement of existing pesticide regulations.

We beekeepers can help to direct the environmental stewardship sentiments of farmers and consumers (use the following linked references).  The planting and maintenance of pollinator/wildlife habitat can resonate with farmers [21].  There is already a great model being promoted by the agribusiness giant Syngenta in Europe, in which love for the land (encouraged by subsidies) has gotten  farmers to plant and maintain pollinator habitat [22].  A similar program is in place in California [23], and Project Apis m. is actively working to improve forage in the almond orchards [24].  Farmers can get assistance from various government programs [25, 26]. 

On the political front, we should continue to push for the specific protection and promotion of pollinators to be written into law [27].  Such a Congressional mandate would really help our cause!

Lastly, we should cultivate corporate sponsors willing to help us.  Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, Costco, Häagen-Dazs, and others have funneled funding, public exposure, and expertise our way.  Companies can actually wish to be good corporate citizens, and although they may not be perfect, the fact is that we live in an imperfect world.  I’m willing to work with them when it benefits our beekeeping.


I received payment from Monsanto this year for the rental of hives and the labor involved in running a research trial (as did two other nationally-prominent beekeepers).  I can assure you that there is no financial incentive for us to run such trials, due to the hassle involved—we do it only for the benefit of the beekeeping industry.  I am not constrained by any agreement to not speak my mind freely about Monsanto or any other corporation.


[1] Monsanto consistently makes Science Magazine’s annual Top 20 Biotech and Pharmaceutical Industry Employers List.  The magazine explains: “Besides innovation and research, survey respondents expect a leading company to be socially responsible, treat its employees with respect, and inspire their loyalty.”

[2] Field to Market (2012 v2). Environmental and Socioeconomic Indicators for Measuring Outcomes of On-Farm Agricultural Production in the United States; Summary Report: Second Report (Version 2), December 2012.  http://fieldtomarket.org/report/national-2/PNT_SummaryReport_A17.pdf

[3] http://www.monsanto.com/whoweare/Pages/corporate-sustainability-report.aspx

[4] http://yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/0/C38ABBC4C09BC77D85257B87006C2AF5


[5] https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/

[6] Samsel , A  and S Seneff (2013) Glyphosate’s suppression of cytochrome P450 enzymes and amino acid biosynthesis by the gut microbiome: pathways to modern diseases.  Entropy15(4): 1416-1463. http://www.mdpi.com/1099-4300/15/4/1416

[7] http://www.epa.gov/oppsrrd1/REDs/old_reds/glyphosate.pdf

[8] http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=EPA-HQ-OPP-2012-0132-0009

[9] http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=EPA-HQ-OPP-2012-0132-0005

[10] http://scientificbeekeeping.com/pesticide-incident-reporting/

[11] Cheeke, PR and LR Shull (1985) Natural Toxicants in Feeds and Poisonous Plants.  Avi Publishing.

[12] http://beeinformed.org/2013/05/winter-loss-survey-2012-2013/

[13] http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/state_board/pdfs/Anderson_FSMA.pdf

[14] http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/invasives/terrestrialplants/herbaceous/whitesweetclover.html

[15] http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/6f90g0dg#page-7

[16] http://ctic.paqinteractive.com/resourcedisplay/293/

[17] http://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition

[18] http://www.seedworld.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=441%3Adec2011expirationdate&catid=71&Itemid=274

[19] http://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/Pages/roundup-ready-patent-expiration.aspx

[20] 12-14% of his operating costs

[21] http://www.hoosieragtoday.com/index.php/2013/06/18/farmers-work-with-nrcs-to-improve-pollinator-habitat/

[22] http://www.operationpollinator.com/

[23] Long, RF and JH Anderson (2010) Establishing hedgerows on farms in California. http://anrcatalog.ucdavis.edu/Items/8390.aspx

[24] http://projectapism.org/content/view/142/61/

[25] http://plants.usda.gov/pollinators/Using_Farm_Bill_Programs_for_Pollinator_Conservation.pdf

[26] http://plants.usda.gov/pollinators/Habitat_Development_for_Pollinators_NJ.pdf

[27] http://home.ezezine.com/1636/1636-2013.


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