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Beekeeping in the 21st Century

Adapted from a talk presented at the EAS meeting, Cornell University August 2002

Tom GlennMy name is Tom Glenn, and together with my wife SukiSuki Glenn, we operate Glenn Apiaries in southern CA. I'm here to represent the commercial side of this endeavor to breed bees resistant to Varroa mites. We have been raising queens for 25 years. Twenty two of those years we raised naturally mated queens, but for the last three years we have sold only instrumentally inseminated queens. We turned to dealing strictly with inseminated queens in response to the arrival of the Africanized bee in San Diego county three years ago. A side effect of controlling the mating of the bees, was that we were in a good position to make a serious attempt at breeding bees that were resistant to both mites. Our goal is to apply the latest advances that the scientists come up with, and try to bring them to the beekeeping industry. I can honestly say to you that the only reason I'm up here today is because of the good work done by all three of the other panelists (Marla Spivak, John Harbo, and Sue Cobey). So I'm very proud to be on the same stage as them.

I hit a low point in my beekeeping career a few years ago. The varroa mites in our area developed resistance to Apistan. The Apistan strips seemed to suddenly just stop working and we took heavy losses that winter from the mites. As much as I disliked the idea of using an organophosphate pesticide, I felt forced into treating with coumaphos, Checkmite strips. The low point came that next spring when one beautiful day I was just about to take a bite out of a luscious piece of burr comb dripping with fresh honey. But then I suddenly realized that I had Checkmite strips in the hive and that this honey was probably contaminated with something I really didn't want in my body. I thought this was really pathetic, a beekeeper afraid to eat his own honey. It was very depressing, it wrecked my day, I wasn't even sure I wanted to continue beekeeping. Maybe some of you have had the same experience.

Later that year, I was privileged to be able to work on a scientific experiment with Marla Spivak, Tim Haarmaan, and the Weavers. We were studying the effect of fluvalinate and coumaphos on queen bees. Apistan proved to be fairly benign, but coumaphos was a different story. We found that it did indeed have a negative effect on the queen cells. We had a hard time even coming up with a small enough dose that we could raise queens. Some of the queens that did come to maturity had deformities of their legs and antennas. As a queen breeder, this was the last straw for me. How could I continue to use something that I knew could harm the queens? It didn't make sense to throw money away treating with Apistan if it didn't work. And I'm not interested in playing around with any illegal treatments. I think a lot of us feel the same way, trying to keep up running on the chemical treadmill just doesn't feel like the right thing to do.

We had been hearing reports that a few other beekeepers and researchers had stopped treating for mites and were apparently getting away with it. We had been selecting bees for hygienic behavior and had linked up with Marla to propagate and distribute her MN Hygienic queens, as well as using some of the Russian bees. We felt that maybe we had enough resistant bees that we were ready to give up all routine treatments and go for broke.

The next year I was thrilled to hear Dr. Harbo speak about his SMR trait in bees, and the dramatic results he got in controlling mite populations. Happily we were able to enter into a cooperative agreement to help distribute these bees to other queen breeders. So now, with three different modes of resistance we felt even more confident in challenging the bees to go without treatments.

So how has it gone? Well this is our third year without any routine treatments, and I'm pleased to report that we just finished our summer survey and, knock on wood, we can hardly find any mites. In our quick and dirty test of looking for varroa on 100 adult bees, by far the majority had no mites. The worst colony had 4 mites per hundred bees. To be honest, this is not a controlled experiment, and I can't say that other factors besides resistance may not be involved. We are having a severe drought right now, and also I can't dismiss the possibility that after years of using miticides, residues in the wax may be a factor. But from my own experience, the experience of others, and the growing body of scientific evidence, I'm willing to say this. I think that if we play our cards right, we now have all the tools we need to start backing away from chemical treatments. The only question is how we go about doing this.

I think we are at a real crossroads in the bee industry. I'm grateful that we had the chemical controls to get us through the initial blows of the mite infestations. But now that we are catching up with more sustainable genetic solutions, we need to reevaluate our practices. My fear is that the use of miticides has become so ingrained in the recommendations and conventional wisdom of beekeeping culture, that it may be difficult to turn things around.

Beekeeping is a unique part of agriculture because it is comprised of both commercial beekeepers and hobbyists. The commercial beekeepers, like other farmers today, are an endangered species. To survive they feel forced into an agribusiness model of production. Agribusiness tends to have high inputs of labor and material, and acceptable levels of pesticide contamination. I don't think they are going to be the ones to lead the way back to a more natural way of beekeeping.

The hobbyists on the other hand, are into beekeeping more for the love of bees and the craft of beekeeping. Of course they are also interested in economics. But they have the freedom to also be concerned about being good stewards of the bees. I've spoken with enough beekeepers to know that a good number also believe as I do, that our number one priority should be to avoid the contamination of honey. For thousands of years honey has had the reputation of being one of the most wholesome foods in the world. We can't let our generation of beekeepers be the ones to screw this up. I think we should view the recent problems with contaminated Chinese honey as a call to arms for us to do everything we can so that the same thing never happens to American honey. So what practical things can each of us do?

Our real goal is to influence the population genetics of the country, so that there is a critical mass of resistant bees. This point will be some years away, but the only way to get there is one beehive at a time. Every beehive in the country contributes to the gene pool. The infrastructure is now in place so that anyone that wants to try the various resistant stocks can readily obtain them. A quick look at the ads for queens in the journals will show that there are now plenty of sources of resistant stock to start experimenting with.

One of the most powerful forces in the world is self replication, and bees are truly masters at this. And beekeepers are very good at directing this replication by way of raising queens and drones. I think one of the healthiest things we could do for this industry is to have more people raising queens in different areas of the country. Not only would this help conserve the genetic diversity of the bees. But we would also produce bees that are better adapted to local conditions. There are classes every year on how to raise queens, including ones offered by Marla and Sue, and also here at Cornell. With all the resources we have in different queen rearing kits and bee stock, I think there's never been a better time to be an amateur queen breeder.

Even if you don't want to raise queens, a lot of good can be done just by raising drones. Drones have always been under appreciated. Maybe it's the name drone. I'd like to propose that we change the name, instead of drones, call them "studs". The drones in your hives will mate with queens for miles around including feral bees. So by encouraging the raising of drones from your resistant queens instead of always discouraging them, we can take a trick from the Africanized bees. They raise huge amount of drones, and this is one reason they have spread so successfully. So by keeping just one or two drone combs in the brood nest you can have a big influence on your local population.

Beekeepers have gotten quite an education these last few years. We have seen first hand how varroa mites became resistant to Apistan. Now we're hearing that some have also become resistant to coumaphos. Not to mention American Foulbrood becoming resistant to Terramycin. We know how resistance to these chemicals come about. In fact we now realize that resistance is almost inevitable. The process is simple, by weeding out the susceptible individuals, only the resistant ones are left to reproduce. While this may sound like bad news, I'd like to suggest that it really isn't. Because just as these parasitic organisms developed resistance through genetic means. So too can our honeybees develop resistance by the same process. And that's exactly what we are trying to help them do.

The point I'd like to leave you with is that knowledge is not power until it's applied. The scientists have done a great job coming up with the knowledge, but it's up to all of us beekeepers to put it into action. I think everyone in this room can do something to get us to the goal of getting back to chemical free beekeeping. As Margaret Mead once said, "never doubt that a small group of dedicated individuals can change the world, indeed it's the only thing that ever does."

Adapted from a talk presented by Tom Glenn at the EAS meeting,Cornell University August 2002

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