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Some Problems Of Health And Disease In Beekeeping And Agriculture

Jan 1, 2006 | 2006 Writings, View All Posts

We all know that honeybees in North America (and much of the rest of the world) are having really serious health problems; and that these problems have greatly reduced honeybee colony numbers, driven many beekeepers out of business, and have the potential to seriously disrupt the world’s food supply. This is especially troubling because, at the same time, bio-medical research is growing so rapidly that many careers and journals are now entirely devoted to editing and condensing this tidal wave of information. Honeybee research is not proliferating as fast as, say, molecular biology; but honeybees remain one of the most thoroughly studied of all creatures. They are vital to our survival and well-being, and yet we are still having great difficulty keeping them alive and productive. It’s the same now with virtually every natural and agricultural ecosystem: despite exponential increases in detailed information about them, they are all in decline in terms of the true measures of health—Diversity, Productivity, Stability, and Resilience. The problems we are having with our bees now are symptoms of much larger problems of health in world ecosystems and our society. The big problems seem too daunting for us as individuals, but I’m convinced we can solve our beekeeping problems in a healthy way, and that these solutions can have an impact far beyond our small circle of fellow beekeepers.

I mentioned Masanobu Fukuoka last month, and now I’ll bring out another example of someone who devoted his life to the recovery of health and vitality in agricultural ecosystems; and who inspired many other people to follow in his footsteps. Albert Howard (1873—1947) was a British agricultural researcher who, in 1904, obtained the incredible appointment as Imperial Economic Botanist for all of British India. Being a long way from central authority in London, and posessed of great energy, charm, and ability; he eventually obtained free reign in choosing his projects and how to carry them out. His 27 years of work in India focused on the relationship between a healthy soil and the health of the rest of the food chain—plants, livestock, and people. This became the basis of the modern organic farming movement, and Howard was knighted for his work in 1935.*

*Organic farming has had some great proponents and success stories since the 1930’s, but the movement has been marginalized and suppressed beginning at the end of World War II, when the makers of explosives needed new markets for anhydrous ammonia, and chemical companies sought new uses for DDT and other pesticides. (DDT was originally developed to kill lice on American soldiers.) Organic farming also suffers from being an immature movement, with few opportunities for young farmers to get training from those with long experience and success—each new generation is forced to re-invent the wheel. But the real problem is that successful organic farming provides very little support for the ag-chemical and bio-engineering companies—organic farmers don’t need to purchase very many inputs. They don’t fit into our current social and economic paradigm that favors industry and business over everything else. The organic movement is still small, but it’s growing rapidly now. And even setting the health arguments totally aside, and focusing solely on energy; it’s hard to imagine any other kind of farming toward the end of this century, when the energy currently used to manufacture fertilizers and pesticides will be desperately needed for other uses.

He wrote two important books about his life’s work: An Agricultural Testament, and The Soil and Health. If you’re really interested in the connections between healthy soil, plants, animals, and people, then have your interlibrary loan find copies for you. But I’m afraid there’s not much specifically about bees in these books. What is important for our community is the way Sir Albert always spared no effort in ensuring that the results of his research would have the greatest possible benefit for the people actually growing the crops. He took everything about the peasant farmer’s lives into account when designing and carrying out his work—even their religious beliefs. He never promoted a new crop in a certain region, even if he knew it could be easily grown there, until he also knew exactly how it could get to market in good condition, what price it would bring, and when the cultivator would get his money. The wholistic nature of his efforts on all fronts is what made his life and work so outstanding. It’s the lack of this wholistic vision that makes much of our bee research of little value to the person on the ground actually producing the honey. But I hasten to add: this has nothing to do with the intent and ability of the researchers, and everything to do with the structure of our educational system, the way industry and commerce dominates over all other concerns, and the vanishingly small number of full-time farmers and beekeepers left alive. A sad and pathetic example here is the way the fungal pathogens, which could have helped so many beekeepers in such a short time, are being withheld from the community in an attempt to ensure profits for a few individuals, companies or institutions.

The happy part is that all of Sir Albert Howard’s work is still there, like a vein of diamonds, for anyone with courage, energy and an independent mind to use and benefit from. No other certification is necessary; the process cannot be patented or bought and sold like drugs, pesticides or oil. No one need benefit except you, your family and friends, and anyone else you might wish to include.

What is there in Sir Albert’s work that’s really helpful for us in beekeeping now? First of all the idea that Nature is always the model we go back to when looking for a definition of health and how to restore it. It takes a lot of time, work and money to adapt Nature’s methods in a place where they have been absent for some time; but in the end these methods always prove to be the soundest and most economical. Second; that it’s very important to preserve and utilize the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of peasant and indigenous peoples who have loved in close association with crops and livestock over many decades or centuries. Third; and perhaps most important for us at the moment, is determining the role that pests and diseases should play in farming and beekeeping. By the end of his time in India, Howard was convinced that insect pests and diseases should never be viewed as enemies or just something to be wantonly destroyed. Instead, they should always be viewed as friends and allies, welcome in small numbers, and only exploding in population when a certain balance of Nature has been violated. This way they become clear indicators of where our farms or apiaries have become unbalanced or poorly adapted.

I learned this lesson in my own apiary from the tracheal mites. It seemed like a terrible blow when they first arrived. But tracheal mites helped point the way toward a faster method of propagating new colonies, and after a few generations of selection the bees and the whole apiary became much stronger and more productive than they were at any time in the past. From this point on, tracheal mites have been very valuable to me as a way of identifying poorly adapted stock and eliminating it from the breeding cycle. It was partly for this reason that I rejected formic acid as a possible treatment for varroa control: it would have killed the valuable tracheal mites as well.

Now, with varroa mites, this whole scenario seems to be playing itself out once again. Through struggling to find a way to co-exist with varroa, without killing them, the apiary is becoming yet more productive and resilient. Varroa is a much more difficult problem than tracheal mites—because of the extreme imbalance that exists between the parasite and its host. But by incorporating imported stocks—that already had some degree of varroa resistance—with selection and other management techniques (as outlined in last year’s ABJ articles), the whole system is now rapidly moving back toward stability and resilience. In fact, if a truly safe and effective varroa treatment should become available in 2006, I would be squarely on the fence as to whether I should use it or not. Once the apiary stabilizes with a winter survival of 70% or greater, then I’ve reached the point where varroa mites are much more valuable to me alive than dead. Now they have become true allies, working for me at no cost, and saving hundreds of hours that might otherwise need to be spent peering at sticky boards or empty cells of freeze-killed brood. Perhaps, in keeping with current social norms , I’ll have to consider suing my neighbors if their fungal pathogens spread into my bees, and kill the valuable varroa mites.

I remember a phone conversation I had a few years back with Gard Otis. He was saying that what we really need to do is take about 100 colonies that seem to have survived varroa on their own, spread them out on an island where there are no other bees, and just leave then alone for five or ten years. The bees and mites would work it out, and we could then come back and collect strains of bees and varroa mites well adapted to each other. I agreed. Perhaps this is what happened with Tom Seeley’s forest bees near Ithaca, New York. In a sense this is exactly what I tried to do with my own bees; though I helped them along by propagating each generation of survivors up to much larger colony numbers than they could have achieved on their own. I talk about my bees becoming “resistant to varroa”, but of course I have no way of knowing for sure what is really going on. I could be making progress by encouraging a strain of less virulent mites, or bees that can resist viruses and other secondary infections. I tried to design a system where all the components of health (stability, resilience, diversity, and productivity) could function and grow—whether the mechanisms were known or unknown. Nature is much bigger than we are, and just allowing her methods to work could be the key to the future—both for the bees and for us.

In trying to restore health to our own small corner of the environment—to our own sphere of influence—we often get derailed or discouraged by the unhealthy effects of larger entities beyond our control. No matter where you live, your air, soil, food and water are now polluted to at least some degree. Even polar bears are being seriously affected, though they live many hundreds or even thousands of miles from the point source of the offending toxins. But with our bees we have one big advantage, a secret weapon we can use to counter these trends. It’s the unbelievable ability of insects to adapt to changes in their environment. They have several ways of accomplishing this, but let’s start with one we are all familiar with. Look at the photos showing a simplified version of how varroa mites develop resistance to, say, coumophos. Here’s the process we all dreaded so much: At first, the stuff works like a charm, and usually we can’t even locate the few survivors. But when those survivors locate each other, they create a new generation already partly resistant to the chemical. After a certain number of generations, coumophos no longer kills very many mites, and our colonies are overrun. In at least one study it was even shown that the resistant mites treated with coumophos did better than than those not treated. In other words, it only took a few years for the mites to evolve in such a way that a previously deadly poison was now being used by them as a resource.

All this terrified us, but it’s exactly the same process our bees need to go through in order to develop resistance to varroa mites. Look at the same pictures, but now let each bug represent an untreated honeybee colony. It’s the same story; at first there are only a few colonies that can survive. But when the survivors can mate with each other, and the colonies remain untreated, eventually the process can result in a large number of resistant colonies. These pictures illustrate a couple of other things too: At first the mites are so devastating that only a very few colonies can survive. That’s why mating control is essential—survivors must mate with other survivors. The small number of initial survivors also shows how important it is for many people to be working on this process with different strains of bees—so that untreated, resistant stock can be bought, sold, and traded around to avoid and counter the effects of inbreeding depression.

Insects have a short life span, so selection over many generations is a powerful tool for adaptation. But it is by no means the only one they possess. People who live in constant, close association with other living things have always been aware that many creatures can make striking adaptations to a changing environment, even before selection has any chance to contribute. Many beekeepers with large numbers of colonies (including myself) witnessed this when the tracheal mites first came. The initial shock was always the worst. Colonies that were reduced to a tiny handful of bees and a queen could recover, and were never again effected to the same degree—even when they retained the same queen . They appeared to have “learned”, almost instantaneously, something that enabled them to deal with the new pest. You heard this over and over again at that time, and both Brother Adam and R.O.B. Manley reported their experience with the same phenomenon at the onset of the acarine epidemic in England.

Some years ago, I asked Jim Frazier (former chair of the Entomology department at Penn State University) whether there was any scientific evidence of insects developing previously unknown behaviors in response to extreme stress of some kind. He said that the original work on hygenic behavior in honeybees may have been an example of this, but the work on fruit flies had progressed much further in this direction. More recently, in a series of very interesting conversations, he confirmed that evidence of this kind is now pouring in and that, with all the current focus on molecular biology and genetic engineering, we are finding out that the genetic code was never as immutable as we once thought it was. By trying to learn how to cut and splice genes, we’ve inadvertently discovered that, even without our interference, pieces of DNA have always been popping in and out of place and changing places with each other in response to various stresses and stimuli; and also without any cause that we can yet determine. This shows at least one possible way for insects to adapt, almost instantly, to radical changes in their environment. Jim also thinks that insects, because of this phenomenon—plus the length of time they’ve been around and the number of generations that can be raised each year—have the ability to adapt to virtually any situation that we or Nature can throw at them. I take all this as further evidence that bees and their pests must be allowed to live continuously together in order to come into balance and develop all the attributes of good health. Next month we’ll start looking at some practical ways of helping this process along.

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