The Demise of the American Honeybee

Honeybees got a lot of media attention recently, due to the advent of a mysterious phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  Beekeepers across America discovered that their colonies were vanishing, and no one could identify the reason.  Over the last two years over 1/3 of the honeybee hives in America were lost to CCD.

I’m often asked whether we’ve been affected by this.  So far, we have not.  As long as our bees stay healthy, and the skunks and bears leave them alone, we’ll continue to share their honey with them, and in turn offer it to the patrons of our farm.  But I decided to write a little today about honeybees in this country, and some of the threats to them, some of which may be responsible for CCD.

Feral honeybees have all but vanished in America, due primarily to urban sprawl and agricultural pesticides.  Those bees that remain are therefore almost entirely in the care of America’s beekeepers.  Despite the fact that beekeeping is a simple, wonderfully rewarding pasttime, beekeeping is dying out as well.  The average age of American beekeepers is now over 60.   Since the late 1940s the number of managed bee colonies in America has dropped by approximately 60%.  Just over the last 20 years the number of hives have fallen from approximately 3.5 million, to approximately 2.3 million.  Historically beehives were important parts of diversified small family farms.  Of course diversified small family farms are nearly a thing of the past in America, and beekeeping is one of many once-common activities that are disappearing along with those farms.

Like seemingly everything else associated with agriculture in this country, the beekeeping that remains is largely corporate, unnatural, unsustainable and industrial.   Large scale beekeeping operations transport their hives around the country to pollinate huge corporate crops.  The California almond industry, for example, requires 1.2 million bee colonies to pollinate its orchards–over half the hives in the entire country.  Since 2005 hives have actually been imported from Australia to assist in pollinating crops on American corporate industrial-scale “farms.”

Trucking beehives around the country is an obviously unnatural practice, and many bees die during the process.  Once in place for the pollination, the bees subsist on an unnatural nectar/pollen monoculture–for example, exclusively almonds, or apples, or citrus–rather than on a natural diet of a mixture of blooms.  During the winter and during their cross-country transits, the bees are fed water mixed with high fructose corn syrup–an unhealthy byproduct of taxpayer-subsidized corn monoculture.

Meanwhile, clothianidin, a poison manufactured by Bayer and sold as an insecticide under the trade name Poncho 600, has been responsible for the annihilation of millions of honeybees in the US.  Germany and France just recently banned the pesticide after discovering that its use on rapeseed, sweetcorn and sunflowers there, had destroyed between one-third and two-thirds of their bee population.  In the US, clothianidin and imidacloprid, Bayer’s best selling poison, also highly toxic to bees, are still both legal and lethal.

As American bees vanish, and because Americans pay so little attention to where their food comes from, much of the honey commercially available in this country is now imported from China.  This so-called honey is derived from bees being fed sugar water, and has none of the health benefits of raw, natural, local wildflower honey.  Nevertheless it is what fills the shelves of American supermarkets.  Recently I was in a Whole Foods store, something I try to avoid, and I looked at the honey that were selling.  It was imported from Argentina.  Go figure.

In light of these things y’all might want to consider stocking up on some local honey and putting it away in the basement, or the back of your cupboard.  If kept dry, honey will keep virtually forever.   And in some future day you can break it out for the grandchildren, let them enjoy the wonderful taste of natural honey, and tell them that once upon a time honeybees actually lived and thrived in America. 

Grace and Peace