Sustainable beekeeping at the state beekeepers’ conference

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I love the assortment of people who are drawn to beekeeping.  Young and old, eccentric and conservative, financially solvent–and bootstrappers like me–those who make do with less.  People from all over the state come together for the annual Maine State Beekeepers’ conference to join together in the spirit of learning; to bask in the feeling of community generated by a diverse group of people with a single common interest.

The topic this year was “Sustainable Beekeeping”–and the speakers the MSBA had lined up for us were Deborah Delaney, assistant professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware; and Kirk Webster, owner and operater at Champlain Valley Bees & Queens in Middlebury, Vermont, who has been keeping bees since 1986, and whose apiary has been treatment free since 2002.  Each of these speakers would be presenting two separate talks.  Since sustainable beekeeping is something that is very important to me, I was keenly interested to hear what these two educated and experienced beekeepers had to say on the matter.  What was their interpretation of sustainable beekeeping?  How did they go about it?  And would they have any insights, tools, or methods that I might be able to utilize in Runamuk’s continued transition to natural beekeeping?

New friends and Old

I arrived almost an hour early in order to be assured a seat at a table near the front of the room, and while the Italian Heritage Center was already bustling with activity, the tables were still largely vacant, and I chose to join a lovely couple from Andover who were sitting just off to the left of the podium and projector screen.  We were joined by another couple who–as it turns out–have a camp on Embden Pond, which is just a short drive from Anson.  This fellow keeps some hives over in Norridgewock and was the winner of the honey tasting last year.  😉

We were eventually joined by the Cronkhite gentlemen, Roy Senior and Junior, and I was glad for it.  Roy Cronkhite Jr is a second generation beekeeper and president of the Kennebec Beekeepers, so our counties and organizations are neighbors, and we have shared open-hive sessions in the past in an effort to instill a greater sense of community among the beekeepers in this part of the state.  And also just to share the learning and the fun that we have beekeeping.  The senior Mr. Cronkhite has more than 40-years beekeeping experience and is an inspiration to new beekeepers like myself.

Our MSBA group president Carol Cottril called us together to welcome us all and the day got underway.  Deborah Delaney took the floor first with her talk entitled “Bee-Having to Bee-Keeping; Moving Toward a Sustainable Bee Industry”.

What’s happening to our bees?

deborah delaney ude scientist at msba

Deborah was animated and enthusiastic.

Deborah was energetic and enthusiastic–a “spunky speaker”–she talked about the problems the bee-industry is facing, the media attention that “Colony Collapse Disorder” has generated since 2007 and all of the doom and gloom reports–but wonders “is it helping?”  She talked about some of the movies CCD has spurred and the numerous cartoons circulating facebook–most of which I myself have seen come through my newsfeed.

But “what’s the big deal?” she asked.  Well of course it’s a big deal because honeybees and other pollinators (she feels it’s important to lump all pollinators together–and I absolutely adore her for that!) provide a service that results in the creation of the food we eat.  It is the basis for the wealth of biodiversity that we know on our planet.  A value estimated at $215 billion-dollars globally.

Pollinator declines first hit mainstream media in 2006-2007 beekeepers were experiencing an annual decline of about 30%; surveys from the winter of 2012-2013 record colony failures at 40-50%.

When the term CCD was first coined back in 2007, it was a big mystery–no one knew what was happening to the bees.  Now, almost 7 years later, we can say with certainty that the problems are:

  1. Pests & Pathogens
  2. Intensified land-use and the use of pesticides.
  3. Phenological shifts due to climate change.
  4. Stress
  5. Invasive species

So how did that happen?  How did we get here?

A little history

beekeeping history

Humanity first hunted beehives to harvest honey, beekeeping evolved later.

Deborah talked about the history of beekeeping–which is really interesting.  Humanity’s relationship with bees began with honey hunting.  Once upon a time there were even sacred rituals related to harvesting.  Honey and beeswax have been prized throughout history.

During the early European settlement of America in the 1600s, hives of honeybees were imported to the new world by ship, and between the 1600s and the 1800s–every farm had bees, despite the fact that the relationship between pollinators and the natural world was not even understood yet.  It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that science finally made the connection.

Unfortunately those early settlers with their founding population of honeybees, only brought to America one-third of about 24 varieties of honeybees, which we’ve since built an entire industry upon–creating a bottleneck of honeybee genetic diversity here in the United States.

The importance of good genetics

Deborah has been studying honeybees in order to identify their genetics so that we might better understand how to manage and maintain our beehives.  She’s studied the effect of genetic variation in hives, the morphological characteristics of various bees, maternal ancestry of American honeybees, the genetics of stock used for large-scale Queen-breeding–and the genetics of feral bee populations too.

Since genetic diversity is necessary for the survival and adaptation of a species to new and adverse environmental conditions, this is crucial information for the beekeeping industry to have in order to improve our honeybee stock.

According to Deborah, 3 major bottleneck events led to the reduction of genetic diversity in our modern American honeybee populations.  The first occurred when early settlers only brought 8 subspecies of the 24 varieties of honeybees available, and then only 3 of those subspecies found accommodation among beekeepers.

The second bottleneck that occurred, was the devestating reduction of both feral and commercial honeybee populations caused by the Varroa mite.

And the third bottleneck event is the current Queen-breeding practices used by breeders.  Deborah says:

“The honeybee breeding industry uses a small number of Queen mothers (less than 600) to produce nearly 1 million replacement Queens for beekeepers in the United States.”

tree nesting bees

Feral bees often find cavities in trees to make their nests in.

Deborah’s research involves sampling the populations of feral and commercial bees in order to analyze the mitochondrial and microsatellite DNA for comparison.  The results indicate that the populations of managed honeybees in the western part of the United States, are genetically different from the populations in the south-eastern part of the country.  What’s more–the feral populations’ genetics show that they are a separate gene-pool altogether, which means they serve as a reservoir of genetic variability for our managed populations of honeybees.

Scientists play a crucial role

These discoveries spurred Deborah’s work with the Feral Bee Project.  Sponsored by the North Caroline State University, the project asks beekeepers and citizen scientists to log the location of wild honeybee hives they find so that researchers can monitor them.  They even offer an app for your iphone or ipad to assist in mapping these feral colonies.

The research that Deborah and scientists like her are doing for the beekeeping community helps us to understand how we can better manage our colonies.  By knowing and understanding the genetics of our bees we can derive better management techniques, select for desirable traits in our bees, and keep healthier bees by ensuring their genetic diversity.

Read more about this year’s MSBA conference in up-coming posts!

Share your thoughts, comments or questions!