If you take away the mechanized innovations of honey and wax extractors, bee smokers and upgrades of storage equipment, the essential process of keeping bees has remained the same over the centuries. If you could get your hands on beekeeping catalogs from the 1800s, you'd find that most beekeeping frames and boxes were nearly identical to what is available today.
However, there are still tweaks and innovations that are created every year to make the process of keeping bees just a little easier. The biggest demand for innovation has been in the area of bee pests and diseases, namely to address varroa mite and colony collapse disorder (CCD). These two topics have dominated conversations at most beekeeping conventions and workshops for the past decade, notes Shane Gebauer, general manager of Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, one of the largest bee supply companies in the U.S.
Queen and her retinue, taken at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis.
PHOTOS BY KATHY KETLEY GARVEY, UC DAVIS DEPARTMENT OF ENTOMOLOGY.
"A lot of people are holding their breath right now about the varroa mite problem, which is public enemy number one," says Gebauer.
Bees grooming a sister after powdered sugar application.
According to a report by Purdue University's department of entomology, varroa mites are the biggest problem for beekeepers throughout the world. They can now be found in every U.S. state except parts of Hawaii (five of the seven islands are still mite-free).
Eric Mussen, a cooperative extension apiculturist based at the University of California, Davis, Department of Entomology, agrees. "We are having a difficult time keeping mite populations suppressed," he says. The combination of hive infestation of these mites along with the fact that the mites carry the deadly RNA virus - a major cause of colony collapse disorder - makes the varroa mite "our most targeted pest," Mussen says.
Innovative Twists to Old Ideas
While varroa mites and CCD are relatively new problems with no quick solution in sight, there are simple solutions to some benign beekeeping problems.
Several new products have been launched for 2012:
"These new products are not a novel concept or invention necessarily, but a different, or easier, way of doing things," says Shane Gebauer, general manager of Brushy Mountain Bee Farm.
- Natural Honey Harvester
- This product is a mixture of nontoxic essential oils that help remove bees from equipment so the honey can be harvested. It is 100 percent natural, has a pleasant smell, and is a safe and gentle way to harvest honey.
- New Plastic Hive Stand
- Made from heavy plastic with UV ray inhibitors, this durable stand keeps frames from touching the ground. Fill ballast ports with sand to create a stable base. Can hold up to three frames and is available in two sizes.
- New Support Rods
This simple device eliminates the need for cross wiring of frames (and crimping those wires to get it just right). The rods simply insert through the end bar holes and are locked into place. Sold in packs of 10.
Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen with a frame at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis.
Varroa mite solutions
While there are miticides on the market to treat a varroa mite infestation in a hive, some of the treatments are "almost as bad as the disease itself," notes Gebauer.
The latest buzz surrounds a new product that doesn't accumulate in the wax or in bees, he says. The product, APIAR strips, contain the miticide Amitraz, an anti-parasitic drug currently already used in the U.S. in flea collars. Manufactured by Arysta LifeScience (www.arystalifescience.com), the strips are already in use by beekeepers around the world, but have not yet received EPA approval for use in the U.S.
"It has been in use for years in Europe," Gebauer says. "If approved, it still won't be a silver bullet, but it may be a very important tool in the arsenal of miticides."
Mussen is also skeptical about the effectiveness of new miticides as the end-all solution to the varroa mite problem. "We hear about new chemicals - magic bullets - that are nearly ready for testing in the field, but don't hold your breath," he says.
Other innovations in the varroa mite and CCD problem include studies using RNAi technology, or gene splicing, to interfere with virus replication in honeybees. Currently at work on this technique is a company called Beeologics (www.beeologics.com), which was acquired by Monsanto Company in September 2011.
Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey looks over a frame at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis.
More natural solutions
Formic acid, a natural compound found in plants and ant venom, was found to be an effective varroa mite biopesticide in studies. It is now available commercially through Nod Apiary (http://miteaway.com) as MAQS (Mite Away Quick Strips). The basis of the product is a plant-based gel that contains the formic acid. According to the company website, the product does not pose any risk to the environment and does not cause food contamination.
Another natural method beekeepers are attempting with some success is a simple treatment with powdered sugar, which prevents mites from latching onto the honeybees. According to a study published in Scientific Beekeeping: "Sugar dusting can be quite effective for reducing mite population in broodless (or nearly broodless) bees, such as during summer dearths or in winter (if the bees are not tightly clustered)." However, the author warns that while this method may be ideal for small hobbyists, it may be considered a risky varroa mite management solution for large-scale commercial beekeepers. To read the full study, go to: http://scientificbeekeeping.com/powdered-sugar-dusting-sweet-and-safe-but-does-it-really-work-part-1.
There are other natural methods for increasing bee population health circulating in the blogosphere, says Paul Wheaton, a blogger, certified permaculture designer and master gardener, who runs www.richsoil.com. One method is the use of a "bee hut," where hives sit inside an open shelter that face southeast, which allows for shade in the summer and full sun in the winter. "I've heard of people improving honey production by a factor of five using this technique," says Wheaton. Another is the cessation of feeding bees sugar water and allowing them to eat their own honey in the winter, and encouraging swarming for good, local genetics.
No problems seen with pollination, yet
Despite the problem with varroa mites, Mussen notes that not many growers are having a problem with a lack of pollination. "There are plenty of colonies to cover all crops more than adequately," says Mussen. "Almonds use the most numbers of colonies at one time (now nearly 1.6 million), and we still can provide for them," he notes.
Drones emerging from a frame at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis.
However, Mussen says that in crops like almonds, which require fungicide application, researchers are seeing considerable brood loss two to three weeks after application of the fungicide. Research shows that tank-mixed adjuvants (particularly the organosilicone "superspreaders") are moving chemicals toxic to bees into and through their bodies in ways that have not happened before. "There is a serious need for research on this topic," Mussen notes.
Another problem is the use of unregistered pesticides to treat varroa mites. One University of Nebraska Department of Entomology research paper notes: "Beekeepers searching for the primary source of pesticides contaminating beehives need only look in the mirror."
Beekeepers use powdered sugar to loosen mites' hold on bees. Here, after a treatment, bees groom their sisters. This photo was taken at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, University of California, Davis.
COURTESY OF GREENBUG ALL NATURAL PEST CONTROL PRODUCTS.
According to this study, honeybees are being exposed to extremely high levels of in-hive miticides and agrochemical pesticides that may be weakening the health of colonies: "Chronic exposures to neurotoxic insecticides and their combinations with other pesticides, in particular fungicides, are known to elicit reductions in honeybee fitness," the researchers say. However, they note that "direct association with CCD and declining honeybee health remains to be resolved."
One way to lessen the effects of plant pesticides on bee populations is to use natural methods on the crops that bees feed on, suggests Louise Hodges, owner of Greenbug Natural Pest Products, which recently launched Greenbug for Outdoors. This product uses cedar to repel and kill pheromone-driven insects such as mosquitoes, roaches, silverfish and aphids. It does not affect sight-driven insects such as honeybees and butterflies. "If a beekeeper has a field of clover that's being decimated by aphids, using pyrethroid insecticides may get rid of the problem, but it will be lethal to bees," says Hodges.
The author is a freelance writer from Keene, N.H.