By examining honeybees and the challenges they are facing, Pass the Honey is working to understand the complex dynamics that exist in agricultural systems today. In doing so, we aim to identify the potential to develop the systems that we engage with in a way that benefits bees, beekeepers, and the lands where they forage.
The US beekeeping and honey industries currently face challenges that - although distinct from other regions of the planet - are connected to and representative of issues that beekeepers and bees all over the world face. Decline in honeybee colony health is driven by four primary drivers: poor nutrition, exposure to agricultural chemicals and pesticides, parasites and pests, and pathogens. These drivers interact and the effect of their combined influence underlines the importance of focusing on systemic approaches to managing the health of honeybee colonies.
Changing Agricultural Landscape and the Impact it has on Nutrient Availability for the Honeybee:
Over the past 50 years US agriculture has transitioned towards larger farms that grow fewer varieties of crops and include fewer natural elements, like hedgerows or tree lines. According to the USDA, in the last 25 years alone, farm sizes have doubled in the US. In the 1980s the average farm size was around 600 acres. Today’s average farm size is at least 1,100 acres with many farms 5 to 10 times larger. These agriculture transitions have made it more difficult for bees to forage for a well-balanced, nutrient rich diet.
Honeybees need access to diverse and high-quality floral resources to achieve their nectar and pollen requirements. Remember, bees need nectar for energy and pollen for protein and other nutrients. Most pollen is used by bees as larvae food, but bees also transfer it from plant-to-plant, providing the natural pollination services needed by plants and nature. Nutrient-rich forage provides honeybees with necessary food while also helping them positively respond to many of the other stressors they experience such as pests, parasites, diseases, and exposure to pesticides.
As US farms and pasturelands have become larger in size and increasingly adopt industrial monoculture production, they generally provide fewer and less diverse forage resources for pollinators throughout the year and reduce habitat for native pollinators. For reference, monoculture farming is a type of agriculture where a singular crop is grown on a piece of land, thus limiting the pollinators’ diet to only one type of pollen for extended periods of time. As a result of these monoculture productions, honeybees become malnourished, consequently weakening their immune system and making them more susceptible to various pathogens, parasites, and chemical pesticides.
When it comes to pollinating our growing farms, honeybees have become the heavy lifters. Every year managed honeybees are physically moved, or migrated, long distances across the nation to pollinate agricultural fields. Demand for crop pollination services by honeybees has been on a steep rise since the 1980s and currently, the demand for crop pollination is outgrowing the populations of bees who provide pollination services.
Most crops bloom during a brief, seasonal period that may be as short as a couple weeks and need intensive pollination during this time to be profitable. Commercial pollinators can pollinate crops all over the country by taking advantage of variation in growing seasons which means bee hives may be moved multiple times and several thousand miles per year. Conventional beekeepers fulfill on average 2-4 pollination contracts in different locations per season.
One difficulty and consideration beekeepers face is deciding which pollination contracts to fulfill given they will also need to find quality forage for their bees in between contracts.
Most of the farms that require pollination services only provide food for bees during one large, crop flowering event. Aside from the duration bees are needed for pollination services, in most cases farms do not provide for the necessary forage needs of bees, leaving them without adequate year-round food supply.
As a result, beekeepers move their bees to non-agricultural landscapes for a portion of each year so their bees can access suitable sources of nutrition to gain strength, support offspring, and produce honey to overwinter.
Beekeepers look for natural areas such as rangelands, forested areas, river valleys and other undeveloped lands with nectar producing ecosystems or seasonal specialty crop fields that provide high quality nectar like alfalfa or cotton. Unfortunately, in parts of the US, seasonal forage areas for bees are becoming less available due to expanding monocrop agriculture. As landscapes convert to broadscale monoculture, there becomes less forage resources for bee colonies which is directly correlated to decreases in honey production and colony health.
Unfortunately, without pollinator services we would not have many of the nuts, fruits, and vegetables we take for granted, in the volumes that we are accustomed to - think almonds, orchard fruits, avocados, broccoli, blueberries and cranberries to name a few.
Moving bees is not inherently bad. In fact, bees are often moved to protect them from harsh weather and to offer them nectar options when there is a dearth at home. And without the income from pollination services, most commercial beekeepers would not be able to make a living. However, the pervasive use of pesticides and loss of foraging habitat associated with monoculture growing methods have impacted honeybee health and nutrition, which in turn, make them more susceptible to sickness and colony decline.
Agricultural Chemicals and Pesticides
As we understand the importance of honeybees and the integral role they play in today’s agricultural systems, we also need to understand the plights these systems are exposing honeybees to.
When honeybees perform pollination services, they are often embedded in conventional agriculture systems and directly exposed to herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and chemical fertilizers. At sublethal exposure, agrochemicals can lower honeybee reproduction, immunity, cognition, and overall physiological functions, leading to decreased honey production, and reduced population size. Because bees are almost completely reliant upon physical and chemical signals, pesticides compromise not only their heath, but their very existence.
A group of the most widely used pesticides, called neonicotinoids, are nerve disruptors designed to kill insect pests of crops. They are also known to have negative impacts on bees’ foraging and colony performance. Even sub-lethal doses of neonicotinoids lead to stress that can increase bee mortality. In lab tests, researchers have found that neonicotinoids impaired learning and memory, led to abnormal foraging, decreases in sucrose responsiveness leading to poor foraging behavior, inhibition of mitochondrial bioenergetics leading to a decline in function of the nervous system, heart, and, in particular in bees, the thorax, and reduced immunity. In field trials, neonicotinoids led to reduced hygiene, reduced queen replacement, reduced life expectancy, and abnormal flights. Even worse, these pesticides have been linked to weakening the hive as a whole, leaving honeybee colonies wide open to parasitic infection.
Honeybees can be affected by direct chemical exposure in the field, can bring these pesticides into the colony through their food-collecting activities, and in turn we can find them concentrated in bee products at rates that are harmful to human health.
That said, it is evident that the relationship between apiculture and agriculture for pollination purposes should be one of mutually beneficial exchange. Agriculture systems should be designed and managed with an understanding of their effect on pollinator health. These effects are the result not only of agrochemical exposure but also human transport of bees for pollination services, and changes in land use for agricultural purposes that result in loss of forage and bee habitat.
Parasites, Pests, and Pathogens
Current scientific research indicates that parasites, and the diseases they carry, are the main threat to the lives of honeybees.
In the United States, honey bee pests and pathogens are widely distributed and affect almost all managed honeybee colonies to some degree. They have been proven to be extremely persistent, difficult to remove, and have the ability to cause widespread honeybee mortality and hive loss, placing intense pressure on colony health and beekeepers.
One of the most widespread deadly pests to the honeybee is the varroa mite. The varroa mite is a persistent external parasite that often infects bees before they even emerge as adults. Their parasitic relationship with the bees is similar to that of ticks and mammals; the main issue lies in the diseases the mites carry, such as Deformed Wing Virus.
Mites are easily spread from one hive to another by roaming worker bees or drones. Mites are an especially persistent pest because they reproduce in the hive laying their eggs in the brood cells of honeybees. Mite eggs hatch and feed off bee larvae and pupae and can cause death or malformation of developing bees. The mite not only weakens bees’ systems by feeding off their blood but is also responsible for transmitting several deadly viruses, such as the Deformed Wing Virus, and other fungal parasites. When a hive is already weakened, a varroa mite infestation can wipe it out completely. Other parasites involved in collapsing hives include the tracheal mite, bee louse, hive beetle, and wax moth.
What is especially concerning for comb honey producers is the wax moth which is a pest that feeds off comb wax. Healthy hives will generally be able to remove moths before they become a problem, however weakened hives are more susceptible to moth infestations. Adult moths lay larvae inside the hive, when larvae hatch, they begin feeding vigorously off wax comb in the hive and can damage the comb so much that the bees are no longer able to use the comb to store brood or honey.
Moreover, another culprit leaving hives prone to distress are pathogens including bacterial, viral, and fungal diseases. Common pathogens that affect honeybees include American Foulbrood, European Foulbrood, Chalkbrood, Sacbrood, Nosema, Deformed wing virus, Israeli acute paralysis virus, Acute bee paralysis virus, and Kashmir bee virus.
Among those, the two most well-known diseases to infect bees are American Foulbrood and Deformed Wing Virus. American Foulbrood is caused by spore forming bacteria that spread to the hive when carried by worker bees, on equipment, or drifting from nearby colonies. Once in the hive, spores contaminate food fed to larvae and feed off the larvae preventing them from surviving adulthood. For reasons that are still not fully understood, the transmission of Deformed Wing Virus via varroa mites causes clinical symptoms, including pupae death and adult bees emerging with deformed wings, a bloated, shortened abdomen, and discoloration. Infected honeybees are no longer able to fly and eventually succumb to death.
The transmission of pests and disease can happen between honeybees and other insects outside the hive, while inside the hive between worker bees and from queen to offspring.
The modern beekeeping industry has responded to pests and diseases with the creation of synthetic chemicals, organically derived treatments, as well as mechanical and cultural methods. Synthetically derived chemical treatments include a variety of pesticides, fungicides, and antibiotics that are used directly on beehives. While chemical treatments are often considered necessary to keep colonies alive, they have drawbacks.
The first is that the chemical treatments, pesticides, or antibiotics used in bee hives have a high risk of ending up in products harvested from the hive including beeswax and liquid honey.
This is particularly concerning for honeycomb producers because of the bioaccumulation risks these treatments pose to honeycomb specifically. These chemicals have been tested at higher concentrations in wax than in liquid honey, meaning the use of these chemicals pose a heightened risk to the consumers of their products.
Secondly, many pesticides applied in the hive directly weaken the metabolic and immune systems of honey bees. In the case of miticides used to treat the common Varroa mite, a small amount of a pesticide is applied directly to the bees in an attempt to kill the mite. Although these miticides are meant to benefit honeybees by removing the pests, miticides have been shown to create metabolic stress for bees. This now confronts beekeepers with the challenge of trying to “kill a bug on a bug”. This is not just true for miticides. Other pesticides and antibiotics used to control common honeybee pests can potentially cause stress, long term damage to bee health, and even death as well.
Lastly, few conventional interventions have proven effective in lessening or eliminating pests and/or diseases. In many cases, honeybee pests have grown resistant to chemical treatments rendering them less effective or completely ineffective, presenting even more of a threat now than in the past.
Beekeepers must be knowledgeable about a range of different hive treatments, their proper application rates and timeframes, and potential negative interactions in order to protect their hives and honeybee health.
Current best management practices encourage beekeepers to:
- Take an integrated approach to pest management.
- Be knowledgeable about pests and disease.
- Prevent pest infestation and their spread.
- Monitor for and detect pests and diseases throughout the season.
- Treat for pests early.
- Rotate pest treatments.
- Use disease and pest resistant honeybee genetic stock.
Pass the Honey’s supply system risks are not just about the risks that pollinators and honeybees face globally, but also the challenges relating specifically to producing honeycomb.
In order to understand the difficulties of sourcing fresh honeycomb and why it is so expensive, it is imperative to know the processes in which it is necessary to harvest comb honey and the knowledge producers must have to be that of quality and reliability.
As we’ve discussed in the conversation about monocropping and the economic pressure to move towards economies of scale, we’ve streamlined the honey industry to favor the production of liquid honey extraction. Large scale conventional systems are not currently suitable for comb honey due to honey extraction lending itself much more easily to mechanical processing systems.
The post-harvesting process for comb honey is manually intensive and requires individual assessment and treatment for each section of honeycomb. This difference in the harvesting process results in higher labor costs per unit of honeycomb than for extracted honey.
In the world of beekeeping, producing, harvesting, and marketing comb honey is an art. Honeycomb is generally produced by small-scale, well-seasoned beekeepers who dedicate only a portion of their hives specifically to producing comb honey. It’s not just the processing that is manually intensive, comb honey requires more time, oversight, and a high level of skill as a beekeeper.
To produce high quality comb honey requires extremely healthy and productive hives that can sufficiently fill the comb. Additionally, a beekeeper must know the exact timing for when to provide the hives with supers for comb production and exactly how to control the bees’ natural tendency to swarm when the hive is that full. In many cases medium to small scale beekeepers are better suited to produce comb honey because they have more flexibility in their production systems and can manage for the increased labor intensiveness of comb honey. Beekeepers must also know how to manage hives for pests (i.e. wax moths and mites) in a way that does not contaminate the final honeycomb product.
Currently, large-scale conventional beekeeping is designed for its efficiency of producing liquid honey and pollination services. These conventional enterprises can undermine the health and vitality of honeybee species through common practices that are primarily focused on the commercialization of pollination services and extracted honey.
Common practices in conventional systems include:
- Moving bee hives several times a year
- Harvesting most (or all) of a hive’s honey
- Exposing bees to toxic chemicals
- Introducing pests and diseases through hive migration
- Weakening genetic diversity through mass queen breeding
These common practices create direct stressors and risks to honey bee health and the long-term viability of these apiculture operations. This is important to note because a strong hive is often cited as a primary criterion for successfully producing comb honey.
Pass the Honey has the opportunity to support the development of a supply system for comb honey and liquid honey that will reduce the instances of these stressors and create long lasting improvements to the vitality of honeybees, beekeepers, farmers, and consumers. Developing a supply system of producers who practice ecologically, and health-focused beekeeping will support the health and vitality of honeybees as well as beekeeping and agricultural practices that improve the natural environment while also increasing the economic viability of beekeepers and other farmers.
In addition to the production differences from liquid honey, comb honey had a major differentiator in the product itself. Comb honey contains beeswax. As previously discussed, honeybees have a high-level of interaction with a variety of agrochemicals used in the landscapes they forage. Conventional beekeeping also tends to create more stressful conditions for hives, requiring a dependency on in-hive chemical use such as fungicides and miticides to support the hives in defending themselves. Chemicals from both instances have been identified at high levels in both bees, pollen, and wax.
Beyond the concern that all bees in 98% of hives are encountering these chemicals and experiencing catastrophic metabolic stress from them, there are two particular concerns relating to the bioaccumulation of these chemicals in beeswax. One is pointed at the effect on bees, and the other at the potential effect on human consumers of comb honey.
For the bees, the concern is that when beekeepers use wax foundation, they are reusing wax that is likely to have already bioaccumulative toxins. This means that not only are the bees encountering these toxins, but also a concentrated form of them is being used as the base of their new comb production. A specific challenge for comb honey producers is that they cannot use plastic foundation as an alternative. The plastic, which is inedible, would end up in their comb honey. Instead, they either have to use wax foundation and only source the wax from low-pollutant sources, or practice foundationless beekeeping.
The concern for human consumers is that they are buying their comb honey from credible sources given that this bioaccumulation can be present in the wax of comb honey if not. Like bees, humans are complex living systems, and like with bees, it is often not just a single stressor that impacts human health. While there is no conclusive evidence that these chemicals at this potency have a direct causal relationship with declines in human health, it is likely wise for a company to proactively engage its supply system in creating chemical free comb honey production.
This is one of the primary drivers Pass the Honey exists. As Pass the Honey began its sourcing search for comb honey, ongoing challenges arose. There wasn’t a single supplier in the US that was willing to sell their honeycomb on a commercial scale due to the known bioaccumulations in the beeswax. So the question came up, “If we can’t source clean honeycomb in the US, where could we source it from?” Pass the Honey teamed up with Terra Genesis International to run a global study in order to find the best regions to source clean honeycomb. Amongst this search, the company’s essence emerged: Evolve apiary practices and ecological diversity beyond what is perceived possible. To co-create with bees and beekeepers alike, to compensate beekeepers fairly and educate them in practices that enhance ecological diversity.
Pass the Honey is working towards creating dialogue around how apiculture is inextricably connected to other vital ecosystem functions of our planet, and that by mapping the intimate connection between honey bee health, pollinator health, land health, human health, and planetary health, we can identify solutions that will support the viability and regenerative capacity of each of these systems taken as a whole system.
Ultimately, we hope to empower beekeepers, honey and bee product industry members, and consumers to engage and identify practices that can transform these interrelated systems so we can all bring more life and ability to the world through regenerative apiculture.
The answers are straight forward enough. We need to change the way we grow our food. Fewer monocultures and more crop diversity. Fewer pesticides and more thriving soils. More mowing and less tilling. And big farm or little farm, all can create hedgerows with more diverse floral resources for pollinators, be they native bees or honey bees.
Regenerative agriculture is on the rise. We can support it by changing the way we eat. More local and fresh, less processed from afar. More organic and fewer GMOs. Greater vegetable diversity with more heirloom varieties and less of the same old hybrids.
Give pause to reflect on what you eat, and what pollinators add to your world. And the next time you are looking for honey, pick fresh honeycomb over liquid, and pay a premium price for it.