The Beekeeper’s World

by Amy Owen

As a beekeeper, I felt out of place when I walked into the New Mexico Pest Management Association Conference. We have some similar interests—we all like to learn about insects—but our goals for our work can seem opposed. As a beekeeper, my goal is to keep honey bee colonies alive, healthy, and vibrant. On the contrary, pesticide applicators try to eliminate colonies of insects that the public views as pests.  

I was invited to speak on the subject of protecting bees and other pollinators from pesticides (which include insecticides and herbicides). This is something I am passionate about, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to raise awareness about the negative effect pesticides have on bees. Before I began my talk, I saw a man with a sign that advertised a pesticide that I would soon be talking about: IGRs, or insect growth regulators. I’d share how insect growth regulators harm bees by rendering them unable to move from one stage of their life cycle to the next, thereby causing stagnation in a colony. My anxiety level grew. 

We had a short break, during which the man advertising IGRs let me know that he would be introducing me as the next speaker. I thought to myself:  could this get any worse? I was about to show a slide, just feet away from his sign, talking about how harmful his product was.  

He shared that the company he represented once developed miticides for beekeepers. We then had a lively chat about the use of miticides, the importance of them, and how they are often misused and consequently lose their efficacy.    

Confession: as a beekeeper, I use organic miticides in my hives to keep varroa mite levels down. Varroa mites are parasitic mites that feed on a honey bee’s fat stores. If mite levels in a colony aren’t kept below a certain threshold, the honey bees will likely succumb to the infestation and the diseases that are vectored by the varroa mite.  

As a beekeeper, I try to follow an integrated pest management (IPM) approach to control mite levels. My primary methods of control include finding bees with genetic traits that are mite resistant, spacing hives at least 4 feet apart, keeping apiaries small, and allowing colonies to have natural brood breaks. I monitor my hive’s mite levels regularly, and take notes so that I know which hives have genetics or conditions that are most conducive to keeping mite levels below a recommended threshold. If a colony’s mite level goes above this threshold, I use an organic miticide (formic or oxalic acid) to lower the mite load. If I see that I am consistently having to treat a hive, I will requeen it with a queen whose genetics are more mite resistant. 

By following this IPM method of mite control, I am able to keep most colonies healthy and prevent the spread of disease. This approach also allows the bees to become more mite resistant on their own, which reduces the need for miticides.  

Speaking with my conference introducer helped me realize that beekeepers and pesticide applicators have some of the same goals. His company formulated a product to help bees!  Many applicators strive to follow an IPM approach in which the least invasive methods of control are used first. They also try to prevent resistance, which leads to the need to apply more and more chemicals. One pest control company will do home inspections and make recommendations that do not require spraying pesticides. 

During my talk, applicators seemed genuinely interested in how pesticides affect bees and how they can do better. One pesticide applicator explained that he found a good alternative to the neonicotinoid imidacloprid (a commonly used systemic pesticide that is very harmful to bees).  He has been able to eliminate its use.     

Like the pesticide applicators at this conference, I need to be humble and open to learning new things. Not all pesticide applicators go straight to chemical methods of control. Some strive to apply non-chemical methods to reduce populations of insects that can be harmful to human health or that can destroy the large fruit trees that are so important to our pollinators. If we take the time to learn about these non-chemical forms of control, like luring mosquitoes into a net with dry ice, we can then promote these pollinator-friendly practices.

If we can build understanding between beekeepers and applicators, we can work together to formulate more pollinator-friendly methods of pest control. Beekeepers need to know where pesticides are being sprayed, and applicators need to know where bees are going to nest and find resources. We need to work together to identify these points of contact. Without this knowledge, both beekeepers and applicators will fall short of maintaining and nurturing a pollinator-friendly environment. 

3 thoughts on “The Beekeeper’s World

  1. Amy, I was a bit surprised, given the article’s title, with the direction it took, but I appreciated it, especially your humility. Like you I tend to think of pesticide applicators as the “bad guys.” so it was good to read that at least some share life-nurturing goals with you.

    I’m anticipating having a good crop from my apple tree this year, which seems to happen every-other year. Two years ago I tried neem oil to deal with the codling moths, spraying after the tree had blossomed—so as not to affect the many visiting bees. This year I’ve decided to do nothing—I don’t like being slave to the tree, and even with the neem oil I still had worms in my apples, though less of them. So this year I’ll see what happens as the moths, June bugs, finches, and robins have at it. I’m hoping to still get some good eating. (All of what I just wrote to say I appreciate the dedication you have towards keeping your bees.)

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