"I’m an organic farmer. I practice beekeeping without the use of chemicals or antibiotics. I do this for a variety of reasons which I will leave aside for now. This is about the prospects for sustainable beekeeping from the point of view of an organic bee farmer.
There’s an argument to be made that beekeeping as currently practised isn’t sustainable. Doubtless the purveyors of standard beekeeping which employ all these chemical stratagems would insist that theirs is the best way -- that when each chemical loses its effectiveness there will be new generations of better chemicals to employ – better living through technology. Aside from getting into the nitty-gritty of disagreement, let’s just suggest that the costs of chemicals and antibiotics turns out to be too great (costs both financial and in health), and that it’s better to practice beekeeping without them. Given that, what does sustainable beekeeping look like?
One thing’s sure (in my experience) - beekeeping without chemicals and antibiotics is more labour intensive. Look at the case of the virulent disease American Foul Brood. The usual method of dealing with this is to give the bees antibiotics as a prophylactic treatment. This doesn’t get rid of the disease but keeps it in check – though not perfectly, as this method does, as you might expect, lead to resistant cases of the bacterium, which will lead to further problems for beekeeping in the future. Hence the sustainability question.
I don’t use antibiotics in my operation. What I do is similar to what is done in New Zealand, where antibiotic use is not permitted. The first practice is careful inspection of the brood in every hive, to ensure early detection of the disease. Once an instance of foul brood occurs, drastic steps must be taken. The Ontario ministry of agriculture guidelines call for destroying the colony, bees and everything. An alternative that saves the adult bees (and thus the colony) is to remove them from the hive and put them on to new equipment. The equipment and all the wax and brood must be burnt. Done properly, the American Foul Brood doesn’t recur. But as I said, the inspection regimen is more time-consuming.
The story with other aspects of beekeeping is similar. The introduction of chemicals to deal with varroa infestation, and the viruses which accompany it, makes it quicker to go through a hive. Many of the chemicals can be damaging to bees and questionable for human consumption if they get in the honey. Some of the chemicals used are regarded as acceptable for organic farming. These are organic acids, and their use as become very common in beekeeping. They are however not without problems, and their use presents risk to the queen and the possibility that residues may persist in the comb and honey and have long term consequences for bee health which remain undetermined.
In my experience, beekeeping without chemicals is possible, though not (as yet) very profitable. Because beekeepers must make a living the question of sustainability must be posed with that of profitability. If it turns out that the only way of beekeeping is at the small scale of individual beekeepers, or small groups of beekeepers handling a few hundred hives, then the cost of beekeeping products and services (honey, pollen and pollination, beeswax etc) will need to rise. Obviously no one wants the cost of food to rise. The means of producing a sufficient amount of healthy food to feed our world is something that will probably take ingenuity and effort to arrive at.
There are other aspects of sustainable beekeeping that need to be looked at. We need to think about the chemicals used on crops and the effects this has on bees, and we need to have a hard look at the reduction of wild forage areas for bees. First then, let’s consider neonicotinoids. This class of chemicals has an effect on insect nervous systems. It is said that their main advantage is that they are a targeted chemical, in that they only affect the insect which is a pest of the crop they are put on. It turns out this isn’t exactly true. But how far from true has yet to be established. It can’t even be said that these chemicals have no effect on humans and other animals. This is unknown. All that can be said is that they have no obvious effect.
No one denies that they are harmful to bees. They will, at only a small dose, kill a bee by affecting its nervous system. Used properly, the amount of neonicotinoid that a bee might find in a flower and take back to the hive should never be sufficient to kill that bee or any larva. The current controversy over them is whether the minute presence in the bee and in the hive is sufficient to cause sub-lethal effects which may lead to early death which in turn may lead to colony collapse. This is what the present limitation of use of neonics in Ontario should determine.
Neonicinoids are in any case an improvement on the previously widely used class of chemicals, the organo-phosphates, which did have clear effects on not only mammals but widespread effects on the entire range of life anywhere near the fields where they were sprayed. Not only did beekeepers witness the deaths of colonies that had been too near a sprayed field, but it was this class of chemicals that led to the development of the ‘silent spring’ - the extreme reduction of bird life which so devastated the sensibility of Rachel Carson, who wrote the book of that name which proved so important to the development of the ecological movement.
Finally we have the matter of forage areas. We need to do something about the way we farm generally if we are to maintain healthy bees and other native pollinators. The reduction of hedgerows, and the increase of urban mowed areas (to go along with the vast areas of lawn in urban areas) has seriously impacted the life of native solitary bees and other pollinators. Put briefly, we need to fall out of love with our lawns, and in love with wild untended areas.
Taken together, these steps should lead us toward some sort of sustainable future not just for beekeeping, but also for agriculture and for wildlife generally."
Stephen also sells his honey at markets!
On Saturday, from 9 - 1 at the Backyard Farm and Market on the north-east corner of Eglinton and Erin Mills Parkway (across the street from Credit Valley Hospital).
On Sundays, from 9 - 2, at Many Feathers Market at Lisgar Go Station (10th line and Argentia).
He also has workshops at 10 Arch Road if these markets aren't convenient.
Sampling is available. Prices are $10 for 500 grams, $19 for a kilo.