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Beekeeping in the balance

“This is an editorial from Bee World, 1972. Probably written by Eva Crane. I think it’s still instructive today, especially the last paragraph” -Peter Borst 

HoneyLove visiting the Almond Orchards in Bakersfield


In many parts of the world beekeeping hangs in the balance, and the scales are tipped against the bees and the beekeeper. In countries with highly sophisticated agricultural systems, beekeeping may be in a decline because too many factors in modern agriculture work against the bees. Even in countries beginning to move away from traditional agriculture, bees are less and less part of the rural economy. Declining numbers of bees and beekeepers, and lack of official interest, are matched by falling honey yields. Yet the very changes in land use which now seem to be bringing about the end of beekeeping may lead to its recognition as an essential part of agriculture, because of its importance for crop pollination.

The factors limiting beekeeping may be summarized as follows. Forage available to bees is being reduced, by current agricultural practices, and by industrial and urban land use, including road construction. Losses from pesticide have been mitigated to some extent in recent years, but hazards are constantly arising from the use of new crops, and changes in agricultural techniques, especially for the control of pests and weeds. Also, although many of the bee diseases are well understood, and treatments available, largescale “losses” of indeterminate origin still occur from time to time, and can cause severe damage to beekeeping in the area concerned.

Beekeepers face rising costs which may so far outstrip the financial return that commercial beekeeping becomes uneconomic. At an amateur level, beekeeping as a hobby does not fit easily into areas of high human population, especially in towns and suburbs. Further, beekeepers are, in American terms, “not a well organized commodity group”: the very independence that makes a person a good keeper of bees may well make him a poor negotiator, and one who does not easily co-operate. It may also hinder understanding between beekeepers and crop growers, whether or not the growers use bees to pollinate their own crops.

Nowadays so many interdependent factors are involved in determining any one issue, that more and more interdisciplinary co-ordination is needed-and this does not come of itself, but has to be sought out and worked for. There is no magic solution, but there are ways in which benefits have been, or could be, obtained.

Human nature is perhaps the most difficult of all factors to change, but where the need is great enough – as in a nation at war – cooperation can be achieved. Surveys leading to a relatively objective assessment of the position could well be a valuable start. One such survey (concerned with development rather than decline) was conducted in Ireland in 1967, and another, specifically on bee losses and their effect on honey production and pollination, was carried out in the United States in 1970. In some countries with tracts of undeveloped land, surveys should be made to establish what further sites could profitably be used for hives, or what areas could be planted specifically for bee forage. In the more intensively used lands, pressure groups can be formed to maintain and reclaim potential areas for bee forage-even road verges are worth attention. More studies are urgently needed to define the requirements of crops for insect pollination (especially in the tropics), and to establish how widespread the dearth of pollinators is. The system of payment for colonies of bees provided for pollination, and conditions for safeguarding them, should also be restudied and improved.

Crop management techniques must be developed in which pest and weed control measures are applied only according to need, and methods are selected which are the least hazardous to bees. Much research has already been done, and if the results are presented in a way that can be assimilated, their application should not prove too difficult.

Understanding between beekeepers and crop growers has been achieved on a local, personal, scale in various countries, with very satisfactory results. Perhaps a study of these successful ventures might also show the way to more general progress.

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