I’ve been around commercial beekeeping since high school, when I was hired as cheap labor. Then, few treatments, if any were used. And even feeding sugar, except for emergencies, was hotly debated. I saw swarms. Hive populations were large. So were the honey crops. Routine requeening wasn’t practiced. And winter loses were easily made up by splitting in the spring.
After college and the Army, I left a lucrative career as a senior exploration geologist, to manage a commercial bee outfit in Lingle, Wyoming.
Cliff Weller, the elderly gentleman who started the Lingle operation after WWI, would stop by and visit. One day, I asked him about an old container and some signs I’d found in a cabinet. The sealed container had a faded, curled and yellow paper labeled “Sulfa”. And the signs stated: “Warning. This beeyard is under quarantine. All honey is poisonous and unfit for human consumption.” He laughed and said he’d bought the sulfa after WWII if he’d encounter a bad outbreak of foulbrood. But he’d never used it. The sign? It was designed to scare thieves away. He’d put them in a yard when it experienced theft or vandalism.
Later, my brother and I established a sideline bee operation in Delta Junction, Alaska. We treated our initial package bees with Fumidil B. And brought a bucket of tetra with us which we never used.
The Slippery Slide
Then returning to Wyoming from Alaska, I worked commercial bees part time. And then years later, full time for a commercial beekeeper. I had my own queen rearing business on the side.
Through time, prophylactic antibiotics, often in the form of antibiotic grease patties became the norm. Feeding sugar, then corn syrup became routine.
Hive populations decreased. Honey crops overall, got smaller. Queen failures increased requiring frequent requeening. And winter loses could no longer be made up from overwintered bees. Package bees were imported from California.
Over the Edge
Then the mites arrived. Their presence exacerbated all of those slippery problems. Commercial beekeepers, to cut cost and to deter pesticide resistant mites, began treating bees with several barnyard chemicals. Then later, with any chemical/pesticide concoction. Remember the arsenic spills in North Dakota?
I left commercial beekeeping in 2000. But continued with my hobby hives until moving to Florida in 2007.
Into the Sump
Upon my return to Wyoming, I visited one of my commercial beekeeping friends. He couldn’t find anyone to work the bees. It’s just hot, heavy, dirty, low paying work that requires long hours with stings as a bonus. You’ve got to be a beekeeper to love it. And as most people know, you’re nuts to be a beekeeper. 🙂
My commercial friend needed help. He was older and was having trouble doing the lifting. He offered me a job. I offered to help a friend. It seemed a great option at the time. But if things go sour it’s easy to loose both a job and a friend. And that’s exactly what happened.
It was almost a decade since I was involved with commercial beekeeping. And things hadn’t gotten any better. I’d gone natural with my own bees and never looked back.
When working with bee equipment in his shop, I’d get a mild, but weird kind of headache and become slightly nauseated toward the end of a long day. Strange? It would stick with me for the rest of the day. But I’d sleep it off and be fine the next morning.
In the beeyard, my commercial beekeeping friend, on the pesticide treadmill, was running faster than ever. After working a yard, hives were routinely sprayed. A hivetool full of powder was tossed in. And a couple of oily construction paper strips were left in each hive before closing them up.
As soon as the this process started, I became sick. It was worse when working downwind of the open buckets/spray. But even on a still day, my head would pound and I’d become slightly nauseated after a time. And I recognized that strange pounding headache. It was the same as I’d experienced in shop!
My friend tried to limit my exposure in the field, but to no avail. Those chemicals permeated the operation, the equipment, the building, the clothing. This kind of commercial beekeeping made me sick! Even when you’re crazy enough to be a beekeeper, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re stupid enough to stay in this situation.
My commercial friend wasn’t an innovator. But he would quickly and readily adopt practices touted by other commercial beekeepers with larger beekeeping operations than his. So, I know what I’ve experienced in his shop and others, was probably more typical than not. Most commercial guys see beekeeping as an agribusiness. And honey is seen as just another agricultural commodity.
Have you seen those clandestine videos from other agribusiness operations? What did you think? But did you know it possible to make the same kind of video for a beekeeping agribusiness as well?
I suspect a few good commercial beekeepers actually see their business as producing a natural healthy food product. And run it so. But most run as an agribusiness that makes a bulk commercial commodity with low cost being the determining factor. The food, health and pure aspects of honey are left to the bottlers, lab technicians and the marketing guys.
Commercial beekeeping, it’s a dream I’ve chased all my life. But it’s become a nightmare. Now it’s time to wake up. Commercial beekeeping, goodbye forever!