Problems with Industrializing Livestock

Seems that a quiet revolution has been taking place in the raising of a type of livestock most of us never think about: bees. Many of our friends raise and keep bees, and we buy as much of our honey from them as possible. Once our orchard matures, we plan to begin keeping our own hives.

Today’s New York Times describes the unexpected consequences that have arisen from the dramatic commercialization and consolodation in the beekeeping industry.

The sudden mysterious losses are highlighting the critical link that honeybees play in the long chain that gets fruit and vegetables to supermarkets and dinner tables across the country.

Beekeepers have fought regional bee crises before, but this is the first national affliction. Now, in a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie, bees are flying off in search of pollen and nectar and simply never returning to their colonies. And nobody knows why.

Researchers say the bees are presumably dying in the fields, perhaps becoming exhausted or simply disoriented and eventually falling victim to the cold.

[snip]

Once the domain of hobbyists with a handful of backyard hives, beekeeping has become increasingly commercial and consolidated. Over the last two decades, the number of beehives, now estimated by the Agriculture Department to be 2.4 million, has dropped by a quarter and the number of beekeepers by half.

Pressure has been building on the bee industry. The costs to maintain hives, also known as colonies, are rising along with the strain on bees of being bred to pollinate rather than just make honey. And beekeepers are losing out to suburban sprawl in their quest for spots where bees can forage for nectar to stay healthy and strong during the pollination season.

“There are less beekeepers, less bees, yet more crops to pollinate,” Mr. Browning said. “While this sounds sweet for the bee business, with so much added loss and expense due to disease, pests and higher equipment costs, profitability is actually falling.”

[snip]

It could just be that the bees are stressed out. Bees are being raised to survive a shorter offseason, to be ready to pollinate once the almond bloom begins in February. That has most likely lowered their immunity to viruses.

Mites have also damaged bee colonies, and the insecticides used to try to kill mites are harming the ability of queen bees to spawn as many worker bees. The queens are living half as long as they did just a few years ago.

Researchers are also concerned that the willingness of beekeepers to truck their colonies from coast to coast could be adding to bees’ stress, helping to spread viruses and mites and otherwise accelerating whatever is afflicting them.

Dennis van Engelsdorp, a bee specialist with the state of Pennsylvania who is part of the team studying the bee colony collapses, said the “strong immune suppression” investigators have observed “could be the AIDS of the bee industry,” making bees more susceptible to other diseases that eventually kill them off.

It never ceases to amaze me when industrial farm operations seem to think they can scale their operations up indefinitely, without consequence. And, from the story, it sounds like the problem isn’t just the beekeepers: it’s the massive size of the consolodated orchards, which require these large numbers of bees. I wonder how much of a collapse it will take before small, local beekeepers re-emerge with heritage bees and beekeeping techniques to pick up the pieces — and the growers scale back to a more managable size.

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