The vitality of the honey bee has reached a crucial state. The loss of thousands of colonies around the world is of real concern to beekeepers and non-beekeepers alike.
Our modern thinking leads us to hope for a magic bullet, something (possibly a splendid new chemical) which will eradicate the varroa mite, or foulbrood, or nosema, or small hive beetle, or whatever ills are currently besetting our bees.
But some people feel uneasy. Doesn’t it seem to happen that, hard on the heels of the new wonder cure, comes another bee assailant, or a resistant version of the old one? How long can we keep doing this?
A different approach would be to consider the way that beekeepers treat bees. In the quest for more production it is all too easy to incorporate into one's husbandry a catalogue of very bee-unfriendly practices.
These can easily become standard and have for a long time remained unquestioned and unchallenged. We have busied ourselves with such activities as swarm prevention, artificial feeding, brood nest disturbance, rearranging of combs, regulation of cell size, drone culling, artificial queen rearing and, in some countries, long-distance transportation, to name but a few.
All of these things cause stress and a stressed organism is far more likely to succumb to a disease or pest -be it foul brood, varroa or the viruses vectored by varroa- than an unstressed one. The response to this is all too often to increase "management", whilst failing to see that "management" has contributed to the problem in the first place.
This is not to say, of course, that unstressed bees under a low management regime never get sick, especially if there are stressed, highly managed bees nearby that have problems. For this reason it is wise to keep an eye on one's bees. This need not be an intrusive exercise. Careful observation at the hive entrance can disclose a great deal. Sight, sound and, importantly, smell can all be used. A healthy colony will have a distinctive and very pleasant smell that will change over the season. An unpleasant odour suggests that all is not well. If one colony consistently flies poorly when others are flying well, or is not bringing in pollen when others are, that also suggests a problem; maybe the queen is failing.
The table below sets out some of the routine practices often taught as part of modern bee management and compares them with what the science tells us happens in wild colonies. In every one of the 30 items, what is often done is not what science tells us the bee wants or needs. This creates beekeeper-induced stress. And, as we said, a stressed colony is more likely to be a sick colony. You can read more on our searchable science page.