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Honeybees and agriculture not on collision course

DAVID GLOVER THE Bartlett Bee Whisperer on the job
<p>DAVID GLOVER, THE Bartlett Bee Whisperer on the job.</p>
Producers will always protect valuable crops from pests. Bees necessary for good yields. Exploring the issues surrounding the honeybee/farming dynamic.

Hear some buzzing in your walls? See a few too many bees crawling around your eaves? The Bartlett Bee Whisperer is only a call away.

“My main business is running a honeybee rescue service,” says David Glover, the Memphis-based beekeeper. “That’s removing honey bees that have moved into people’s homes. I’ll come in and remove the bees, the wax, and the honeycomb. I typically box them up and move them to farms. Other times, I’ll find beekeepers in the Memphis area --we have good folks that have anywhere from two to 2,000 hives -- that need replacements for bees they’ve lost throughout the year.”

Glover says the reason bees are moving into more people’s homes is “there aren’t as many hollow trees around as there used to be. Lacking hollow trees, the easiest place for them to move is into a house’s wall, attic, or crawlspace. Depending on how long the bees have been in a house, there can be anywhere from a gallon to 20 or 30 gallons of honey, plus all the bees.”

It’s true, there are plenty of diseases and parasites that beekeepers have to worry about.

“But sometimes it isn’t those kinds of things that hurt hives. Last year, one beekeeper lost his bees during the winter, because teenaged boys had kicked over all his hives in a field. The bees froze to death. I found out about it and helped by finding new bees for him.”

Intricate link

Crops need pollinating and so agriculture and bees are intricately linked. One thing that needs strengthening between farmers and beekeepers is communication.

“I don’t think there’s a collision between agriculture and bees,” says Glover. “There’s a lot of bad press out that deals with pesticides and herbicides and how they’re killing honeybees. But ‘bad press’ is good money for the media.”

And the potential fallout from that press could hamper farmers’ ability to control crop pests in the future.

Don Parker, National Cotton Council Manager of Integrated Pest Management, has been closely monitoring the pollinator issues for some five years. “Some groups were in D.C. that were seeking regulatory changes without the science required to make such changes. The council wanted to know what exactly was going on.

“We began speaking with folks in beekeeping seeking to find ways we might work together to find solutions that would work for both groups -- the ag/crop production side as well as the beekeeping side. That’s how I became involved in this.”

Is there a need to be vigilant and protect the crop protection products currently available?

“The EPA and the USDA have made it clear that the science demonstrates that there are many factors working against the honeybee health,” says Parker. “Those factors include some parasites, some diseases, lots of habitat loss. Even so, some groups have solely focused on the role of pesticides and they’ve tried to make sure everyone’s attention rest on the pesticides.

“Media reports have helped feed into that. There have also been a lot of federal activities and phone calls, public pressure trying to say, ‘We must save the bees!’ Some of that is well-meaning. But, again, it doesn’t bring in all the factors contributing to problems the bees are experiencing.”


Both sides have no choice but to find a way to coexist.

“Yes, we must have crop protection measures so we can produce the foods needed,” says Parker. “But we also understand that we must work with the beekeeping industry to minimize any impact on their work.”

Glover is on the same page. “Well, I grew up farming cotton and soybeans. There’s a time and season to apply pesticides. The farmer just has to do it. Otherwise, he’s facing the destruction of his crops. That’s just the way it is.

“On the other hand, the reality is that bees are part of the agricultural environment. They are necessary: they pollinate our food, they allow us bumper crops. Cotton may not be a food for us, but it does provide a lot of nectar that the bees use to make a really good honey.”

There is a self-preservation aspect to beekeeping that must be factored into the mix. “As beekeepers, what we need to do is communicate with our farmers. Beekeepers tend to be secretive about where their bees are placed. One of the reasons for that is beekeeping is a big business and there are always shady folks willing to poach hives. For example, a friend of mine in Utah had his hives stolen. The thieves didn’t take the boxes just everything inside. 

“So, there’s a reluctance to share where bees are. The problem with that, of course, is area farmers don’t even know bees are around. They don’t know they need to be careful when applying pesticides. Conversely, the beekeeper doesn’t know he needs to close up the hives or to move them out of the danger zone.”

Glover admits even with the best open dialogue there still a chance that pesticides can kill his bees. “We can’t control the wind, we can’t control drift. Things happen despite best intentions.”

Unfortunately, the general public is yet to understand all the mitigating issues about modern agriculture and beekeeping. “That’s a hurdle we still haven’t been able to overcome,” says Parker. “One of the problems is it can get complicated and isn’t just a matter of citing one or two bullet points to get the message across. It’s much easier for people to accept that pesticides are meant to kill insects, therefore get rid of the pesticides.”

The NCC has “been trying to work towards this message: there are ways to use these products safely, and we must use them safely. On top of that, we must work towards providing greater protections for the bee industry.

“Part of that is realizing that beekeepers need the cooperation of producers to ensure they have access to forage for their bees. For many, this is already going on -- a time-honored tradition of many years.”

Dialogue key

Even so, Parker laments that “there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of communication so that both sides have understood the exact needs of the other. Communication is a major key to this. The beekeeper needs to know the crop protection practices the producer uses. He needs to know those things so he can place his hives accordingly. At the same time, the producer needs to know where the hives are place so he can figure out ways to minimize activity around that site to provide greater protection for the bees.”

How best to promote the needed communication? Provide GPS coordinates of hive locations to farmers?

“There are several web-based programs out there for beekeepers to keep track of our bees,” says Glover. “That’s a combined effort throughout the United States. Beekeepers that make use of these programs understand that the GPS coordinates are out there. Unfortunately, that feeds back into the hands of the people out there looking to ‘rustle’ bees. The pollinating of crops is big business and if you can steal bees, you’re easily set up -- just repaint the boxes and you’re in business.

“For me, it’s important to maintain a one-on-one relationship with farmers. I know where my hives are and let cooperating farmers know. Most of them want the bees on their fields and work with me. You know, ‘David, I’m going to be spraying X field next week.’ Just a quick heads up like that lets me check the wind, the windbreaks between the field and the hives. After weighing all the factors, I’ll take action to move my hives or close them in.”


Glover returns to the notion many harbor that chemicals need to be removed for the good of society. “Everyone is worried about chemicals. What they don’t think about is that every day we’re using chemicals in our life. You know, this morning, I woke up and put chemicals in my mouth -- toothpaste -- and cleaned my teeth with a piece of plastic called a toothbrush.

“When we add sugar or salt to what we’re eating, we’re adding chemicals. And sugar tastes great! But it causes so many problems in our health, just like too much salt. We must control salt intake to ensure proper fluid retention. But most people don’t think of chemicals that way.

“You know, if you go to the doctor and get a shot, the chances are it isn’t natural. It’s chemically-based and yet designed to help us recover from illness.

“Alcohol is a chemical, right? How many people worry about that when they’re cracking open a can of beer on a weekend fishing trip or tailgate party?”

He appeals for people to be reasonable. “So many people say ‘we need our farmers to go back to natural, organic methods.’ Well, that’s impossible! That means you’re expecting the farmers to do something that we’re not. Chemicals are making our lives better and yet we’d expect farmers to go back to ancient techniques that won’t allow nearly enough food to be produced to feed the world. You can’t expect our farmers to be behind a plow, behind a mule.”

Yet, at the foundation of agriculture bees must have a place. Even modern techniques can’t replace the insects. “Bees are in decline,” says Glover. “As they decline, pollination drops off, yields drop off.”


What about a regional plan to help maintain bee health? A plan for the Mid-South?  

“It isn’t easy to come up with a regional or national approach to this because of the many varied geographical environments in the country,” says Parker. “Producers in one area of the country may be able to spray their fields at night because they don’t have large trees and there is flat terrain. Well, that won’t work, say, in the hills of Mississippi.

“That’s way it really comes down to clear communication at the local level.”

The NCC is very hopeful that state and local approaches will improve the situation,” says Parker. “There’s research still going on into this.

“One of the major factors in bee health is the varroa mite, a parasite that vectors disease to hives. The science on how to control the mites will help tremendously. Once control happens it not only will take away the pest but also reduce diseases.”

In the meantime, it’s unfortunate “all these groups continue to point to pesticides as the smoking gun. Science has proven that not to be the case.

“It’s anticipated that early in 2015, there may be some new (pesticide) label changes may come down from the EPA. We’re very concerned how those may impact our ability to protect crops and still provide the food and fiber we need.”

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