Protecting Bees for the Good of Agriculture


The beekeepers who raise the world’s most beloved bugs have a message for everyone who adores them: “The best thing you could do for honeybees right now is not take up beekeeping.”

That’s what a professional beekeeper in Slovenian recently told the New York Times.

This paradox shows that threats can come from people who just want to help. I’ve seen this firsthand on my farm in Washington state, where I rely on bees for the pollination of my alfalfa seed crops.

Honeybees in fact are flourishing. “There are more honeybees on the planet than there have ever been in human history,” said Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of the Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation, a nonprofit group based in Oregon.

Hobbyists, however, pose problems when they build artificial hives. They may think they’re helping Mother Nature, but instead they’re succumbing to the law of untended consequences. In some areas, overcrowding has become severe. Elsewhere—including my own farm—honeybees push out other pollinators.

Three years ago, a report from the Royal Botanic Gardens in London issued a warning: “Beekeeping to save bees could actually be having the opposite effect.” It prompted the New Yorker to ask a surprising question last month in a headline: “Is Beekeeping Wrong?”

Like many people, I love honeybees. They make delicious food. They pollinate plants and trees around the world. And they perform amazing “waggle dances” that are both a form of sophisticated communication and the subject of entertaining videos.

I hope they thrive—but I also hope they stay away from my farm.

Although they are essential for a lot of agriculture, honeybees can hurt my alfalfa seed plants. When they visit these crops, they take the plant’s nectar and fail to trip its pollination. The problem involves their anatomy and the mechanics of how they feed.

So I don’t want them on my farm.

My alfalfa seed crops depend on different bees. They look a lot like honey bees, with black and yellow stripes, but alkali bees don’t make honey. They also dig tunnels and live underground rather than in hives and are native to the arid western United States.

And they do something honeybees can’t: They make it possible for my alfalfa plants to pollinate. My farm depends on them as much as it depends on sun, soil, and water. I manage acres of habitat for alkali bees and defend them from threats.

An ongoing threat comes from people who insist that pollinators and crop-protection products can’t co-exist.

Environmentalists once made a big push to ban a popular pesticide that I use to guard my alfalfa against pests and disease. They were worried about something called “colony collapse disorder”—a phenomenon in which worker bees suddenly disappeared, causing whole colonies of honey bees to fail. They blamed much of the problem on farmers like me.

Eight years ago, I wrote a column about the controversy, arguing that the causes of colony collapse disorder were poorly understood and most likely due to varroa mites—tiny parasites that attach to bees and suck the life out of them.

We survived that fight, but today we’re facing a new one that involves lygus bugs. These pests attack my alfalfa fields as well as fruit trees, which they can devastate. The best way to control them is with a crop-protection product that is also deadly to alkali bees.

Now some regulators want to ban it as well.

Through trial-and-error, however, we’ve discovered a way to use this tool against lygus bugs without hurting bees: We apply it early in the night, when the alkali bees have retreated to their tunnels. It kills the pests and then its chemical components break down in just a few hours. When the sun rises and the alkali bees emerge for a new day of pollination, they’re safe.

The success of this approach is an example of what farmers call “integrated pest management.” It reveals that the best solutions to problems are sometimes the most surprising ones.

So the next time you’re tempted to build a beehive in your backyard, think twice. And instead of resorting to thoughtless prohibitions in the name of favored insects, let’s look for creative innovations that rely on sound science and modern technology—and trust farmers to do the right thing.

Alkali bee photo credit Washington Grown

Mark Wagoner

Mark Wagoner

Mark Wagoner is a third generation family farmer in southeast Washington State where they grow alfalfa seed for four major seed companies. Relying on the alkali bee, a native ground nesting bee, and leafcutter bees for pollination, Mark works with the National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to insure that safe and effective insecticides are available for use during bee flight. Mark volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network.

Mark volunteers as a board member for the Global Farmer Network and numerous other boards addressing water and land use issues. He has been appointed to the Washington State Department of Ecology Walla Walla Valley 2050 Committee, a planning group to improve water availability in the Valley. He works diligently to develop and implement coexistence strategies for producing conventional, organic and genetically enhanced alfalfa.

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