Consider alternative hive design, reduce pesticides: bee expert

GUELPH, Ont. — North America’s commercial beekeepers should consider the increasing interest in alternative apicultural practices, according to one of the world’s leading experts on bees and pollination.

Mark Winston, a professor from British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University, also suggests taking a close look at current practices, including the use of pesticides to control honeybee pests like the varroa mite.

“If we’re going to complain about pesticides in the field, we’re going to have to clean up our own house,” he said.

Winston said the pesticides that are used in hives have similar chemistries to those used for field crops and other purposes, which decrease honeybees’ ability to resist pests and detoxify the environment.

The comments didn’t sit well with some of the 200 beekeepers who heard Winston’s keynote address at the Eastern Apicultural Conference Aug. 12, but they may have been pleased with his broader message that there’s a need for an overall reduction in the use of pesticides in agriculture and a shift toward greater diversity in farm fields and other properties.

“This is not a healthy system — large mono-crop acreages … — (and) there is actually very little evidence that this is the best way to produce food,” he said.

“There are 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides sprayed in the United States each year. I can’t tell you the Canadian numbers because our government is very secretive. That’s something you should be (upset) about.”

Winston cited what he described as the thriving urban beekeeping movement, including rooftop apiaries. In more commercial settings, he suggested beekeepers rely less on pollen and nectar substitutes and more on the resources that bees collect.

Moving bees over vast distances to deliver pollination services may be a mistake, he said. An alternative would be to better support the populations of wild pollinators.

“That’s something we can’t do on our own. We need the rest of agriculture to become involved.”

Winston also suggested beekeepers consider alternative hive designs, perhaps move to smaller bees with a shorter brood cycle, reduce the size of over-wintering yards and be a bit less vigilant when it comes to propensity for honeybees to swarm.

Swarming is a way for colonies to break the varroa cycle, he said.

Winston suggested people interested in a shift toward greater environmental sustainability question candidates running in the coming federal election on their views.

“One reason corporations and their lobbyists have been so influential is that people just do not vote as much as they used to.”

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