There are too many honey bees

There are too many honey bees…said no one ever! We have all heard that the ‘bees are dying,’ and that we need to ‘save the bees.’ Unfortunately these are both true for one simple reason: we have too many honey bees.

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beekeeper with bees
This hive now belongs to a student of mine. He maintains 4 or so beehives for his garden. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

For years, there has been one devastating blow after another against apis mellifera, our beloved honey bee.

One of the first afflictions was the spore from American Foulbrood, followed by beekeepers’ current struggle; Varroa destructor. Not to mention the other challenges like Small hive beetle, Wax Moth, Nosema, CCD, and who knows what’s yet to come.

It is widely taught that the honey bee is not even native to the North American continent. Whether that is true or not, the fact remains that there are currently more honey bees in North America than there were upon European settlement on American soil.

So let’s say for a moment that there were no honey bees until colonial times. Zero beehives way back then compared to hundreds of thousands of beehives now. Does this support the idea that the bees are dying?

If anything, we probably have more honey bees in this country at present date than we had over 200 years ago. So what’s the deal? If we have more honey bees, why does the media report that we need to save them from dying?

Well, because they’re dying. It’s like taking your kids to the beach and complaining that they’re getting wet.

The problem is not necessarily because of American Foulbrood, Varroa mite or any of the like. The reason that honey bees are dying is because there are too many of them to manage effectively.

To illustrate this, I’m going to compare two beekeeping operations that I have personal experience in: Hobby beekeeping and Commercial beekeeping.


First: Hobby beekeeping

During the last 3 years I have become a hobby beekeeper. During my first year as a hobbyist I went into winter with 18 hives. I did not treat for mites very well and started the following spring with 11 beehives. A loss of 7.

That year I split my own bees and built my way up to 36 beehives but this time I treated for mites appropriately. By the following spring, I had 30 strong beehives that made it successfully through winter. A loss of 6. Not bad at all.

That year, I built up to 40 something beehives. Each year, I increase my number of beehives while I continue to hear that most beekeepers are losing theirs.

These losses are due to poor management practices through the common misconception that more is better.

One concept involves keeping fewer hives per apiary. The idea is that there is a limited amount of forage available in the range of the apiary.

More hives per apiary must compete with one another for a limited amount of food. This is not logical. This year I kept fewer hives per apiary, expanded my number of apiaries from one to three, and made more honey than I ever have in this area.

Less beehives equals less competition and more forage for everyone.

Less beehives also means less disease and pests to spread around which creates an easier system to manage.

Second: Commercial beekeeping

My first 15 years in beekeeping was mentored in the commercial beekeeping arena. I have seen more than my share of hive beetles, mites, dead outs, and disease, spreading throughout multiple apiaries.

You see, the idea in commercial beekeeping is that more is better. As a result, commercial beekeepers usually maintain 30, 100, or even more beehives per apiary.

To compensate for not having enough local forage for hundreds of beehives, commercial beekeepers often feed them pesticide-laden high fructose corn syrup.

There is also a constant battle to keep the mites at bay. Antibiotics, harsh chemicals, toxins, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides; they are all a part of the game of commercial beekeeping.

Why? Because we keep so many honey bees in small areas that we unintentionally create horrible circumstances:

1) Competition for available forage

2) Widespread disease

3) The perceived need for increased use of chemical warfare


garden with honey bees for pollination
I’m helping to populate this student’s Warre hive using a Langstroth nuc transfer box. Photo by Jonathan Hargus©

These all result in an extremely high mortality rate for the honey bees. But possibly even worse than that, we have created a new mono crop: our honey bees.

The problem is not dying honey bees, that’s only a symptom. The problem is that we have separated ourselves from our own local food supply: the back yard garden.

Nowadays, since the majority of Americans rely on grocery stores for their food, we must place the responsibility of our food pollination on large agricultural industries.

These industries are the ones that need honey bees in large numbers. Ironically, modern agriculture has created a bomb with its mono cropping methods of constant pesticide sprays, killing the very bees they ask for and need year after year for pollination.

The Solution to saving the honey bees is three-fold:

1) More local, small hobby beekeepers keeping fewer hives per apiary

2) More locally grown gardens supporting the surrounding community

3) The complete elimination of commercial beekeeping practices

Fewer beehives would enable small, local beekeepers to be able to deal with in-hive disease and pests at manageable levels.

To say it simply and to place responsibility where the media does not:

Commercial beekeeping practices are the #1 reason for the decline of honey bee populations.

We have too many honey bees to support in today’s modern agricultural world.

By keeping fewer honey bees we alleviate heavy competition for local pollinators as well.

“We are killing the honey bees.”

Quoteth me.

What are we going to do about it?

~Weeds are Wildflowers, let them Bee!~

Jonathan Hargus/Commercial gone Hobby beekeeper

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