Organic Honey Bee Hives Can Be as Productive and Healthy as Conventional Hives, Study Finds
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Organic Honey Bee Hives Can Be as Productive and Healthy as Conventional Hives, Study Finds

Jun 02, 2023

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Organic farming methods mean less pesticides in our soil and food. They ensure agricultural runoff won't contain toxic chemicals that can make their way into our waterways, polluting the water supply and potentially harming wildlife and ecosystems. They also consider animal welfare.

So why do farmers continue to use synthetic pesticides? The answer is simple: yield. They worry giving up the pesticides will mean sacrificing the health and productivity of crops.

The same philosophy applies to the management of honey bee colonies. But a new study has shown beekeepers who employ organic methods can have honey bee colonies that are as productive and healthy as those managed using synthetic pesticides.

According to new research led by entomologists from Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), organically managed colonies can achieve similar results to those that are managed using conventional methods, but without the use of synthetic pesticides to keep pathogens and pests under control, a press release from Penn State said.

The study, "A longitudinal experiment demonstrates that honey bee colonies managed organically are as healthy and productive as those managed conventionally," was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

For the study, the researchers compared honey bee performance in three management systems, and was the first to demonstrate that the organic management of honey bees can sustainably support good honey production levels along with high honey bee survival rates.

Lead author of the study Robyn Underwood, who is currently Penn State Extension's Apiculture Extension Educator, said honey bee colony management methods are essential in assisting bees in dealing with stressors like exposure to pesticides, diseases, pests and nutritional deficiencies.

"Beekeeping management is a key aspect of honey bee health because it can help mitigate some of the negative effects caused by these stressors," Underwood said in the press release. "For example, supplemental feeding can mitigate a lack of flowering plants nearby for foraging, and beekeepers can manage pests such as Varroa mites with cultural, mechanical and chemical control practices."

Even with the assistance of beekeepers, 30 percent or more of U.S. honey bee colonies perish each winter, with a higher-than-average rate of 40 percent in Pennsylvania.

Margarita López-Uribe, co-author of the study and an associate professor of entomology in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, said not much research has been done on organic beekeeping, mostly due to the requirements for products to be certified organic.

López-Uribe added that a systems approach was best used to evaluate the complexities of beekeeping management.

"[E]xisting studies largely have looked at the effect of one or two aspects of management at a time," López-Uribe explained in the press release. "But in reality, risks and benefits occur in the context of numerous other management decisions involved in beekeeping. Studies like ours using a systems approach can help us better understand the long-term trade-offs among the various practices."

Underwood explained that a systems approach was more akin to the day-to-day realities of beekeeping than more narrowly focused studies, which have their merits.

"A systems approach is more like what a beekeeper actually does. There are so many different things to think about and do as a beekeeper that nothing is done in isolation. While research about specific things, where everything is controlled except the item of interest, is crucial, it is also important to think about the entire system," Underwood told EcoWatch in an email.

For the study, the researchers looked at eight certified organic farms with nearly 300 honey bee colonies. Six of the farms were in Pennsylvania and two in West Virginia.

"We wanted to replicate what beekeepers were doing in their bee yards," López-Uribe said in the press release. "It wasn't scientists just telling beekeepers how to do things — it was beekeepers telling us how they do things, and then we collected data over multiple years comparing the different systems."

The colonies were put into one of three beekeeping management system categories, each based on different philosophies of beekeeping.

The first, conventional management, is often used by commercial beekeepers and involves frequent intervention with the colonies and the application of any nutritional supplement or chemical — including antibiotics and synthetic chemicals — available to keep the bees alive.

The second, organic management, is commonly employed by small- and medium-sized beekeeping operations, uses intervention only when needed and does not use any antibiotics or synthetic chemicals. It integrates organic-approved chemical treatments and cultural practices to control pests.

The third beekeeping management system, chemical-free management, is well-liked by hobbyists. No chemicals and hardly any interventions are used, bees’ own immune systems are relied on to fight diseases and only cultural practices are used to control pests.

Over a three-year period, the researchers monitored the colonies, measuring honey production, recording overwintering survival and keeping track of parasites, pathogens and the expression of immunity regulating genes as a measure of honey bee health.

The results revealed that both conventional and organic management systems increased overwinter honey bee survival rates by more than 180 percent in comparison to chemical-free management.

Over the three-year period, total honey production was also increased by both conventional and organic methods by 102 and 118 percent, respectively.

There was no significant difference in honey production or survival rates between conventional and organic management systems.

Pathogen and parasite levels — including the Varroa mite, the parasite that causes Nosema disease and deformed wing virus — were reduced by both conventional and organic management systems compared with those that were chemical-free.

"In my experience, every colony has Varroa mites. Every beekeeper should be monitoring mite populations and taking action when the numbers get too high," Underwood told EcoWatch. "Diseases like nosema or viruses are much less common. I think nutrition can be an issue, if there are too many colonies or they are placed in a bad location, but those can be avoided."

Underwood added that it was important not to let Varroa mites get out of hand, as infestations could lead to other issues that can potentially destroy the whole colony.

"The critical thing to do is monitor for mites. If a honey bee colony is able to control the mites on their own, then there is absolutely no need to use chemicals. However, if they cannot keep mite levels down, they do not have the needed mite resistance mechanisms, so chemicals are recommended. When mite levels get high, so do levels for deformed wing virus. The virus can spread out into the environment and infect other bee species," Underwood said. "In addition, the colony will suffer greatly from the virus, with bees hatching with crumpled wings, larvae dying, and the entire colony dwindling to nothing. It is unethical to allow that to happen, so chemical treatments are warranted when mite levels reach a threshold, say 2 mites per 100 bees."

The conventional and organic management systems also saw lower immune gene expression in comparison to chemical-free management, the press release said.

While the study looked at the management of organic honey bee colonies, the apiary products produced by these management systems cannot be marketed as "certified organic," Underwood pointed out. That is because the certification requirements are for a minimum three-kilometer radius surrounding colonies that is free from pesticides, a requirement that is hard for beekeepers to maintain.

Underwood explained that the radius could likely be reduced without compromising the lack of pesticide contamination of apiary products.

"That distance is based on how far a bee CAN fly, not on how far she USUALLY flies. So, yes I think the radius can be smaller; perhaps 1 km. This is the topic of our next research study where we will be monitoring QR code marked bees to determine how long they are away from the hive on each foraging trip. We believe the time away will be highly correlated with distance and are working with Maggie Couvillon at Virginia Tech to match the QR code data with the information the bees share using their waggle dances," Underwood told EcoWatch. "In our study, we tested for residues of pesticides in beeswax in the second fall. We found that we had very clean wax, despite the bees being on farms much smaller than what is required."

Ongoing research by the team on foraging distances and landscape characteristics may lead to a scientific basis for the easing of the radius requirement by organic program authorities.

"Our future research about the landscape and foraging should help us to inform changes in the standards for certification to decrease the required radius of ‘clean’ forage, assuming our hypotheses are supported," Underwood said in the press release.

Underwood said the future of beekeeping would be best served if more beekeeping operations were to "go organic."

"First of all, the basis of an organic honey bee colony management system is excellent genetics. There are breeders that sell mite-resistant lines of bees and we should all be paying attention to that. It is the best start. Additionally, the organic system worked extremely well, so why would anyone want to put synthetic chemicals into their hives? Mites are quickly developing resistance to the synthetics, as happens often, so their useful life is limited as it is," Underwood told EcoWatch.

Despite all the challenges facing bees and beekeepers, Underwood is optimistic about the future of bees globally.

"I think that bees and beekeepers are both resilient, so the future is bright. Researchers and beekeepers will both continue to adapt to changes as they come and will help the bees do the same," Underwood said.

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