Darwinian Beekeeping. Is. Not. Darwinian.

I was the kind of kid who holed up under the bunkbed on sunny summer afternoons, lost in a book. Books took me far beyond the pleasant bounds of my small town, and in their pages I took inspirational journeys across time and space.

One of my favourite trips, one I took again and again, was with the young Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle. And years later I fell in love with his fictional doppelganger, the blue-bespectacled Dr. Maturin, of Patrick O’Brian’s luminous Master and Commander series.

They were scientists. Adventurers. Discoverers. There, I thought, is a life worth living. And I gravitated to beekeeping, which contains all those admirable elements.

But I digress.

Darwinian beekeeping is a hot phrase right now in the beekeeping world. It derives from an article published in the American Bee Journal by Dr. Tom Seeley. The famous quote from the article is Dr. Seeley’s statement:

“As someone who has devoted his scientific career to investigating the marvelous inner workings of honey bee colonies, it saddens me to see how profoundly -and ever increasingly- conventional beekeeping disrupts and endangers the lives of colonies.”

I am deeply sorry that Dr. Seeley lumped all us beekeepers into one hot mess: thoughtless, profit-driven madmen/women who ruthlessly exploit the hardworking honey bee with no thought to bee health or sustainability. And there was no sharing of the blame for the desperate plight of the honey bee. Nope, it’s all on the beekeepers….all beekeepers.

Dr. Seeley has written some admirable bee books, but there is a problem when highly respected figures give general and non-specific advice. I think Dr. Seeley is deeply concerned about the impacts of commercial beekeeping practice on the bees. But out in the world, his suggestions as to practice are being taken up by small-holding beekeepers.

What constitutes Darwinian Beekeeping? For those among us who snoozed through high school Biology class, Dr. Seeley restates at length the mechanics of natural selection in evolution. He then presents a list of “things that have changed” for bees since people started keeping them, and another list of 10 items to promote “bee-friendly” apiculture. I don’t disagree with all 10 items, but I do resent the implication that anything deviating from his avuncular suggestions is bee-hostile.

No mention of: modern industrial agricultural practices, in particular mobile pollination, monocultures and agri-sprays; the effects of urbanization; degraded and diminished forage (which also affects native pollinator species); the infestation of the honey bee with pests and diseases that are new to them…often thanks to poorly executed research programs.

And, as with many advocates of “natural” beekeeping/”treatment free” beekeeping, there is a persistent use of language that implies beekeepers are careless of bee welfare: unimaginative, selfish dolts who routinely abuse their small charges for profit.

He then ends with a sweet abjuration to just try to do better by the bees: “..for you might find it more enjoyable than conventional beekeeping, especially if you are a small-scale beekeeper.  Everything is done with bee-friendly intentions and in ways that harmonize with the natural history of Apis mellifera.”

Including stern advice to kill all your Varroa-infested colonies.

Pity indeed the poor small-scale beekeepers…

Credit Flagler College.

…and their bees.

Ok, so that is what Dr. Seeley said. Glossing over the fact that he fails to define “conventional beekeeping”, and that a lot of beekeepers not only knock themselves out for their bees, but have already spent a lot of time thinking over these bee problems, and already do use many of the techniques/approaches he recommends, let’s look at what his “original” brainchild has grown into.

If you browse through the canon of those advocating Darwinian Beekeeping, you will generally find advice suggesting:

-rare inspections

-taking little or no honey regardless of biozone

-permitting free swarming

-no chemical treatment of Varroa (although some encourage the use of formic and oxalic acids, and a host of IPM practices, one of which [drone sacrifice] directly conflicts with Dr. Seeley’s list of 10 recommendations). Like Darwin said (or did he?), the strong survive!

-replacing queens of Varroa-infested colonies with Varroa resistant queen stock (presently non-existent or unavailable, but I digress once again…)

-alternate hive types

-spacing hives individually across the landscape, at least 50 yards apart but preferable a mile or two apart

I could now write a paragraph per point on why those points are variously impossible, impractical, ill-advised, and just generally not applicable to all situations and biozones…and I still might!…but instead I will just tell you why Darwinian beekeeping is not Darwinian.

Darwin and his colleague Wallace realized that every organism interacts with its environment. Some, for whatever reason, are able to exploit the resources of their environment better than others…and this gives them a reproductive advantage. If you live longer and in better health, you are likely to leave more offspring. Period.

Over eons of time, those altered genetics concentrate in the gene pool, but we have to also remember the gene pool is not static.

Random mutations occur in all gene pools, simple errors of transcription driven by a host of factors. Some result in organisms who can no longer thrive in their environment. Some neither help nor hinder. But some confer an advantage, and when that happens, the organisms with the advantage tend to leave behind more offspring, whose descendants have an increased chance of inheriting that advantage. The advantage, Darwin mused, made them more fit to exploit their environment.

Evolution, aka Darwinism, is a long, slow, random process fueled by incremental change.

At the heart of Darwinian beekeeping is that old dictum “survival of the fittest”. This has been adopted as the underpinning of the treatment free movement: stop treating bees and the strong will survive, leaving only the Varroa-proof bees as the genetic source of all future generations of bees.

Makes perfect sense, right? Darwin said that, and we all know how smart he was, right? And so that is what treatment free advocates tell us to do: let the “weak” bees die, then they will stop “polluting” the gene pool, and in short order, we will all have “strong” bees.

Again, people!…with defining our terms, but why don’t I agree with that very convincing stance?

Point One: Temporal Perspective

Everyone in this endless debate forgets one overriding reality: honey bees did very well, mostly all by themselves, for eons of wild existence and centuries of skep/pot/log beekeeping in the Old World, and for 500 years in the New World. They were productive, rewarding beekeepers with honey, wax, and new bees. They swarmed successfully (the swarms survived to next season…you didn’t even need to buy packages when I was a tad, you just put out empty hives and the spring swarms moved in). They were relatively healthy: with overwintering losses averaging 5%, lots of beekeepers had 0% winter loss, but nobody lost much more than 10% of their colonies over winter.

Sounds enviable, non? Sounds kind of like what we would all like to experience now! Hmmm.

If things were like that less than a century ago, heck, less than 50 years ago, what has changed?

Ah…what has changed is the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Bee Apocalypse (credit to Randy Oliver for that one): agri-sprays, degraded/diminished forage, Varroa mites and their viruses, mobile pollination.

We would not all be debating how to keep bees if those Four Horsemen had not ridden into town. There is nothing wrong with the bees. There is plenty wrong with the changes in the world around them.

Focus on changing those things.

Point Two: Natural Selection vs. Extinction

There is a big difference between evolution via natural selection and suddenly applying a big, catastrophic selective pressure.

You know, like introducing Varroa into bee stocks worldwide.

Case in point: dinosaurs. Unfortunately for dinosaurs, a gigantic asteroid slammed into their warm and wet world, causing quick climatic change. Their world cooled and changed so dramatically, their ecological niche disappeared (and allowed our niche to appear).

I am sure they would have loved to evolve rapidly, but it does not work that way. Dinosaurs of various sorts actually hung on for another 30,000 years or so. They had that long to shift their genome, but even 30,000 years was too short a time to rise to challenges that presented so quickly.

Compare this to what we are asking of the honey bee. We have piled stressor onto stressor in the last 80 years, principally the accidental introduction of the Varroa destructor mite into honey bee populations. The remedy Darwinian beekeeping is proposing is to let the bees who cannot tolerate Varroa die…all at once. And then the survivors will do fine.

<Pithy Anglo-Saxonisms here>

Putting aside how the survivors may not be able to support our food supply system (that old 30% of your plate thing), will they survive a meteoric change in their environment? Can we even afford to take that gamble? Can they?

That oft repeated mantra of the treatment free movement “if we had just stopped treating we wouldn’t be in the pickle we are today” is highly arguable.

On what evidence? Says who? Certainly not the dinosaurs.

I am always surprised that people who express deep concern over the fate of the southern resident Killer Whales, Monarch Butterflies, fireflies, Polar Bears, songbirds, pollinators and Condors, who quite passionately argue for preservation of biozones and habitats for the protection of species and biodiversity, will turn around and tell the honey bees to just “get with the program”.

How can we be conscious that many species (including perhaps our own…) simply cannot deal with rapid environmental change, yet remain convinced that honey bees can? And then demand they must?

Point Three: Selective Pressure and Inadvertent Selection

There is a very critical point that is missing from all these discussions: whatever selective pressure you apply (aka any treatment/mite control strategy you apply) will result in the mite genome shifting to overcome/work-around that pressure.

This is why the doctor tells you to take ALL your antibiotic course: s/he wants you to kill ALL the pathogens targeted, not just kill all the really susceptible ones but quit before you take down the tougher customers in the germ crowd. That only leave the tougher ones to survive…and over time and many rounds of incomplete treatment you end up with germs that are not longer responsive to the medication you are using.

Ditto for mites in bees.

You can do all kinds of things to foil the mites, but for the most part, the mite genome (which let us remember is extraordinarily nimble) will be shifted toward “that which is not impacted by the foiling”.

It will be the same with leaving bees to just deal with the mites. Many colonies will die, alas creating mite bombs in the process, and their mites will tend to die with them. But mites who weather the process of frequent swarming and establishment of small colonies will have a reproductive advantage and will prevail.

In that process, you may lose other qualities you want in your bees: productivity (increase and honey), effective pollination of crops, good temperament.

You may gain other qualities you do not want: mites that are impervious to IPM strategies, which preferentially infest worker brood, which continue to infest bees with disease, which drive increased drift rates.

If you experience a widely deleterious change in the bee/mite genomes as a result of applying a forceful selective pressure, and you cannot backtrack (in this case because of widespread loss of colonies = a big portion of the honey bee gene pool)…you may end up with less than what you started with.

So let’s be very careful about choosing strategies that may not be reversible.

Point Four: Alternate Solutions

One of my perennial frustrations with Dr. Seeley, Darwinian beekeepers, natural beekeepers and treatment free beekeepers, is the complete absence of consideration given to alternate solutions.

They frame their discussions and advice as if there is no alternative to letting the bees simply face the Varroa, to “let the strong survive”.

But there are many alternatives.

We can treat effectively with formic and oxalic acids. We can treat judiciously with Amitraz, the softest of the chemicals.

We can work with farmers to alter how commercial beekeeping is done, such that bees are not congregated annually (as they are in the big commercial orchards ie. almonds) to exchange pests and diseases, then moved all over the country to spread those things to local bees and pollinators.

We can keep commercial bees more carefully so they are not enduring, mobile reservoirs of the foulbroods, mites, and Small Hive Beetle.

We can be vigilant in controlling disease and pests, dropping their concentrations in any given area and with that, incidence of health issues in colonies.

We can commit to ethical beekeeping: keeping bees fed, treated, healthy, inspected, robust. And not moving sick/infested bees or running projects/research projects/survivor yards within the flight range of other, healthy apiaries. No matter how small.

We can look forward to current emerging solutions: vaccines for the foulbroods, bee gut microbiome supplements to foil Nosema and Varroa, new non-toxic Varroacides, gene editing to eradicate Varroa, antivirals, replanting to boost pollinator forage frequency, amount and quality, and supporting those small-scale beekeepers in keeping healthy, robust bees.

These are not speculations: all are currently in use or are in research trials.

Best of all, they are not gambles. This is no time for a desperate roll of the genetic dice. There are too many great things on the near horizon.

Hang in there. Keep your bees, keep them Varroa free and well.

But, keep them.


Further Reading

Highly recommended, the UK’s The Apiarist, which recently put up a very erudite and informative examination of Darwinian beekeeping. David plans a series on this topic.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Archie McLellan says:

    Thank you for such a well-thought and cogently-argued piece. Most of it took me to places I had read much about before: on what Darwinism really is, how it works, and the consequences, good and bad, for the participants.
    I don’t see a place to sign up to receiving an email when you post a new blog (something I’d like to do) – but perhaps I’ve missed it. I found you this time from your comment on David Evans post yesterday.


    1. Thanks Archie, David’s blog (The Apiarist) on this topic was wonderful…much more erudite than mine! I will look into a subscription widget.


      1. Archie McLellan says:

        Thanks Janet and sorry about my typo. Should of course have been: I had NOT read much about before.


  2. No worries, I figured that! I keep finding typos myself, no matter how often I go over the copy…


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