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10 February 2009

Top 10 concerns about Live Honey Bee Removal

I recently received this email, and thought I'd share my thoughts:

I wanted to know whats the incentive for someone to call you to do a live removal instead of exterminating a beehive, if any.

There are people who are very concerned about honey bees and would rather pay a higher fee to have them relocated to one of our apiaries, or a fellow beekeeper's apiary. They have an emotional stake in the health of honey bees. It's necessary to charge a higher fee to do live removals because it takes more time to do a successful removal, plus, the stinging risk is elevated, as the bees can get defensive. (They usually don't take kindly to me relocating them). Most people tend to belittle the stinging risk, but for us at ALLFloridaBeeRemoval, it's not taken lightly. Collectively, we respond to over 10,000 nuisance bee calls a year in the state of Florida. We have seen bees so mean that they leave thousands of stingers in our bee suits, with some of the stings hitting home! Bees hit my helmet so hard that it sounds like a popcorn popper going full tilt. Our first priority is to minimize to the sting risk to nearby humans & pets. I can assure you that a catastrophic sting risk is real with some bee colonies, and it concerns us greatly. Add the increasing numbers of the African subspecies and you might see how we run a significant liability every day. This is our livelihood, and we take it very seriously.

I think there is a commonly held belief that honey bees are normally gentle and put away mass amounts of honey. Gentle honey bees are gentle, only because humans have made them that way. Thousands of years of selecting for traits such as gentleness, putting away copious amounts of honey, building up populations in early spring & low swarming rates have made managed bees, (those in our white bee hive boxes), the gentle insect that we love. Historically, this selection process involves harsh methods.For example, Say we go back a few thousand years ago and look at a Roman Beekeeper. If a Roman bee colony in Naples happened to turn mean, and stung the beekeeper excessively, it would be exterminated. If a colony did not put away much honey, it was exterminated. Over time, this genetic manipulation has given us a subspecies (Apis mellifera ligustica ), well known and widely used in beekeeping for its gentle, honey productive traits.

In Florida at least, Italian honey bee colonies left unmanaged will usually produce daughter colonies that are hybrid. These feral (wild) colonies, and subsequent daughter colonies usually start exhibiting traits that are not necessarily suitable for beekeeping. Their temperament can be quite variable, with some "hot as fire". Would you want a dog that bit you every time you fed or pet it? Probably not. Same with bees. And many feral colonies put away only small amounts of honey. Again, that kind of defeats the purpose of most beekeepers, where honey production is an important part of the process.

I like to call these feral colonies "mutts", we never know what we'll get. When people tell me they want to give me a 'free' colony, I just need to come cut it out of their house, I like to use an analogy. Suppose you are a sled dog racer, and someone wants to give you a "free" sled dog. All you have to do is spend several hours removing it from an underground pipe it fell in. (hey I'm trying here). So, you drive an hour to get to the place, use tools, supplies and several hours getting the dog out and sealing up the hole so other dogs can't get back in. Oh yeah, you have to pay a few thousand dollars a year for insurance and 'dog removal' licensing fees too.. You get the dog home, feed it, pay the vet bill, and then realize that this Chiuaua just isn't able to pull it's share of the sled. Yeah, some mutts aren't good for sledding, and some bee 'mutts' don't put away much honey, or are plain mean. What am I as a beekeeper supposed to do then?

Well, you may have heard of requeening the colony. This is the directive that the State Dept. of Agriculture wants us to do, because of the increasing proportion of African honey bees in Florida. This involves killing the existing 'mutt' queen and inserting a purchased queen of known and desired genetics.Within a couple months, as the new generation cycles in, you'll have a colony that is gentle, puts away honey and life is good. Of course, as with most things, it's not this simple, but can be done, although we are finding that more feral colonies in Florida don't accept queens as readily as they used to. And if I'm spending $12-$20 a queen, it gets pretty old feeding queens to some mutt bees. But even if you are successful, here's the disingenuous kicker that noone tells you. When you requeen, you have just exterminated that mutt colony. yeah, Killed it dead as a doornail. All that effort to save that colony is down the drain. The genetics live (and die) with the queen. She is a true queen mother, with all the other colony members being her daughters or sons. When you kill her, and insert a new queen, assuming the workers will accept her, all new emergent workers are her daughters, carrying the genetics that have been manipulated by a queen breeder somewhere. It's even possible that she's been artificially inseminated with known sperm from a drone. (In the wild, queens mate with 15-20 or so males in a night or two of unbridled bee passion, producing a nice diversified 'family".. single-mated queens lack this diversified production capability).

So, we probably have beekeepers that are not requeening, in the name of genetic preservation. That's all fine and great, but eventually, as African bees overtake the feral bee populations throughout the state, incidents will occur. All one has to do is check the experiences of beekeepers in the Southwest US, after the African bee entered Texas in 1990. Some beekeepers were convinced they could handle the hybridization, and continued to collect feral colonies and open-mate their queens. African bees are nearly indistinguishable from Europeans, even to experienced beekeepers and entomologists such as myself. Well, stinging incidents occurred, lawsuits & settlements ensued, insurance coverage was dropped. And now most beekeepers are very careful, declining to perform live removals, requeening every 6 months and increasing bee-yard set offs. Similar occurrences will happen here in Florida, and with our state's greater human population density, I wouldn't doubt we experience even greater numbers of attacks. I myself will cease to perform live removals, sometime in the future. As it is now, I don't do live work south of Orange County.

So, I guess the take-home message about live removals, is that its a complicated mess. The risk, the added expense and the uncertainty make it a dying endeavor here in Florida.

I know Bee Keepers are wondering where they have all gone.

Don't believe what you read, even my stuff. Do some research. You'll find that what the media has told you about the dissapearing bees, and things like the human race going extinct because of honey bee problems are greatly exaggerated.

Here's some scoop. Commercial Bee Keeper David Hackenburg first reported problems about 3 years ago. He had a massive disappearance event in his overwintering operation in Dade City. Since then some beekeepers have suffered entire losses, some none, and a gradient in between. The actual percentage of mortality nationwide has risen from about 25% annually to about 33% annually. Yes, cause for concern, but not catastrophic. We've been dealing with imported, invasive pests, and the higher mortality they bring, for about 20 years. And the interesting thing, is that our feral populations ( In Fla )during this time have been doing very well, and increasing in numbers if one is to trust our numbers. (Probably due to increasing #'s of Africans here in Fla) So, this loss ( Colony Collapse Disorder ) apparently is limited to managed colonies, not feral populations. Research has started and is ongoing, Beekeepers are paying more attention to their colonies, and it appears that we may have emerged through this past winter with a reduction in overwintering mortality. Too early to tell, but I'm crossing my fingers.

Extermination can't be good for the environment if the hive is indeed European Honey Bees, right? Thanks in advance for your time.

Like I mentioned above, our feral population of bees is doing very, very well, so exterminating pest bees in/around structures, yards etc, does not threaten the numbers of wild bees. Determining whether a colony is European or African takes time & money, both of which are in short order these days, and when the risk of stinging is present because of a feral colony near humans or domestic animals. Currently we are seeing some very mean feral bees and we will see increasing numbers of incidents between feral bees and humans/domestic animals in the near future.I'll attempt live removals, but only if safety, colony health, local African bee proportion are within safe limits. While it's sad on an emotional level to kill a colony, ( I know!), protecting the safety of humans has to take precedence.

I hope this helps to answer your questions.

Richard Martyniak

yeah, I didn't make a top 10 list, sorry.