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A new definition of bee health

When it comes to a definition of bee health, there are a lot of different opinions. Some are very reductive: It’s only varroa you have to look at! Pesticides alone are ruining our colonies’ health! Well, both of these things are important stressors to honey bee health. I’ve written quite a bit about both of them on this blog. But declaring them as the one and only factors that affect honey bee health… no.

Those of you following this blog for a little bit longer know that I don’t like oversimplifying. Health – be it human health or bee health – is a complex topic. Biological systems generally aren’t black or white. So, how would I define bee health?

First of all, defining the species I’m talking about. The health of which of the 20,000 bee species? Or which of the seven bee families in which these are grouped? Social or solitary bees or anything in between?

First step: defining what we’re talking about

For simplicity’s sake, let’s stick to managed honey bees for now. These are – most often – the species Apis mellifera, the Western honey bee. When we read about bee health or hear people talking about it, it’s mostly them who are referred to. So, this is one possible definition of bee health.

Western honey bees are social insects, they live in colonies. This is important for their health for two reasons:

  1. We have to look at the whole colony. That’s the individual. A certain number of dead workers may be very sad, but the whole colony may come over it without any issues.
  2. This is because the superorganism (as I explained last time), buffers a lot of stressors. The colony is very flexible. If many foragers die, younger bees who would be taking care of in-hive tasks take over. Very old bees can come back to nursing the brood.

However, this flexibility isn’t infinite. You can’t push the limits forever. As a responsible beekeeper, it’s better to find ways to support your colonies to resist stressors. Because it’s not about IF they come, only WHEN they come. And if these stressors break the camel’s back or if your colonies continue to do their thing.

Second step: developing good practices

Do you notice that I didn’t talk about diseases yet? There are again two reasons for that:

  1. Health is more than the absence of diseases. A colony can still be healthy with some varroa mites in it. If it’s not, it doesn’t depend only on the number of mites, but also on the nutritional state of the colony, the virus load, the management, etc. Instead of varroa you could also say American Foulbrood, or Nosema. Again: Health is more than the absence of diseases.
  2.  The consequence of this is that you should take a step back and – again – look at the colony as whole to see if there are any small issues you can take care of. To help them to resist the other stressors that might not be fully under your control.

Good practices, therefore, are crucial. They can slightly differ depending where you live. But every beekeeper is responsible for protecting their colonies against potentially deadly diseases and make sure that they don’t starve.

Parentesis: Why good practices are important for a definition of bee health

I was shocked checking the survey results from the Bee Informed Partnership. It was quite hyped in the media because of the very high colony losses in the survey period. An overall loss of 48.2% from April 2022 through April 2023. Yes, shocking.

But to be honest: I was more shocked when looking at the reasons for these losses. Around 20% of the backyard beekeepers, between 20-40% of the sideline beekeepers, and about 10% of the commercial beekeepers indicated starvation as a reason for winter losses. Sideline and commercial beekeepers didn’t participate as eagerly to the survey as backyard beekeepers, so we have to take these numbers with a grain of salt.

Anyways: WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU GUYS DOING? (Sorry for shouting…) Starvation over winter most probably means that the beekeeper didn’t feed the colonies enough after the honey harvest.

To make this clear: honey bees don’t make honey for us. It’s their storage for winter and other times with little resources. If you take it away, i.e. harvest the honey, you have to replace that. Otherwise they starve and may die. We don’t need to talk about diseases if this very foundation of beekeeping isn’t clear.  

Third step: Set up a health management routine

My definition of bee health may be: A healthy colony develops according to the resources it has and is able to resist stressors. For good practices this means: Helping the colonies to do that. The management is totally under a beekeeper’s control and good practices will have a much larger effect on colony health than stressors that aren’t under their control.

I already mentioned that replacing the honey you harvest to prevent starving colonies over winter. The second thing is choosing a good site for the apiary. Where they have enough pollen sources, especially in late summer and in spring. Then, there’s the varroa treatment. Yes, that’s an essential part. It’s the potentially deadly disease you protect your colonies from. These things are universal.

Some details may depend on the conditions you live in. A good site, for instance, in Canada or Scandinavia looks different than in Sicily or even more the Arabic Emirates. The former will have to chose the site avoiding cold and humidity. The latter will have to protect their colonies from the heat. Some diseases are an issue in some parts of the world but not in others. Etc.

Forth and last step: Never stop learning

Though my definition of bee health is vague enough to be universal, you will have to define the practical steps yourself. You have to know your basics of bee health to know how to develop your health management routine. And it’s good to know your animal, too. There are some things that are true everywhere, those are based on honey bee biology. You have to respect those first.

Then, there are the basics of good practices, what a good apiary looks like, what main diseases are there, what are smaller stressors that nonetheless could make a difference? Or even be the straw that breaks the camel’s back?

For all this, you need a good knowledge foundation. It will also protect you from all that scam floating around. It’s not easy, it needs effort. But if you put your animal first (i.e. honey bee colonies), then you will have productive colonies. With some losses, because life always has an end. But not those 48.2% from the report I talked about above.

To help you with that, I launched the BeeSafe Academy. But there are also other good resources out there, if you don’t want to do it with my eBooks and courses. If you want to take your first steps with me on this journey, there’s the Bee Health Compendium I wrote to give you this solid foundation. Do as you please, I just want you to keep healthy honey bee colonies. If you have any comments or questions, just leave them down below!

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