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OCA's Save the Bees Campaign

Organic Bees Are Thriving While Pesticide Intensive Conventional Bee Hive Colonies Are Collapsing

Colony Collapse Disorder in domestic honey bees is all the buzz lately, mostly because honey bees pollinate food crops for humans.

However, we would not be so dependent on commercial non-native factory farmed honey bees if we were not killing off native pollinators. Organic agriculture does not use chemicals or crops toxic to bees and, done properly, preserves wildlife habitat in the vicinity, recognizing the intimate relationship between cultivated fields and natural areas.

While no one is certain why honey bee colonies are collapsing, factory farmed honey bees are more susceptible to stress from environmental sources than organic or feral honey bees. Most people think beekeeping is all natural but in commercial operations the bees are treated much like livestock on factory farms.

I'm on an organic beekeeping email list of about 1,000 people, mostly Americans, and no one in the organic beekeeping world, including commercial beekeepers, is reporting colony collapse on this list. The problem with commercial operations is pesticides used in hives to fumigate for varroa mites and antibiotics are fed to the bees to prevent disease. Hives are hauled long distances by truck, often several times during the growing season, to provide pollination services to industrial agriculture crops, which further stresses the colonies and exposes them to agricultural pesticides and GMOs.

Bees have been bred for the past 100 years to be much larger than they would be if left to their own devices. If you find a feral honeybee colony in a tree, for example, the cells bees use for egg-laying will be about 4.9 mm wide. This is the size they want to build ­ the natural size.

The foundation wax that beekeepers buy have cells that are 5.4 mm wide so eggs laid in these cells produce much bigger bees. It's the same factory farm mentality we've used to produce other livestock ­ bigger is better. But the bigger bees do not fare as well as natural-size bees.

Varroa mites, a relatively new problem in North America, will multiply and gradually weaken a colony of large bees so that it dies within a few years. Mites enter a cell containing larvae just before the cell is capped over with wax. While the cell is capped, the bee transforms into an adult and varroa mites breed and multiply while feeding on the larvae.

The larvae of natural bees spend less time in this capped over stage, resulting in a significant decrease in the number of varroa mites produced. In fact, very low levels of mites are tolerated by the bees and do not affect the health of the colony. Natural-size bees, unlike large bees, detect the presence of varroa mites in capped over cells and can be observed chewing off the wax cap and killing the mites. Colonies of natural-size bees are healthier in the absence mites, which are vectors for many diseases.

It's now possible to buy small cell foundation from US suppliers, but most beekeepers in Canada have either never heard of small cell beekeeping, aren't willing to put the effort into changing or are skeptical of the benefits. This alternative is not promoted at all by the Canadian Honey Council, an organization representing the beekeeping industry, which even tells its members on their website that, "The limitations to disease control mean that losses can be high for organic beekeepers." [ref link]

Organic beekeeping, as defined by certification agencies, allows the use of less toxic chemicals. It's more an IPM approach to beekeeping than organic.

Commercial beekeeping today is just another cog in the wheel of industrial agriculture ­ necessary because pesticides and habitat loss are killing native pollinators, and vast tracks of monoculture crops aren't integrated into the natural landscape.

In an organic Canada, native pollinators would flourish and small diversified farms would keep their own natural bees for pollination and local honey sales.

The factory farm aspects of beekeeping, combined with an onslaught of negative environmental factors, puts enough stress on the colonies that they are more susceptible to dying out.

Some small cell beekeeping resources::

Organic Beekeeper list

Michael Bush's site:


Sharon Labchuk
Earth Action (and organic beekeeper)


Sharon Labchuk is a longtime environmental activist and part-time organic beekeeper from Prince Edward Island. She has twice run for national Parliament, making a strong showings around 5% for Canada's fledgling Green Party. She is leader of the provincial wing of the party.