November 18, 2009
By Makenna Goodman
Beekeeping is rising in popularity — from urban rooftops to backyard hives, the world is abuzz with interest in homemade honey. And who better to comment on the nature of bees than the former president of the Vermont Beekeepers Association, Ross Conrad. He’s led bee-related presentations and taught organic beekeeping workshops and classes throughout North America for many years, and Conrad’s small beekeeping business supplies friends, neighbors, and local stores with honey and candles among other bee related products, not to mention provides bees for Vermont apple pollination in spring. I talked to Conrad about organic beekeeping, the state of pollination, and tips for aspiring bee farmers.
Makenna Goodman: Your book, Natural Beekeeping: Organic Approaches to Modern Apiculture, offers up a program of natural beehive management, and an alternative to conventional chemical-based approaches. So — why organic beekeeping?
Ross Conrad: History has shown us that the industrialized “economy of scale” approach does not work when applied to agriculture because we are dealing with living biological systems, not an inert assembly line food production system where the economy of scale approach can be applied across the board. One of the biggest issues is the large number of chemical contaminants that are being found in beeswax and pollen, often at very high concentrations. Toxic chemical contamination has been implicated in Colony Collapse and the reality is that there is no effective regulation of chemicals in Western society. Let me tell you why:
When the EPA was created in 1970 and sanctioned with the task of regulating chemicals, all the chemicals that were already used in commerce up to that time were grandfathered in. Additionally, since the EPA is given very limited personnel and financial resources, the agency ends up relying on the chemical manufacturers for the majority of the scientific data that is used to evaluate the safety of the regulated toxins…a serious conflict of interest. When chemicals are evaluated for toxicity, they are studied in isolation. Little thought is given to the chemical’s break down products which can prove to be more toxic and longer lasting than the original chemical itself, such as in the case of Imidacloprid Olefin, which is produced as the neonicotinoid, Imidacloprid degrades. Once in use and released into the environment, chemicals, and their breakdown products, will combine with other chemicals already in the environment to form new compounds. The synergistic effects of some of these combinations have proven themselves to be hundreds of times more toxic than either compound on its own.
Recent research into endocrine-disrupting chemicals (the kind often used as pesticides), reveals that the timing of exposure combines with the amount of exposure to produce a chemical’s effect. Thus, a certain dose might be very toxic to an organism in its developmental stage, while not having any obvious detrimental affects on the organism once it has matures, or vice-verse. To make matters worse, in some cases low doses of a chemical can be more damaging than higher doses. These new understandings of chemical toxicity have proven wrong Paracelsus’s 450-year-old maxim, “The dose makes the poison.” Today we know that often the timing can make the poison and that sometimes less is actually worse.
Add to this the many studies that now show that a cocktail of “insignificant” doses of several chemicals each acting on their own can combine to have significant results. In other words, exposure to very low concentrations of several chemicals at the same time can cause biological effects that none of the chemicals would have on their own. Thus when an living organism is exposed to a mixture of chemicals, every component contributes to the overall effect, no matter how minute their concentration. The only sane answer to our ignorance in the use of these toxic compounds is to stop using these chemicals, not only in our hives, but in our everyday lives. Thus, organic beekeeping came into being in just the last 20 years as a response to the fact that chemical use in bee hives has became the common way to try to control Varroa mites. Organic beekeeping is not only possible, but necessary.