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  • Writer's pictureDave Black

The Dangerous Questions

We often turn to science and new research to solve problems of bee health, but some academics are questioning whether purely scientific solutions are possible. Instead, they highlight the wider economic and sociological environment surrounding bees and beekeepers as the real barrier to improved honey bee health. Our resident science writer Dave Black looks at the problem from a New Zealand perspective and highlights some important but “dangerous” questions for the conduct of our research industry…

By Dave Black

For years, beekeepers have become accustomed to every news item or research article about ‘bees’ (unspecified) beginning with some encomium that at once describes their value, justifies the article, and mourns their current status. While beekeeping gets more difficult, and economic and regulatory pressures on apiarists grow, it must be said, the sector mostly expands and even makes money. ‘Bee-mageddon’ hasn’t happened. We point to a need for ‘clicks’ or a research grant to justify the pessimism and skip quickly to the next paragraph. While dreary, and firmly focused on the global north, these introductions are not all wrong though. Bees do seem beset on all sides by pests, pesticides, and diseases: malnutrition, and so on, problems that despite decades of scientific study collectively seem worse rather than better.

While New Zealand has far less “industrial agriculture” than some other countries, monocultures and beehive density as is created by kiwifruit orchards – such as this – are undoubtably contributing to issues of pollinator health.

This continual crisis in bee health has led some academics to apply a new perspective for trying to understand the complex web of problems at play, and to express doubt about whether there are purely scientific or technical solutions at all. The argument being made, most recently by American entomologist Maggie Shanahan in February’s Journal of Insect Science[1], is that we have failed to acknowledge that, in the real world, biology, entomology, or ecology are inextricably bound to economics, politics, and ideological assessments. We haven’t been asking the big questions.

To illustrate what she means, Shanahan expands on the cliché we’ve all heard comparing the honey bee to the coalminer’s canary. She writes;

“…if the honey bee is the canary, a narrow framing leads us to focus on the health of the bird instead of its surroundings. We see the canary, we know it is unwell, but instead of evacuating the coalmine and bringing the bird up to the surface for the fresh air that it needs, we scientists are setting up a more permanent camp inside the mine, hooking the canary up to oxygen, running diagnostic tests, supplementing the canary’s diet to elevate its hemoglobin (sic) levels, and initiating a program to develop a canary that can survive on CO2. Our efforts may allow the canary to live a little longer, but focusing solely on individual aspects of canary health actually keeps us from asking more fundamental questions: Why are we keeping canaries in coalmines in the first place? Why are we still building coal mines at all?

Maggie Shanahan’s depiction of the negative influencers of hive health. How many apply in New Zealand and is our research adequate to overcome them?, asks Dave Black.

Status-quo and beekeepers’ powerless existence

This reluctance to address the root cause(s) of the conditions that put honey bees at risk is a consequence of our collective commercial dependence on continuing to operate as things are, and the enormous fragmentation that makes complex modern activities work. Yes, I am thinking about my kiwifruit pollination.

Keeping bees has always been an unstable, seasonal occupation. Beekeepers do not control access to the raw materials required for their hive products and over the years have lost access to bee forage for economic and political reasons, because of habitat change and various forms of agricultural pollution, or simply because of the scale they operate on. Faced with having to deal with consolidating global markets and supply chains, beekeepers had little choice other than to adapt as best they could. Commercial beekeepers either shifted their business model to specialise or upscale particular aspects of husbandry or honey production (bee breeding for instance) or reduced their risk away from honey crops to the theoretically less precarious income from pollination fees. In comparison to owners of land and capital, beekeepers lead a powerless existence.

For the ecologists and sociologists looking on, this helplessness explains beekeepers oddly ambivalent approach to science. On the one hand we say we need more answers, more ‘scientific beekeeping’, but engage only sporadically with registers, surveys, and trials, and on the other hand the expressions ‘all beekeeping is local…’ and ‘if it works for you…’ are trump cards in discussions about good practice.

In 2021, 4232 beekeepers (from 9891 registered ‘enterprises’, 43%) responded to the NZ Manaaki Whenua annual colony loss survey, and in past years it’s generally run at about 30-35%. Only about 50% of the largest commercial outfits took part last year. The same survey in 2020 recorded that only 13% of beekeepers listed scientific resources in their top three sources of information. Only in the very largest operations was it more than half. We demand science, then either don’t believe it or don’t use it. The argument is that the focus on scientific solutions merely allows a feeling of optimism and control, of agency in pursuit of a ‘solution’, when the real solution is far beyond our grasp. Our collective inability to deal with AFB does not arise because we don’t understand the biology, it’s because we don’t understand the sociology.

In her published article in the Journal of Insect Science, American entomologist Maggie Shanahan outlines how she sees bee scientists currently posing research questions and how they could be reframed to help get to the root of the problem.

A failure of the funding model?

A focus on bee biology and beekeeping practice avoids difficult questions about our role as both enabler and victim of the agricultural model we benefit from. Oddly, waiting for the science to save us is a form of denialism.[2]

Scientists usually focus on the minutiae, and not just to cope with the complexity of the questions they try to answer. A researcher can spend their entire career studying a single organism or process. It’s also because that’s how their work is paid for, rather than an altruistic act of discovery, the pursuit is now directed problem solving. For example, Sustainable Food and Fibre (SFF) Futures funding looks to co-fund economic innovation for New Zealand. The Agricultural and Marketing Research and Development Trust (AGMARDT), who currently contribute to AFB phage research, similarly look for opportunities to cooperate with, and contribute to, the growth and performance of agricultural, horticultural, and forestry industries.

As a provider of the science we ask for, looking at the big picture Shanahan suggests some “dangerous” questions to deal with.

“… if ‘saving the honey bee’ is less about drilling down on honey bee biology and behavior,(sic) and more about food system transformation, then what is the role of honey bee research? Does it have a significant role? What if the answer is no, not really… if honey bee researchers present a critique of the pre­dominant agricultural system in the United States – the system that currently supports so much of our research – then what happens to our funding..? If we speak openly about the negative im­pacts of industrial agriculture, will we alienate the people that work within that system..?”[3]

Dave Black is a Bay of Plenty based hobbyist beekeeper who now works in the kiwifruit industry. He has a degree in Environmental Science and for the past 25 years he has been reading and writing about bees and beekeeping. His essays are available at

[1] Maggie Shanahan, Honey Bees and Industrial Agriculture: What Researchers are Missing, and Why it’s a Problem. Journal of Insect Science, (2022) 22(1): 14; 1–8 [2] Laurent Cilia, 'We don’t know much about Bees!’ Techno-Optimism, Techno-Scepticism, and Denial in the American large-scale Beekeeping Industry. Sociologia Ruralis, Vol 60, Number 1, November 2019 DOI: 10.1111/soru.12280 [3] Shanahan, ibid.

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Jul 11, 2022

Science is always looking for that magic bullet that is going to replace good Bee Husbandry and make someone a lot of money. Rather than constantly striving to move forward, further industrialising stuff and looking for the easy way out, we need to be taking steps back to the old ways. Good education, good old bee husbandry, good old beekeeping practices. That's where the answers lie, in good old fashioned beekeeping practices and some honest hard work.

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