It’s better to be an organic bee |

It’s better to be an organic bee

Last week, I wrote about the declining bee populations widely discussed in mainstream media. What has not been as widely reported is that organic colonies are not collapsing. The declining populations are primarily occurring when bees are highly bred, when hives are fumigated regularly to prevent mite infestations, and when food sources have been treated with pesticides.

In organic beekeeping, as in organic gardening, pesticides and chemicals are avoided. Hives are maintained in ways that simulate bee life in the wild. In organic gardening, holistic techniques are used to build plant health, because healthy plants can resist pests and diseases. The same is true in organic beekeeping for healthy bees.

In nonorganic beekeeping, queens are bred artificially, may have their wings clipped, and breed larger-than-normal bees susceptible to mite infestations. Queens are replaced more often than in nature. Instead of relying only on flower nectar and pollen for food, commercial bees are often fed corn syrup, sugar syrup or pollen substitute, often containing antibiotics.

Bees have delicate metabolisms, finely balanced between the alkalinity of their blood and the acidity of their digestive tracts. Alternative food sources may impact this balance and therefore impact bees’ resistance to pests and diseases.

In nonorganic beekeeping, hive construction also differs from natural hives. Plastic is used for the honeycomb to grow on. Comb cell diameter is larger than in natural hives. The hives are also painted with materials that can damage bees. Additionally, air and water pollution can negatively affect the bees. In commercial operations, bees are hauled hundreds of miles to provide pollination services. Anytime a hive is moved, it disrupts the hive for a day and stresses the bees.

In organic beekeeping, only bees adapted to specific sites and resistant to site pests and diseases are chosen to start hives. Artificial breeding is avoided. Diverse natural nectar and pollen sources are provided. Hives are made from natural materials, such as wood or metal. Plastic foundations can be used if they are dipped in organic beeswax and mounted in a wood frame. Natural-sized cells are used rather than large-sized cells. They can only be painted with non-lead-based paints. Bees are located away from chemically driven agriculture operations. Hives are left with reserves of honey and pollen after harvest. The bees are not killed each year after honey flows. Nontoxic techniques are used for controlling mites and diseases.

Some scientists equate the loss of bees as having as great a disaster potential as global warming. Perhaps the use of organic beekeeping methods can help sustain bee populations.

For more information, e-mail or call me at 887-2252. You can “Ask a Master Gardener” by e-mailing or call your local University of Nevada Cooperative Extension office. Check out many useful horticulture publications at

• JoAnne Skelly is the Carson City/Storey County Extension educator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.