A panel on bee research was convened at the recent meeting of the American Beekeeping Federation. Billed as what bee researchers want from beekeepers and vice versa, presentations from both points of view showed that a substantial divide exists between these groups.
Researchers are primarily driven by the demands of their discipline and the administrators they report to. The latter often require that scientists themselves acquire the substantial funding to carry out their activities from granting and/or commercial sources. As for the former, researchers are called on to publish in journals that are peer-reviewed and read by others in their field. They get little if any credit for publishing in lay magazines. The practical result of this is that a lot of research is not perceived as directly helping beekeepers. In addition, much of it continues to be published in places not readily accessible to the lay public.
Many beekeepers see scientists as employed to solve applied problems and publish the results in accessible trade journals. They often have little patience for research published in scientific journals, especially that which they perceive has little practical value. A good many researchers, on the other hand, view beekeepers as supplying little, if any, funding. As a consequence, they have little sympathy for what they often see as complaints by a cadre of folks who are not informed about what really is involved in bee research.
Unfortunately, this conflict sometimes leads to beekeepers becoming fed up with researchers, and vice versa. In the worst-case scenario beekeepers may accuse researchers of complacency, even complicity, in ignoring their needs. At the same time scientists can lose respect for beekeepers, who they perceive as ungrateful for research even when it does directly affect their livelihood. In response to this situation I wrote a piece called “The State of Bee Science.”
At the convention, several conclusions were reached. Quality research isn’t easy. It takes patience, time, money and adequate controls. In 1985, I wrote an essay about the latter issue with reference to tracheal mite control. In part it read, “…no experiment is worth much without a control, an untreated colony in the exact same state genetically, qualitatively (same stores, amount of brood) and infested to the same degree as the colony being treated. This provides the basis for comparison to show a material’s effectiveness. In bee research, developing effective control colonies is often the most difficult part of an experiment. This is true because to be shown to be generally effective under field conditions, experiments must usually be conducted on a large scale, involving a great number of both infested and control colonies.” Finally, any study must be repeatable by both the originator and others, resulting in the same conclusions, in order to be taken seriously by the scientific community.
Short courses designed with a research component may help beekeepers better understand what is involved in bee research. Perhaps the gold standard in this kind of training is the online beekeeping course, of the University of Montana’s School of Extended and Lifelong Learning (SELL).
The beekeeper-researcher debate will no doubt continue. Andy Nachbaur’s recent challenge to the Bee-L discussion list is one example. The following is his response to the legislative proposal that the National Honey Board (NHB) turn some of its efforts to bee research by further assessing honey:
“That is nice…and I can guarantee that all will be spent, and all will be back for more, as beekeeping research funding is the original black hole. If anyone can name 10 useful beekeeping tools, management schemes, PC software, or any other useful beekeeping advancement recognized and used by a bare majority of US beekeepers as being the product of so called ‘public funded beekeeping’ research in the last 20 or even 30 years I will do my best to match the $500,000 myself. I am sure all of this pie in the sky ‘beekeeping’ research money will end up replacing tax payer funded programs and I am for that but not if I have to replace it with my own limited funds after writing that big $500,000 check I am a little short.”
This quickly brought replies from several individuals who listed extender patties, artificial bee diets, swarm and pollen traps, and instrumental insemination syringes as being qualified. Though not a direct response to this challenge, Dr. Keith Delaplane, who was on the panel and also is extension apiculturist at the University of Georgia, has written three articles in Bee World [Vol. 77, No. 2, 1995, pp. 71-81 and Vol. 78 No. 1, pp. 5-11 and No. 4, pp. 155-164, 1996] which pertain to the issue. All are published under the same title “Practical Science — Research Helping Beekeepers.”
His first article focuses on tracheal mites. The history of the mite is given in some detail and reveals how both beekeepers and scientists pieced this complicated story together over time. He then discusses research in controlling these mites with menthol, formic acid and vegetable oil. Finally, he describes research contributions in controlling tracheal mites using colony manipulation and bee breeding.
In a second article, Dr. Delaplane discusses colony manipulations for honey production. These include studies confirming that 1) bigger populations are better, 2) bigger combs are better, 3) swarming reduces honey yield, 4) good queens stimulate honey production, and 5) empty comb and moderate crowding stimulate honey production. Of those, according to Dr. Delaplane, perhaps the most profound way this research has influenced beekeeping is a shift by beekeepers from tolerating swarming to discouraging the activity, and the realization that larger colonies are more efficient on a per-bee basis. Widespread implementation of these has resulted in larger honey crops.
Dr. Delaplane’s final article homes in on the one organism that has been most responsible for changing the face of Apis beekeeping worldwide, the parasitic bee mite Varroa jacobsoni. Although over 140 chemicals have been tested for Varroa control, he only examines five in detail. These include fluvalinate (Apistan®), flumethrin (Bayvarol®), bromopropylate (Folbex®), formic acid and aromatic or botanical extracts (Apilife VAR®). He also describes mite detection using ether roll, capping scratcher and bottom board inserts, and developments in determining proper thresholds for treating, the fundamental principle behind Integrated Pest Management or IPM
Finally, Dr. Delaplane describes manipulations to eliminate drone brood and efforts in bee breeding. He concludes: “The most notable accomplishments…are the discovery and development of effective bee-safe miticides, application methods for miticides, IPM-based recommendations that reduce chemical reliance, hive manipulations that reduce Varroa populations, and discovery of mechanisms of genetic mite resistance in A. mellifera.”
Another document that contributes to the subject at hand is this, which incorporates the efforts of the USDA’s honey bee research laboratories and other related organizations.
To be fair, many research accomplishments in beekeeping cannot be attributed to one person or organization. There is also a considerable body of study developed in other countries, funded by both beekeepers and governments.
Finally, Dr. Delaplane concludes the beekeeper must also be considered a full partner in much of the research that has been accomplished to date. “We can thank practical-minded beekeepers for inventing beekeeping equipment, working out basic beekeeping techniques, accumulating untold hours of natural observations, and identifying applied research needs. And we can thank generations of scientists who have pieced together bee biology, disease etiologies and treatments, parasitology, genetics and breeding. Clearly, the relationship between beekeepers and bee scientists is mutually beneficial. But it never hurts to remind ourselves how important that relationship is.”
Fortunately, it appears the tension between the groups noted above is lessening somewhat, given the new kinds of research initiatives that have appeared recently. Most significant is information being generated by contributor Randy Oliver and the efforts of Project Apis m, initiated primarily by the almond industry, which has a contemporary interest in and become a major force in the topic of honey bee health. This field is now attracting more scientists from outside the traditional apicultural area. Most notably is Plose One, a major open-access scientific journal, which has both the capability of searching for highlights as well as a full collections option.