1987 was a pivotal year in U.S. beekeeping. Introduction of the Varroa mite in October sent a shock wave through the beekeeping community that reverberates to this day. It has meant changes in management practices, increases in operating expenses and losses of many honey bee colonies. Paradoxically, it has also ushered in renewed opportunities for beekeepers in the pollination area, as growers and others noticed reduced numbers of honey bee pollinators in the environment. So far, only anecdotal information and “guesstimates” have been made about the full impact of Varroa on unmanaged honey bee populations. Given the dynamics of the situation, we probably will never know the full story.
It is clear that a new kind of honey bee management is emerging from the parasitizing effects of the Varroa bee mite. Two kinds of beekeepers can now be identified; those with experience “before Varroa,” and those who began apiculture “after Varroa.” Persons in the latter category cannot appreciate the relative laissez-faire beekeeping possible in the past. This state of affairs is also being reflected in the bees themselves. No longer able to exist in large numbers in the wild, these insects are being pushed toward a greater reliance on humans that can only be called “domestication.”
According to Dr. D.F. Morey, “Some time in the past 12,000 or so years, most of humankind began to experience a profound shift in life style. Stone Age hunters and gatherers of wild foodstuffs started to cultivate plants and raise animals for their own use.” (The Early Evolution of the Domestic Dog, American Scientist:82, Jul-Aug, 1994, pp. 336-347). Given the role of animal and plant domestication in human welfare, Dr. Morey says, there is no surprise to find argument about what it really is, how it originated and why. There are two theories on the subject: 1) domestication was a rational decision by people to raise, cultivate and manipulate organisms, or 2) domestication was the consequence of evolutionary change in physiology (processes) and morphology (structure) by organisms in response to a new ecological niche–association with humans.
Dr. Morey concludes that the former of the above questions is flawed because it focuses on the human role in the process. An evolutionary model, he says, is more scientific and would include not only morphological, but behavioral changes not necessarily the result of human action. The major problem, Dr. Morey concludes, is that we cannot get into an early human’s brain to figure out what was being thought at the time.
The dog is likely the first domestic animal Dr. Morey says and provides some insight into how it indeed has changed to adapt to living with humans. A range of other animals along with their time of domestication is published in a chart accompanying Dr. Morey’s article. Significantly, no insect appears. Two possible candidates would be the silk worm and honey bee. Most beekeepers know the history of the latter, a creature that historically resisted domestication at every turn and to which humans had to adapt. As far as we know, few changes occurred in either honey bee structure or behavior to accommodate to humans similar to those in the domestic dog. This is in spite of the fact that both organisms have been associated with humans for almost as long.
The coming of Varroa, however, may signal an end to the historic independence of honey bees from humans. Wild colonies are declining and managed ones need beekeepers far more than ever before to survive the devastating effects of the mite. And unlike with early humans domesticating the dog, we can determine intent. Beekeepers could simply let all colonies infested with Varroa go without treatment. It would take a great many years, but in the end a mite-resistant or -tolerant bee would emerge. Instead, humans keep honey bee colonies alive by chemical intervention because they are valuable to us for a number of reasons, a clear case of willful domestication.
MORE ON DOMESTICATION
Jennie Bester (Jbester@idpr1.agric.za) in Zambia quotes from a book, Domesticated Animals from Early Times by Juliet Clutton- Brock, published by British Museum (Natural History), London and William Heinemann Ltd., 10 Upper Grosvenor Street, London W1X9PA in 1981, concerning the criteria for domestication. She said these were proposed by Francis Galton about 1865 and are still used today by archeozoologists. Candidate organisms should:
1. Be hardy, requiring minimum care.
2. Have an inborn liking for humans; be a social animal whose behavioral patterns are based on a dominance hierarchy so that it will accept man as the leader, and will remain imprinted on him in adult life.
3. Be comfort-loving and not be adapted for instant flight as are, for example, many members of the antelope, gazelle and deer families. These animals will not feed or breed readily if constrained in a pen or herded too close together.
4. Be found useful.
5. Breed freely, a necessary factor for successful domestication, as can be seen from the difficulty of maintaining breeding colonies of many species in zoos, even under the most favorable conditions.
6. Be easy to tend.
The honey bee fits some of the above points, but not two and three. These would really be a stretch. So in the end the honey bee may not qualify, as Ms. Bester further quotes Galton: “A man irritates a dog by an ordinary laugh, he frightens him by an angry look, or he calms him by a kindly bearing; but he has less spontaneous hold over an ox or a sheep. He must study their ways and tutor his behavior before he can understand the feeling of those animals or make his own intelligible to them. He has no natural power at all over many other creatures. Who for instance, ever succeeded in frowning away a mosquito, or in pacifying an angry wasp by a smile.” Perhaps, Ms. Bester concludes, the honey bee is merely an endangered species dependent on humans for its survival.