As opposed to other kinds of production agriculture, it is often all but impossible to determine what might be limiting in beekeeping situations. For example, a soil analysis provides a good deal of information important to a crop manager. He/she can usually determine what is limiting and take corrective measures. The importance of this cannot be overemphasized. For no matter how much the system is altered by adding other components, it is the limiting factor that governs. This idea is often represented in what is known as the barrel stave analogy:
All staves of the barrel are required to keep plants growing. No matter what is done to lengthen the other staves in the barrel (soil moisture, solar radiation, insect infestation, etc.) increased growth will not occur until the nitrogen stave is in place. Once nitrogen fertilizer is put into the soil, plants will begin to grow. However, the amount of phosphorus then becomes limiting. And so it goes; the staves becoming longer or shorter depending on actions either imposed by the manager or the environment.
The ideal barrel in this analogy would be one with all the staves as even as possible in length. This balanced approach is what most managers strive for. Why put a lot of energy into reducing competition from weeds (the longest stave), for example, when the other staves are shorter? Many beekeepers strive for this in their management by attempting to equalize colony strength in an apiary. The allows them to do the same manipulations over a range of hives, consderving energy and time. Unfortunately for the beekeeper, many of the factors or barrel staves contributing to successful beekeeping are not well understood.
Several important factors have recently been introduced into beekeeping which add new, unknown dimensions to the system, including tracheal and Varroa mites, a new form of Nosema, the small hive beetle and the classic example of “colony collapse disorder.” With all the attention focused on these pests/predators, however, there is a real possibility that the beekeeper can be led astray. The assumption that any of these are the most limiting factors to bee production may not be true in all situations. Other staves of the beekeeping barrel in fact might be shorter so that no matter what influences are brought to bear on mite populations, increased production will be limited.
What the barrel stave analogy reveals is that focusing on only one aspect of honey bee management can be counterproductive. In the long run a balanced approach based on sound beekeeping practices developed over the years via adequate record keeping is by far the best way to optimize production.