AIA and AHPA Meeting, Las Vegas, NV The Speedy Bee, February 1981
It’s early Spring, 1990. Southern beekeeper Jack Johnson moves through his apiary cautiously, purposefully avoiding colony No.10 until the very last. So far, his first yearly inspection results had not been good. The one winter kill, a case of starvation, was normal, and only two had succumbed because of pesticide damage the latter part of last fall. Another, however, was the victim of the Asiatic mite, Varroa jacobsoni. He knew this because of the residue of dead mites on the screen-covered paper, placed on bottom board last October, specifically to survey for those eight-legged critters.
Another pest, Acarapis woodi, the so-called acarine mite, signaled the demise of two more colonies. This was later confirmed by investigating the largest of the tiny breathing tubes of the bees (pro-thoracic tracheae) using a high-powered microscope and finding them choked with mites.
At last, Jack Johnson found himself at colony No. 10. He vigorously squeezed the smoker bellows and puffed several clouds of the dense, pungent stuff at the hive entrance. This was by far more smoke than he’d used on any of the other colonies. Carefully, he cracked the top cover while blowing more smoke, obscuring his hive tool. It didn’t help. The hive exploded in a frenzy of insects. Johnson calmly retreated into some nearby brush to let the furor calm a bit. Mentally, he congratulated himself for being so well prepared. He was fully clothed in a bee-tight suit with heavy duty gloves and veil — a unlikely Gulliver whom the bees battered like so many Lilliputians.
Beekeeping was certainly no longer the same as it had been, Jack Johnson mused, reflecting on the banana-like odor of the enraged bees’ defense pheromone. Not like back in the early 1980s, before the traditional bee diseases: American foulbrood, European foulbrood an chalkbrood had been augmented both the external (Varroa) and internal (Acarapis) mites that now plagued the bees, and before the invasion of the explosively defensive Africanized honey bees that off and on now appeared in less-than-careful beekeepers’ apiaries. It was also before the glut of adulterated honey and the concomitant trickle of imported sweet, finally growing to river size, that now made honey merchandising so difficult.
The mites had perhaps taken the most toll on Jack Johnson’s beekeeping operation. His lucrative package bee and queen business was bankrupt for lack of customers. No longer was the South a prime source of honey bees. Instead, certain isolated areas bad been set up which could guarantee mite-free stock with a minimum of African influ ence. He was somewhat shielded; he still reared his own queens, although it was becoming increasingly more difficult to keep the Africanizing influence to a minimum, and he’d turned to honey for income, producing predominantly that in the comb in an effort to woo customers away from the supermarket shelves and their increasingly “diluted” product.
So far Jack Johnson had survived by innovation, something beekeepers had been known for ever since the beginning of the noble art of apiculture, when humans first ascended stone cliffs in search of “wild” honey. Others weren’t so lucky; they failed to adapt and so fell by the wayside. America, the promised land of milk and honey, was no longer the bee paradise it once seemed.
Fanciful perhaps, but not an unlikely scenario for one to conjure up who attnded the 1981 conventions of the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and American Honey Producers (AHPA) in Las Vegas. Topics addressed were varied and included timely concerns such as ethylene oxide fumigation for American foulbrood and help for the hobbyist. But it was the threat of mites and Africanized bees from without and pesticides from within the agricultural community that held sway during the meetings.
The particular problems surrounding mite infestation were results of bureacratic quandry. “What, for example, was the role of the Animal, Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in this matter?” asked Phil Lima, an APHIS administrator from Washington, D.C. Although definitely in charge of the international quarantine and ban imposed by the Federal Honey Bee Act, APHIS has no jurisdiction once the mites entered the United States. The act, passed in 1922 in response to a concern about acarine mites which were considered responsible for killing many colonies on the Isle of Wight, then amended in 1947, 1962 and 1976 to include all life stages including germ plasm and semen of the genus Apis, needs further amending to clarify responsibilities of APHIS, according to Mr. Lima.
The above statement resulted in a whole host of questions asked not only by APHIS, but the apiary inspectors and honey producers as well, who met later in the week. What contingency plans, for example, are there if mites are found in a state or in one beekeeping outfit? The answer — none!
What plans are there for surveying for mites either on an emergency or continuous basis? Again — none! The USDA is at present asking for emergency funds for mite survey in the event of infestation and plans to request a regular line tern for a permanent mite survey program, according to officials at he Inspectors meeting, but the outlook for approval is not very bright, given the present fiscal climate in Washington, D.C. There is, however, some optimism considering the fact that approval for a full- time position, at least for one year, has resulted in a mite specialist being hired to catalog the many kinds of mites found on honey bees.
Much Of the present concern was due to the Maryland experience last summer when it was feared Varroa had already been established in that state. Fortunately, the fears were unfounded,’according to I. Barton Smith, the Maryland inspector in charge of the survey that found those happy results. Many hours of work and much sacrifice went into that survey, said Mr. Smith. About 120 pounds of bees were collected and analyzed over a wide area and some twenty-nine beekeepers volunteered to sacrifice their colonies for the study.
Finally, the package bee industry idemnified those whose colonies were destroyed with ten-pound packages to begin anew. Although the experience was one characterized by altruism on the part of many persons, said Mr. Smith, what if the mites had indeed been found to be established?
There was general agreement at the apiary inspectors meeting that a critical need for some kind of plan existed to survey for mites, but few specific proposals came to the fore. The unresolved questions about this issue are complex and include: (1) How to survey most effectively for mite infestation? (2) Is surveying a federal or state responsibility?; (3) Who will actually check the bees? ; (4) what is the role of APHIS and USDA?; (5) Who will certify bee and queens as being mite free?; (6) How will swarms be handled along the U.S.-Mexican border?; and (7) what is the role of the Apiary Inspectors of America and to whom can it go for help?
There are disturbingly few solutions to and options for the latter question. It was apparent in general state apiarists are almost powerless when it comes to making and implementing decisions of this nature. Although in some states, beekeepers might perceive the inspector to be all powerful, this is only symbolic. The real seat of influence lies with the state directors of agriculture for whom the inspectors work. Not surprisingly, therefore, the inspectors have asked the National Association of State Directors of Agriculture (NASDA) to take up these problems in their coming meetings.
Fortunately, the National Plant Board, which also has honey bees within its purview, has also asked NASDA. to amend the Federal Honey Bee Act to give the USDA (through APHIS perhaps the authority) to regulate importation and interstate movement of exotic bee diseases and pests. This should add fuel to the:request by the Apiary ispectors.
The need to amend the act is more apparent each year according to APHIS. The year 1980, for example, saw the first request from American Samoa and Guam, both having “state” status, to import bees into the continental United States. They apparently can do so at the present time, even though they have no organized inspection program.
Although there’s been a lot of attention paid to the Asiatic Varroa mite, it’s the present concern about imminent introduction of the acarine mite that fueled most of the present fires in Las Vegas. Besides being present in several countries in South America, the mite has now been located in six states of Mexico. One, Tamaulipas, lies only about 150 miles south of the Texas border! The Varroa mite is also in the Americas, but further away, still confined to the continent of South America.
Questions about the acarine mite’s effect on honey bees in the Americas persist. Fortunately, some answers should be forthcoming shortly as the Mexican government reportedly is putting a great deal of resources into investigating the present and potential damage caused by the mite and the acarine’s rate of spread. It seems quite appropriate, therefore, that the next world apicultural congress (Apimondia) will take place a few short months from now (October 1981) in Acapulco.
In the meantime, it was asked at the Apiary Inspectors meeting, can we in the United States take a chance by not developing contingency plans concerning introduction of the acarine mite? It is clear, however, that this is a political decision and it will have to be made in that arena — again, it will be up to the beekeeping industry to put the pressure on state departments of agriculture to act to protect the honey bee and beekeeping industry.
The Texas situation appears to be a case in point. With a need to somehow garner more revenue, the inspection program in the Lone Star State appears to be in trouble. Should the program be discontinued, what can or should be done about regulating bees coming into other states from Texas? This is a real concern, provoking much discussion. Although there was no consensus, a resolution to consider barring entry of Texas bees into other states, should the inspection program be discontinued, was seriously considered.
And there’s little doubt that political pressure, correctly applied, does pay off. Thanks to concerted effort by the industry, for example, a U.S. federal apiculturist has finally been appointed. Dr. Basil Furgala has taken on this considerable task, a 50/50 extension and research position which will seek to coordinate the efforts of all apiculture extension folks and the six USDA regional bee laboratories.
In summary, the meeting in Las Vegas dictated a clear message. With inflation, confusing chemical regulations which change almost at whim, cheap imported honey, phony honey and the threat of introducing both kinds of mites, as well as the Africanized honey bee, the future of the beekeeping industry is precariously unpredictable. There is little doubt that this small “cottage industry,” although somewhat insulated in the past by its uniqueness, increasingly will face, larger and more complex challenges in the 1980s.
Post Script: The fanciful description of the problems affecting Jack Johnson have mostly come to pass. The tracheal mite was effectively introduced in 1984, beginning with huge losses of colonies in the panhandle of Florida, but it appears that resistance by honey bees to this pest has prevailed over the years and it is no longer the threat it seemed might be. Three years later, the Varroa mite was found in two locations, Florida and Wisconsin, simultaneously. Both mites have now effectively become part of every beekeepers decision making as they decide on their management strategy, but the Varroa mite has become the greatest threat to managed honey bees, considered a major threat to beekeeping going forward. The Africanized honey bee crossed the Texas – Mexico border in 1990. It now effectively has penetrated most of southern Florida although it’s thought to have been my introduction from ships from South America, whereas the introduction from the Texas-Mexican border spread westward infesting most the country all the way to southern California. This effectively killed the Canadian queen and package bee industry that U.S. beekeepers relied on for decades, and it remains dead today.
Since that time several other exotic organisms have penetrated into U.S. beekeeping. The first is a variant of Nosema disease. The original Nosema apis that has affected beekeeping for decades has been almost totally replaced by Nosema ceranae, which has a different etiology. The small hive beetle (Aethina tumida) was officially introduced in 1998 from South Africa.
The old 1922 honey bee importation law remains in place and has not been rescinded. Many of the questions posed in this article still have not been answered effectively, as on the horizon a host of other possible actors waits for possible introduction. Two that are most concerning is yet another Asian mite, Tropilaelaps clareae and the infamous South African Cape Honey Bee (Apis mellifera capensis). There has been no current U.S. Federal apiculturist with the retirement and subsequent death of Dr. Basil Furgala.
The Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) forges on hosting annual meetings. The American Honey Producers Association(AHPA) still exists as well, but has never had a similar following to its parent organization, The American Beekeeping Federation. Since that time there have been a number of efforts to reunite the groups with little success.