Honey bees — Varroa destructor and a parable (Part 2)

Read part 1 here

In other news, it turns out that bees, arguably an invader themselves, though not a very successful one anymore if they ever were, given their reliance on domestication, have themselves been invaded. By the varroa destructor, no less (who said scientific names couldn’t be evocative, eliciting a knowing chuckle or smirk). Varroa destructor is a species of parasitic mite that co-evolved with the Asian honey bee. The story is predictable from there: Asian honey bees can survive with these mites, but other honey bees that have not evolved any resistance, cannot. And because people travel with their bee colonies, providing pollination services, and ship starter packages of bees to people needing new colonies around the world, the mite moved out of the range where the bees could coexist with it, into new ranges where they could not. 

First into Europe and Africa, and then in the late 1980’s, into the United States. It is now established everywhere in the world that honey bees are except for Australia, though it keeps trying to make its way there too. Incursions were detected in Australia in 2016, 2019, 2020, and again in 2022, officials working quickly to trace and eradicate it when they happen. The mite cannot live out its reproductive life cycle outside a honey bee colony; it is entirely dependent on bees, but their dependence kills the bees.

Varroa mites attach themselves to the body of a bee and feed off its fat stores, often when the bee is still in the larval stage. The mites are about the size of a pinhead: small, but visible to the human eye. Proportionally, if a bee were the size of a human, the mites would be the size of a fully-extended human hand. Small to us, maybe, but big to a bee. Aside from attaching themselves to the bodies of the bees and eating their fat stores, and the bodies of the bee brood, damaging enough in itself, varroa mites are also carriers of viruses. Among these is Deformed Wing Virus (DWV), which sounds exactly like its name, and which when present is also very visible to the human eye. It causes the wings of the honey bees to be either shriveled and useless or missing entirely, making their already short lives (a worker bee in the summer lives about three weeks) shorter still, putting the survival of the colony as a whole at risk. Without worker bees who live long enough with enough strength to forage for nectar and pollen, there is no colony.

Varroa mites are one of the biggest problems for beekeepers these days, an inordinate amount of time and money spent first on monitoring for mites, and then treating when they are found, as they inevitably will be. Of the nearly 3 million honey bee colonies reported to be kept in the United States, more than half of them are said to have mites, and nearly half are lost (read: die) every year. Out of the five hives we went into the winter with our first year beekeeping in the Pacific Northwest, none survived, the others lost to mites. Our second year we went into the winter with three hives, and emerged with two, but this feels like luck. 

We’d been monitoring for mites, a process that involves scooping up about 300 bees - you don’t have to count them, 300 bees is about half a cup- and putting them in a jar with a couple tablespoons of powdered sugar and rolling them around. The agitation of the sugar crystals separates the mites from the bees’ bodies, allowing you to then put a mesh lid on the jar and shake the mites and sugar out into another container, while keeping the bees inside. You can then count how many mites fell out, and decide whether your infestation is high enough to treat: knowing you started with about 300 bees means you can do some math to get a percentage that have mites. The bees go back into the hive - sugar-covered, yes, but bees eat sugar, they clean each other up and move on with their lives, no worse for the wear.

The hard part is what comes next. Assuming you’ve found mites (if you didn’t this time, you will. Just wait), the next step is to get rid of them. As with anything a lot of people are passionate about, there are different schools of thought about this. Get enough beekeepers in a room and controversy will break out. Among the challenges are these:

The treatments are nasty. They’re insecticides, basically, which is a challenging prospect for people whose whole mission is to keep a colony of insects alive. They’re formulated to be toxic to mites but not bees of course, but still. Add in the extra challenge of timing: since no one wants to eat honey laced with insecticides, you have to time your treatments so that the honey in the hive is not the same honey, or even the same equipment, that you will ever harvest honey from. (Mite treatments aside, there’s no such thing as organic honey: since bees can forage from flowers up to three miles from their hive, few beekeepers can guarantee that nectar wasn’t collected from flowers treated with non-organic fertilizers or pesticides. If anyone tells you they have organic honey, it’s worth raising an eyebrow or two).

Adding to this challenge is the fact that mites are becoming resistant to the currently available treatments. They are like bacteria and antibiotics in this way. You have to kill them all or eventually you will have a resistant strain. The only trouble is, it’s nearly impossible to kill them all, since many of them hide on the brood, conveniently nestled within the honeycomb and capped with the wax that keeps the brood safe, the mites are protected too. So here we are, with treatments that worked one year becoming totally ineffective over time.

This leads to another problem: some people don’t want to treat at all. They want to do what’s called “natural beekeeping.” And sure, none of us want to blast our beehives with chemicals. Work is being done to breed mite-resistant bees, and of course this would be anybody’s preference, but it’s also something like people who refuse to vaccinate their children or who stop their course of antibiotics partway through because they feel better: it really just makes the situation worse for the rest of us. 

Making this argument makes me feel like I’m walking in circles. Because if it’s impossible to keep honey bees alive without chemicals, perhaps we should not be keeping bees. Perhaps there is something fundamentally broken about our reliance on a system that requires this. I love bees, honey bees and otherwise. I love little more than going to visit my family’s apiary during a lunch break at work, and watching the bees on their way into the hive with bright orange pollen packets on their rear legs.


I could let that go though. If that was definitively the right thing to do, of course I would do it. But more broadly, I don’t know what the options are for not causing the collapse of our global food systems in a world where we can’t ethically keep honey bees. I’m sure there are more sustainable, healthier systems available to us, but if we can’t get there without causing famines, does that count?

To me, the idea of living in a world where humans have caused the decimation of pollinator populations, requiring us to pollinate by hand what bees once pollinated for us for free sounds dystopian, and indeed, stories about this are often written apocalyptically. But there are places where this is the current reality, not a dystopian future, and the response hasn’t been so clear-cut. There are regions in China where pesticide use has completely decimated all insect populations, bees among them. Any farmer whose crop relies on pollination has had to take over this job themselves. And surprisingly, many of them actually quite prefer it this way. Where bees cannot venture out in wind or heavy rain, people can. Where bees take the nectar and pollen what they need, not considering the tree as a whole, humans can ensure every flower is visited and pollinated: this means apple yields are actually significantly higher in orchards pollinated by humans, because where each pollinated flower becomes a piece of fruit, each tree bears more fruit. Many of these farms are located in mountainous regions, which means neighboring farms are at different elevations, their trees blooming at slightly different times. Having your trees bloom just a few days earlier or later than your neighbor’s trees means that neighbors can help each other hand-pollinate their trees, first one, and then the other. This costs time, but not money.

Even aside from the unique circumstances that make this viable in these orchards in China where this has first become a necessity, I hope the takeaway here is not that just because in this case humans have replaced natural processes and arguably done it better, that this is a positive outcome. Indeed, a paper written about this, The Parable of the Bees: Beyond Proximate Causes in Ecosystem Service Valuation, instead argues that it’s the economic models that make this out to be a good outcome that are flawed, that the costs of ecological destruction are not accurately captured. The paper argues that an economic lens is not the correct one to look at this through at all, as it “is extremely limited as an approach to conservation and it reduces ecological complexity in a way that impairs our ability to understand ecosystems. Ecosystem complexity is reduced to an accounting of the service they render to the human economy” - it allows for no value that might be inherent to something, or beyond the financial. Moreover, it accounts for no value beyond now.

I can understand why people, even those who believe strongly in the inherent value of ecosystems, use economic measures for these things. If Western human society has proven anything over the past few millennia, it’s that as a whole, some subset of individuals aside, we’re largely unwilling to do things for any reason other than present self-interest. So if assigning something an economic value is the only way to get the system to care about it, then of course that’s what we do.

The Parable of the Bees concludes this: “the magnitude, suddenness, and long-term consequences of the current human abuse of the natural world calls for a radical new approach to economic organization, one based on a “deeper sense of time.” Such an approach would move beyond attempts to “correctly price” nature based on imputed market values and would instead rely on a more critical perspective on economic organization, a concern for future generations and an assessment of the right place of humans in the nonhuman world.”

Apis Information Resource Center, Varroa - a short history

Deep Singh, Karan, To Save Its Honey Industry, Australia Is Killing Bees by the Millions (The New York Times, 2022)

Gowdy, John & Krall, Lisi & Chen, Yunzhong., The Parable of the Bees: Beyond Proximate Causes in Ecosystem Service Valuation (Environmental ethics. 35. 41–55., 2013)

National Agricultural Statistics Service, Statistical Summary, Honey Bees

Poland, Therese M.; Patel-Weynand, Toral; Finch, Deborah M.; Ford Miniat, Chelcy; Hayes, Deborah C.; Lopez, Vanessa M., eds. 2021. Invasive Species in Forests and Rangelands of the United States: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the United States Forest Sector. Heidelberg, Germany: Springer International Publishing. 455p.