Be(e) stingy with your honey this year

The traditional sweetener is becoming more scarce and costly.

Bee death has serious implications for our long-term food supply. (photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Bee death has serious implications for our long-term food supply.
(photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Rosh Hashana is drawing closer, and a large jar of honey will be at the top of the holiday shopping list. But don’t be surprised at the high prices and scarcity of local beekeeper’s honey – Israel’s honey production is down.
The main culprit, as it has been for some years, is the varroa mite.
The tiny, reddish-brown varroa mite is a parasite that sucks adult bees’ “blood,” or vital body liquids, leaving an open wound. Injured bees weaken, succumbing to infections and viruses; naturally, fewer bees mean fewer workers making honey. And while it’s hard to imagine that such a tiny creature as the varroa will affect our food security in the long run, almost inevitably it will.
Victoria Soroker, a researcher at the Volcani Center’s department of entomology, tells us there’s been no noticeable improvement in the fight against varroa since I last wrote about bees (September 2013). She explains how the mite spreads and what methods are being used to overcome it.
“The mite’s color is similar to the bees’ own brown color, so it’s well camouflaged. It may be seen with the naked eye, but when a beekeeper buys 100 bees, or several hundred, it’s impossible to inspect every single bee for mites, especially when they’re moving around.
So he may be buying infected bees.”
But it’s when a colony decides to invade and conquer a weaker hive that the mites really get a chance to gain ground. The weaker colony is usually already infected with varroa, who happily latch on to the conquerors.
And the mite is mighty fertile.
“The varroa doesn’t need a mate to reproduce,” Soroker explains. “One gravid female is enough to start many generations of male and female progeny, which mate with each other and reproduce quickly.”
The most effective method of combating varroa, according to Soroker, has been strips of paper saturated with a pesticide and hung inside the hives. The papers brush against the mites on the bees’ bodies as they fly in and out, destroying most of them.
“Natural methods haven’t been successful against varroa so far,” says Soroker. “The pesticide killed most of them – not all, obviously, as there are still plenty.
The problem is that the mites developed resistance to the pesticide, and it’s not effective anymore.” She adds that new pesticides against varroa are currently being researched.
Israel’s native, feral bees have been wiped out by varroa.
“Since feral bees were never treated, varroa killed them off,” says Soroker. Responding to my remark that this seems sad, she disagrees, “Feral bees are aggressive and don’t produce much honey. I don’t think anyone has any great interest in bringing them back. Most commercially raised bees are of the same basic strain.”
Haim Efrat, retired head of the Agriculture Ministry’s beekeeping division, gives us more reasons for this year’s low honey yield. “Last winter there was almost no rain, and it fell late,” he says. “Trees and plants that bees visit flowered very little, and honey comes directly from flowers. There’s little water in general at this time of year, so there’s little nectar in the plants that the bees visit.
You can’t force honey production like you can manage cows to make milk.”
The bottom line: Climate change is hard on bees.
Soroker says it won’t be possible to count the number of surviving bee colonies until October or November, but beekeepers already know how much loss they’ve sustained. Efrat, who is still devoted to bees, estimates that his private hives are producing 25 kilos of honey per hive this year, compared to the normal annual yield of 50 kilos.
“There are three methods of dealing with varroa,” he says. “First, treatment with pesticides. Then green or ecofriendly techniques, and lastly, boosting bees’ resistance to varroa. Here in Israel, we’re still at the first stage. It’s impossible to keep bees unless you treat them for varroa three times a year.
“Israel’s tiny land area is an advantage in this sense; beekeepers can visit their hives as often as every week, or even more frequently. Ideally, it’s about 50 visits to the hives yearly. A commercial beekeeper in the US may live in Florida and keep his bees in California, so he visits no more than 12 times a year. We have a tighter control over our hive’s health.”
Bee death has serious implications for our long-term food supply. Without bee pollination, many varieties of trees and vines won’t bear fruit. That means no, or scarce and expensive, tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados, apples and other foods we take for granted.
In addition, production of clover and alfalfa, essential foods for dairy and beef cows, would fall because honey bees pollinate those crops. Without the bees, it would be necessary to give more land to clover and alfalfa, which in turn raises prices of dairy products – Israelis enraged at the price of cottage cheese would especially take that to heart – and meat. In other words, a bee-less world would be an even hungrier world.
Soroker winds up our conversation by saying, “Government organizations need to support beekeepers.
There are fewer of them nowadays, and they need that support. As we clearly saw in the 50 days of Operation Protective Edge, our ability to be self-sufficient is vital to survival.” In other words, healthy bees are key to selfsufficiency.
Tzvi Noy, beekeeper on Moshav Nehalim, weighs in.
“Israel is already overcrowded with beehives. We don’t have enough vegetation to provide nectar for all the bees on the land.” Urbanization – construction on formerly uncultivated or deserted land – and the destruction of unprofitable citrus orchards and eucalyptus trees is also robbing bees of their food sources.
Another hazard to bees is crop pesticides. Noy himself lost 37 hives in 2012, when a grove of persimmons belonging to a nearby kibbutz was sprayed with pesticides. Clean water for bees is becoming ever scarcer.
“People spray puddles and other natural water sources against mosquitoes and flies,” says Noy. “Bees drink from those places and die.”
“When you see bees drinking from a dripping outdoor faucet or garden hose, you should be happy,” he adds.
“You’re helping them survive.”
Operation Protective Edge also caused some unintentional damage to bee hives. In southern danger zones, beekeepers couldn’t visit their hives to inspect and treat them according to schedule. A few hives were knocked over by tanks, especially during night operations. However, the beekeepers interviewed said war losses were few.
With the prevalent problem in honey production being the varroa mite, it seems there’s very little choice but to treat hives with chemicals, as natural methods such as using essential oils or forcing bees to squeeze through fine screens, hopefully shedding the mites before entering their hives, haven’t proven effective.
But you can help by planting rosemary and similar flowering plants; there are lists of bee-attracting plants online. Leave a saucer of clean water out for the bees.
Considering the climbing price of honey, we might not put the sticky stuff into as many holiday foods as we usually do. But even so, let’s hope for a sweet new year.