Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Honey the conventional way

Unfortunately, honeybees have a number of serious pests and diseases. The worst of the problems have been illegally or accidentally imported from other parts of the world in the last twenty-five years. We see this as one of the ugly and inevitable side effects of producing our food all over the world.

Probably the worst of all the pests is the parasitic varroa mite. Our honeybees have little or no natural resistance to these mites, and so the mites have the potential to kill every one of a beekeeper’s hives in a single season unless the beekeeper intervenes. For about ten years after the varroa mite’s introduction to North America most beekeepers used fluvalinate (trade name: apistan), a synthetic pyrethroid, to control varroa mites. Fluvalinate is a moderately toxic chemical which at least has the advantage of being much more toxic to mites than it is to most other animals. However, overuse, misuse, and perhaps just the natural course of chemical use has led to enough resistance in varroa mites that most commercial beekeepers have moved on to even more toxic chemicals. The worst is also the most common today, namely coumaphos. Coumaphos (trade name: checkmite) is an organophosphate. Organophosphates interfere with naturally occurring enzymes called cholinesterases, which are essential for the proper working of the nervous systems of both humans and insects. Coumaphos is highly toxic by inhalation or ingestion and moderately toxic if absorbed through the skin. The symptoms of poisoning include diarrhea, drooling, muscle twitching, toxic psychosis, fluid retention of the lungs, bleeding, and even paralysis of the extremities. Symptoms can continue for up to 6 weeks, and they can continue to appear up to 4 weeks after exposure. Both fluvalinate and coumaphos are extremely persistent in the hive. They are detectable in the wax of honey supers for years after use, EVEN when the honey supers were removed at the time of treatment. Because of chemical build-up in the wax, it is illegal to produce comb honey from hives treated with coumaphos, but that’s a technicality most beekeepers are either unaware of or unconcerned with. Admittedly, much of the chemistry and toxicology of these chemicals is far above our heads, but we consider that all the more reason to avoid them. In other words, we really don’t understand the risks involved with these chemicals, but we believe no one else really can either. This is more or less our motivation for doing the very labor-intensive things we do as an alternative to the chemical-intensive norm.

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