David Glover says he has never lost any bees to pesticide applications.
Glover, known in Memphis as the “Bartlett Bee Whisperer,” has learned a lot about beekeeping since he tried to answer his daughter’s question about how bees make honey years ago. Among the things he’s learned: the decline in honeybees is a complicated issue.
“I know it does happen,” said Glover, responding to a question about pesticide applications and bee deaths. “When fields get sprayed and the winds are in the wrong direction, we have drift where the pesticides can blow off the fields and into hives, and it does kill them.
“As long as the applicators are putting it out in the environment the EPA suggests and directs, there shouldn’t be problems to the bees,” Glover notes. “I haven’t had problems with pesticides affecting my bees. The biggest problems I’ve had have actually been the pests themselves. There are a lot of parasitic creatures out there that live on honeybees and thrive in their hives.”
One of the less-publicized threats is the small hive beetle, an import from Africa that can cause significant bee losses. The beetle gets in the hive and lays eggs in the wax. As the larvae start hatching out, they move through the comb, eating wax and honey. They defecate in the wax, and their waste causes the honey to ferment. As the wax heats up, it falls on and suffocates the bees.
Small hive beetle
“I’ve lost more bees to the small hive beetle than any other thing,” says Glover, who was interviewed following a presentation on honeybees to the Memphis Ag Club at its monthly meeting at the Memphis Agricenter.
Another, perhaps better-known pest is the Varroa mite or Varroa destructor, a parasitic pest that feeds on the bees. “It is basically a bee tick that sucks the life out of the bees,” says Glover. “It also comes with diseases much like the mosquito and malaria or West Nile virus can come to us.
“The Varroa mite attacks the bees and starts sucking out the lymph system or the lymphatic juices of the bee, and that can kill them, but it’s the diseases that it carries also that get transferred from bee to bee and cause other problems. There are a lot of things besides pesticides.”
One of the biggest problems Glover sees is the growing lack of diversity in vegetation on farms and city lawns across the country.
“It’s not pesticides or insecticides, but more herbicides,” he noted. “We have green yards because we spray our yards. We don’t have the natural flowers and grasses that bring diversity to the bees. We need diversity in our diets or we are more sickly. We catch diseases. The same thing happens with bees – without diversity in their diets, they’re more susceptible to disease.”
Cover crop demise
Glover, who grew up on a farm near Finger, Tenn., believes farmers – and bees – lost something when they stopped planting cover crops and plowing them under as a green manure after World War II. He urges farmers not only to use more cover crops, but also to allow more weeds to grow in non-crop areas and along ditch banks.
“I’m not talking about weed weeds like Johnsongrass,” he said. “But we can let fields go fallow in the fall and allow flowers and other plants to grow up. The bees can feed on those and build up their fall stores of honey in preparation for overwintering.”
Glover became interested in bees after his daughter asked him how bees made honey. From that simple question, his interest has grown into a nearly fulltime vocation. He currently has 56 hives, which are located on farms in Shelby, Fayette and McNairy Counties in west Tennessee. His goal is to have 100 hives by the end of the year.
Most of his bees come from private homes and offices. Home owners and office managers call him to remove the bees. “I’m known as the Bartlett Bee Whisperer,” he says. “But I’m really more of a bee wrangler. I remove bees from people’s homes and put them in hives on farms.”
He believes better communication can help prevent problems for growers and for beekeepers, who clearly need each of if both are to be successful. “Farmers need to bees to pollinate some of their crops, and beekeepers need farms to provide for the bees.”
Beekeepers need to let farmers know when they have hives in their area. And it will help if farmers let beekeepers know when they plan to spray in the area where the hives are located.
“Beekeepers can move the hives or we can put screens on them to keep the bees inside until there’sno possibility of bees coming in contact with the pesticides,” he noted. “I have a good relationship with all the farmers I work with. That’s the first step in making sure we protect the bees.”