We Have All Been Here Before

January 2011 Bee Culture Magazine

January 2011 Bee Culture Magazine

Note: This article, written by Tom Rearick, aka BeeHacker, was just published in the January 2011 issues of Bee Culture Magazine. To subscribe (you should), visit http://www.beeculture.com.

If I had ever been here before
I would probably know just what to do

from the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young “Deja Vu” album

This is a tough time for honey bees and beekeepers. Colony Collapse Disorder, Varroa, Small Hive Beetle, Africanized Honey Bees, Tracheal mites, and invisible pathogens are wreaking havoc on apiaries. Will more than 30% annual hive losses cripple the pollination industry and discourage hobby and sideline beekeepers? It would be nice if we could look into a crystal ball and see what the future holds. We can’t. But we might gain insight by studying a remarkably similar historical event: the near total extinction of the European wine grape.

Like honey, wine’s history is inseparable from the history of agriculture, food, medicine, literature and religion. Archeological evidence suggests that wine production existed in Iran from 6000 to 5000 BC. Likewise, caving paintings in eastern Spain, dated to 6000 BC, show early Spaniards hunting and harvesting honey. But until the 17th century, wine not simply something drunk at celebrations. It was the only safe drink (in moderation) in a world where water in cities and villages was usually unsafe to drink.1 Wine was typically stored in barrels and served in goblets from leather or stoneware jugs. It was not a drink that was savored as it is today. It was a healthful drink – and ‘healthy’ rarely tastes great.

The role of wine in Europe changed in the 17th century when cities began to pipe clean water like the Romans had done centuries before. Beside clean water, wine also had to compete with beer made stable by the addition of hops, chocolate from Central America, coffee from Arabia, and tea from China. However, this was not to be the end of wine-making. In the same way that the Langstroth hive would later revolutionize beekeeping, 17th century technology transformed the packaging of wine.

Developments in glass-making technology in the 17th century made bottles stronger (to avoid breakage from inconsistent fermentation) and cheaper. Someone combined glass bottles with a cork and a corkscrew and they had a system for keeping wine far longer, more reliably, and in smaller, more affordable amounts than previously possible with wooden kegs. Add a growing middle class in the industrialized European countries, and you had a burgeoning wine trade. By the 1880s, wine was so popular that 80% of the population of Italy worked in one way or another in support of the wine making industry.

About this time, when the wine grape was king of the agricultural world, a tiny aphid arrived in Europe that utterly devastated Europe’s vineyards in less than 20 years.

In the middle of the 19th century, the Phylloxera louse, an insect that lived on the roots of grape vines in eastern North America, found its way to Britain and France. “It is argued by some that the introduction of such pests as Phylloxera was only a problem after the invention of steamships, which allowed a faster journey across the ocean, and consequently allowed durable pests, such as the Phylloxera, to survive.” [see Wikipedia: ‘Great French Wine Blight’]

Since Phylloxera is native to America, the native American bunch or Fox Grape (Vitis Labrusca) had become tolerant to the pest. The best known cultivar of this North American native is the Concord grape. However, the European wine grape (Vitus Vinifera) was not tolerant. An epidemic wiped out vineyards in Britain then did the same in Europe. Some estimate that 90% of all European vineyards were destroyed by the end of the 19th century to the American louse.

Does any of this sound familiar? What is killing our bees? How about Varroa mites from Southeast Asia, Tracheal mites from Britain, and Small Hive Beetle from Africa. Bee colonies in Florida are being invaded by Africanized honey bees (AHB). But unlike the AHB that migrated into Texas from South America over the Central American land bridge, the Florida AHB gained entry through the shipping ports on container ‘steamships‘. Our bees , like wine grapes before them, are victims of the globalization of disease.

There was a frenzy of activity in France and elsewhere to save the European wine grape. Some attempts helped, such as planting Vitis Vinifera in sandy or volcanic soils in which Phylloxera had difficulty thriving. Some attempts did not help, such as blessing the seeds or planting live toads under wine grape vines. If you believe some people today, we can save the bees by tearing down our cell phone towers! Ultimately, there emerged three partisan camps that battled each other over how to best deploy French government resources:

  • Many of the grape growers as yet unaffected by Phylloxera lived in denial that they would ever be affected
  • Chemistry advocates injected highly inflammable and expensive insecticides, such as Carbon Bi-sulphide, into the soil to kill the root-bound louse.
  • The very unpopular américainistes were scientists and growers that preferred grafting Vitus Vinifera onto hybridized Phylloxera-resistant root stock derived from the American fox grape. This was an unpopular approach because the French feared that American root stocks would tarnish their reputation for superior wines.

As a parallel, I believe we have three partisan camps today with respect to beekeeping:

  • Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) deniers
  • Advocates of pesticides and chemical controls
  • Advocates of non-chemical controls such as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and genetic engineering.

One elusive goal of researchers in the 19th century was to find a natural Phylloxera killer or parasite. They were unsuccessful but the same goal exists today for bee pathogens. I douse the ground under my hives with water containing beneficial nematodes that wait for Small Hive Beetle (SHB) larvae. When the SHB larvae crawls into the ground in order to grow into a beetle, the nematodes crawl into the larva, injects them with a lethal infection, and abruptly ends the Small Hive Beetle’s life cycle. Perhaps we may find similar approaches for Varroa and Wax Moth.

The wine grape was finally saved by grafting it onto Phylloxera-tolerant hybridized American root stock. Nearly all grape vines today in Europe and around the world grow on root stocks that originate from North America… including even the French varietal wine grapes growing in California. The battle against Phylloxera has not been won but it is held in an economically-viable stalemate.

Likewise, the effort to save the European honey bee may require hybridization with a grumpy, foreign bee that is has a natural resistance to Varroa – the Africanized Honey Bee. And like the battle against Phylloxera and other pathogens, the battle with the honey bee’s enemies may never be won but will – hopefully – become an economically-viable stalemate.

The Future of Beekeeping

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about the The Great Wine Blight is how it transformed the wine industry and its culture. The craft of wine making had not changed much from the time of the ancient Romans to the French vignerons2 of 1850. It was a trade handed down by father to son without written instruction or formal instruction. So far as anybody knew, wine was created by ‘spontaneous generation’. It was not until the middle 19th century that French chemist Louis Pasteur discovered not only how yeast turned sugar into alcohol to make beer and wine but how the wrong bacteria could ruin good wine. This marked the beginning of a change in wine making from an inconsistent cottage craft into a technology that enabled consistency in product and production. The Montpellier School of Agriculture in France and the University of California at Davis each grew in reputation, funding, and in the numbers of technologically trained graduates. These graduates and their science-based processes have transformed the wine making industry. I believe that we have yet to see a comparable transformation in beekeeping.

I have crafted good wine and a lot of bad wine. I am currently crafting bees. I use the term ‘crafting’ because I don’t really know what is going on in each colony. I was told at my beekeeping club that understanding comes with experience. I can imagine a wine making craftsman from the 17th century telling his son the same thing. I read magazines full of tips and advice but very little is verified through controlled and repeatable experiment. Beekeeping has not changed much in 100 years but unless we gain scientific understanding to some serious problems, there may not be many bees left to keep. That is why I am encouraged when I see talented students majoring in entomology, beekeepers participating in national surveys and experiments, and new demographic groups discovering the joys of beekeeping.

I can imagine a day when my iPod notifies me that

  • hive #3 has a 8% economic-threshold Varroa population or
  • hive #6 will swarm tomorrow with a 70% probability or
  • hives #3 through #6 detected that a neighbor just sprayed the dandelions in his yard with Spectracide, not fully understanding the distinction between an insecticide and a herbicide.

That will be the day when the process of beekeeping is consistent, measured, and well understood. Will I miss the ‘good old days’ when beekeeping was a craft where hives regularly starved or absconded or collapsed? Hardly.

Event European Wine Grapes European Honey Bees
History of human co-dependence For at least 6,000 years For at least 6,000 years
17th century product – benefit Wine – a safe drink Honey – a primary sweetener
21st century product – benefit Wine – a premium drink Pollination – affordable food
First technological wave 17th Century: Glass, bottles, corks 19th Century: Langstroth hive
Consequences of Globalization of Disease Powdery Mildew, Phylloxera, others Varroa mite, Tracheal mite, Small Hive Beetle, others
Potential losses due to extinction Wine, loss of jobs, a way of life, and a majority of several country’s GDP Honey, loss of pollination for $14B worth of food annually in US alone
Partisan solutions Grafting vs.Chemical vs.
IPM vs.Chemical vs.


Silly Solutions Bury live toads under grape vines Tear down cell phone towers
Resistance to chemical solutions Expensive and “chemical” Expensive and “chemical”
Resistance to non-chemical solution Growing French vines on American root stocks hurts quality & national pride due to poor reputation of Fox Grape Hybridizing docile European bees with more resistant Africanized Honey Bees will make them more aggressive.
Second technological wave Louis Pasteur (microbiology), Charles Darwin (evolution) ???
Extinction Averted Graft Vitis Vinifera vines onto Phylloxera-resistant hybridized American rootstock ???
Cultural transformation of craftsman Winemakers evolve from multi-generational craftsmen to university trained technicians. ???
Health of Industry after blight Buy quality wine at the gas station for <$10! ???

1 Since the 17th century, the problem of safe drinking water has only grown to be a larger problem. Today, over one billion people are estimated to lack access to safe drinking water.

2From Wikipedia: Winemaker – “A vigneron is someone who cultivates a vineyard for winemaking. The word connotes or emphasizes the critical role that vineyard placement and maintenance has in the production of high-quality wine.”

2 comments to We Have All Been Here Before

  • bitterbierce

    Mr Stephan, from La Palma in the spanish Canary Islands seems to be having success in controlling varroa mites without pesticides by reducing cell size diameter to 4.9mm he follows Erik and Dee Lusby’s and is having great success. visit http://www.lapalmamiel.com

  • ET

    A BeeHacker snip:
    Will more than 30% annual hive losses cripple the pollination industry and discourage hobby and sideline beekeepers? It would be nice if we could look into a crystal ball and see what the future holds.

    Looking at the historical record and/or long term data in regards to the percentage of hives that do not successfully requeen themselves suggest to me that 30% only looks alarming to folks that might believe that hives are 100% successful when a old queen’s life is done. Historically a much larger number of hives have died from starvation (this end may have multiple causes) than anything else.

    I like you comparison of then to now very much.

Leave a Reply