Author: Kim Flottum
An interesting and educational week in Montreal. Over 5000 people attended we’re told, but I suspect there were actually more. Hundreds of talks, workshops, round tables and posters – you’d have to be there a month take it all in. There is a 340 plus page book with just the abstracts of the talks that I am quite sure I will still be reading come spring. A honey show amazing in scope but clouded with controversary that we’ll get to in a moment, and a vendor area larger than some airports I’ve been in.
The honey show had 48 classes, including honey of course, both liquid and what they call set honey, or crystalized honey, meads, beeswax and products, cut comb, honey beer, all manner of displays, photographs, books, videos, and inventions. I don’t know how many entries were made by people from the U.S. but the U.S. took home three gold, three silver and four bronze awards.
I talked with some of those who were in the show and was told entries had to be sent to Germany in July for testing. And the testing was serious. One report, not yet verified, was that over 40% of the entries were rejected because of issues with adulteration, contamination, moisture, and ultra-filtering. I can understand not knowing your honey is contaminated with parts per million agricultural or beekeeper applied pesticides, but one has to wonder about entering honey with sugar syrup in it, or, what is being removed with filtering to the degree some were. Another issue was, I’m told, if your entry was disqualified, you weren’t told why. And I would think another issue would be crystallization of just-harvested honey during the trip to Germany, the examination time, then the trip to Canada.
This process seems to me somewhat extreme, and I may not have all the facts, but at the least, shipping to Germany then back to Canada could have easily been avoided by simply using one of the many companies that do exactly that here in North America. In fact, we did a facebook live interview with people from one of those companies, QSI, that you can watch on our Facebook page.
I have always had the feeling that when attending a conference like this there’s two kinds of things going on – the talks, research reports and discussions are bringing people up to speed – this is what is today. Researchers aren’t in it for the profit. They get to eat, no matter what. If you want to know what is, sit in on the talks. If you want to know what will be, talk to the vendors.
That’s because the vendors pretty much lay out the future – here’s what’s new, different, exciting and you better know about it, and even better you should own it. In my opinion, this is where the vision of an industry lies and the directions we will all be going even before we leave the building. The talks are necessary but I have a 340 page book I can read anytime. You only get to talk one-on-one to the guy who is bioengineering honey bees probably only once, when you and he are in the same place at the same time. And it has to work because he has to eat. So, I almost always spend most of my time chasing the future.
There were just under 20 businesses from the U.S., some familiar, some unknown and some brand new, just introducing themselves. China had the most booths with 45, Canada, the host had 29. All together there were 205 vendors representing 54 countries. The thrust of some was obvious – clothing for beekeepers was common, as were basic tool manufacturers, and cosmetic makers, and sellers were common. But the big picture, the unspoken message I got from visiting nearly every booth was that in this time and place, there were three critically important factors in beekeeping success. These three topics aren’t earth shatteringly new, but the emphasis on each was strong enough to touch.
The first was glaringly obvious. I think of the 205 businesses, maybe a third were in the business of packing and selling honey, and they wanted to sell honey to the U.S. Varietal honeys were popular, especially if a particular variety was specific to that country. But just plain honey was everywhere. That we import most of the honey we consume, and our per capita consumption is pushing two pounds per person, our 320+ million people make a huge, huge global market for the stuff. And everybody wants a piece of that market. At the very same time, in those meeting rooms were people talking about the humongous amount of adulterated honey on the world market. Added ingredients lead the list – cheaper sugars, water, you name it and those who look are finding it. With that discussion were people talking about more and better ways to find the stuff before it gets sold. So rotten honey is a problem, but lots of people are trying to fix that problem. The sad part of this is that, when talking to one of the businesses that actually do the testing, as soon as a way to find bad honey is found, the crooks find something else to add. When you can produce a honey-like product for 20 cents a pound and sell it for a buck, the incentive is obvious. It becomes more obvious when those doing the selling aren’t looking for problems. Adulterated honey isn’t going to go away soon. And it’s in your grocery store right now.
An additional issue with honey is contamination with both agricultural and beekeeper applied pesticides. Probably the most common chemical is glyphosate. But it’s not the only one. And from what the testers tell me, ag chemicals dominate in number, while beekeeper chemicals dominate in volume. Parts per billion vs. parts per million. There is no safe place to go to avoid ag chemicals it seems. Rigorous testing can, and will find beekeeper added poison, but the stuff from farmers is tough. And this leads to the second factor in the vendor area – enough good food, all of the time, for every bee in the bunch.
Honey bee nutrition is on everybody’s plate now and pretty much everybody is developing some sort of food or food supplement for bees because they aren’t getting it out there in the amounts they need, any more. Feeding bees isn’t new, but it’s getting better. And the sources of protein are getting interesting – seaweed is being seen more frequently, and soymeal and dairy products are almost completely gone. But it’s the rise of probiotics that is really amazing.
It seems there are several active biota in the honey bee gut that help with digestion and absorption of a honey bee’s diet. And, it seems, some of the chemicals we apply to colonies, or, some of the viruses they encounter because of their constant encounters with Varroa, or, some of the ag pesticides they run into on a daily basis looking for food, are detrimental to these tiny gut creatures, and as a result their numbers are lowered or even eliminated. Thus no digestion, thus starvation. Not enough food.
But researchers have identified these tiny digesters, and can grow them outside of bees, then feed them to bees to replace those that have been lost or killed. Being able to eat, or eat more is certainly a step in the right direction of keeping colonies alive, and healthy, and there are companies producing this stuff by the ton for bees.
So, more food, better food, and better digestion – enough good food all of the time for every bee in the bunch. That was a strong focus of what’s going to solve the nutrition issues with bees.
The third factor was the obvious and amazing increase in the magic of intelligent remote sensing. Right off the top there seemed to be about a dozen companies designing and selling remote sensing equipment, improving data interpretation, reducing labor costs, improving colony, beeyard and operation efficiency and all of them are using the cloud.
Most of them are measuring weight changes, humidity changes, sounds, temperature changes and colony movement. These measures are then compared to thousands, maybe millions of similar measurements and analyzed to predict some activity that is going on and what, if anything the beekeepers need to do to solve a problem, avoid a problem or send somebody to resolve the problem.
Coupled with this is one of the systems of citizen science, where many operations are sharing their data to form a huge database for analyzing individual colony inputs. Some of these work on cell phone transmission so if your beeyard can get a signal you can make that work. Others actually have a transmitter in a beeyard that gathers data from each colony, then sends it to the cloud for collection and use later.
Part of all of this of course is the goal of a genius hive, which is being explored each month here, with the goal of having a hive and a beeyard able to make certain decisions without input from the beekeeper. Watch this space for what’s down the road on that.
More business than science, but lots of that also, was the BApp program for commercial beekeepers. This is an amazing tool. It operates in both English and Spanish, can translate if needed, uses inputs from 10 different commercial operations so it has a very broad set of input requirements and specialties, does voice messages, has inputs for photos, comments, treatment, numbers for treating, feeding, harvesting, what to do next time, and reports from last time a yard was visited. All on your cell phone.
One more topic that, though not quite as focused, was nearly everywhere I looked was housing. Not for beekeepers, for bees. Beekeepers in temperate climates are looking at heat loss through thin walls, reduced humidity in well ventilated hives which encourages Varroa populations, the fact that no propolis shell can be made and most hives have a huge entrance. The boxes we use are convenient for beekeepers, but not so much for bees. Dr. Seeley should be pleased to see others are making the same decisions he is relative to this bee health issue.
From the talk side of the meeting, there were a host of symposia, where a single topic was studied from the perspective of many researchers. Leading the way was honey fraud, which, as noted was a very hot button item. But biology, pesticides and residues, apitherapy, beekeeping in developing countries, genetics, Canadian beekeeping, pollination as a business, citizen science projects, honey bee nutrition, non Apis bees, of course pests and diseases, other pollinators, breeding bees, hive products and marketing were all covered extensively.
There were round table discussions covering honey adulteration, the social impact of beekeeping and the economic value of bees and their products. There were also sessions on Technology, income sources, amitraz resistance and treatment free beekeeping.
There was, quite literally something here for everybody. You can still download the book of abstracts which will give an introduction to the talks, posters, workshops or roundtables so you at least have a feel for where the industry is today, and to some degree where it is headed tomorrow.
A final note. Phillip McCabe, the past president of this organization passed away suddenly and much too young this past year, and the organization has been working with an interim president until this meeting. At this meeting, Dr. Jeff Pettis was elected President for a four year term. He had been serving as President of the Apimondia Scientific Commission for Bee Health from September 2015 to September 2019. As you may know, Dr. Pettis for a time was the Research Leader at the USDA Beltsville Bee Lab, so comes to the position with a strong government and science background. He is currently a consultant for several beekeeping research projects, and is well placed to take this group into the future. Congratulations to Apimondia on this wise choice, and to Jeff for raising his hand.