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Who you gonna call?: A Plea for Thoughtful Beekeeping

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

Thirty-seven years ago, with a sparkling glint in his eye, President Reagan declared that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are 'I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.'" His not-so-subtle message was clear—and unfortunate. The people who profess to have our best interests in mind are somehow determined to make our lives worse—a curious message that still echoes from the lips of politicians who try really hard to run the same institutions they decry as harmful. Now, admittedly, it wouldn't take very long to manufacture a list of examples of the government embarking on endeavors of spectacular incompetence. But does a misguided idea or a good idea executed poorly suggest that authorities are necessarily out to get us? Who can we trust to help? (This essay really is about beekeeping, not politics. I promise. Stay with me.)

Thirty-nine years ago, when a giant marshmallow man attempted to take over New York City, there was no doubt about who you were gonna call. Ghostbusters. They had the tools and the know-how to solve the problem, and people generally recognized their expertise in the matter. Nowadays, if you suffer from chest pains, a quick visit to the Roto-Rooter man is probably not your safest bet. And no matter how smart she is, I would never hire a podiatrist to wire my circuit breaker. These examples, of course, seem ridiculous, but are they any more ridiculous than some of the "authorities" we consult when we decide how best to treat our bees or manage our hives (or lives)? (I'm looking at YOU, Facebook and YouTube!) There seems to be an insidious societal distrust of experts that leads us down some destructive paths. Why do we assume that people who devote their lives to studying certain topics have suddenly joined forces to harm us? Has Reagan's warning about government spread to all aspects of our daily lives?

For beekeepers, the lessons can prove costly. If our default position is that experts are working against us, then we assume pernicious conspiracies when we read warning labels on herbicides, pesticides, or mite treatments. A ninety percent mite kill with X-amount of product does not mean that using 10X is going to kill 900%. Indeed, there might be unintended consequences that do more harm than good. That's probably why, after rigorous experimentation, the label said to use a specific amount in the first place. Even worse, we assume that all this talk of mite treatments is just a scam to sell more medications that we don't need, so we rush to the nearest snake-oil salesman who also happens to sell mite-proof, bulletproof, AND kryptonite-proof queens because he sounds more credible than the "experts.".

Science is founded upon the notion of testing ideas, seeing if similar experiments yield similar results, and then drawing conclusions to the best of one's abilities based on the information available at the time. Sometimes, to paraphrase the Big Lebowski, "new stuff comes to light," and recommendations are tweaked accordingly. Tweaking recommendations based on new information is actually a good thing, not evidence of a vast conspiracy to deceive. Realize, too, that anecdotal experiences are not the same as controlled scientific studies. Maybe using ten times the recommended dose of a miticide did actually kill a bunch of mites in your hive one year. That doesn't mean using it was a good idea. Imagine going to a casino and hitting big on a slot machine on the first three tries and drawing the conclusion that playing every day would be a responsible investment in your future. In spite of your early successes, you may come to rethink that financial plan when confronted with new evidence.

When scientists who spend their lives examining the effects of the varroa mite on honey bee colonies suggest that controlling the troublesome bug is critical to successful beekeeping, one response could be "I didn't treat last year, and my hive is still alive. Suck on that, Science!" That does not necessarily invalidate the work of beekeeping experts whose warnings may be based on slightly lengthier, more formal studies.

Another line (falsely) attributed to Ronald Reagan is "trust, but verify." As we continue our beekeeping (and life) journeys, our successes or failures may depend, in part, on whom we decide to trust and how much initiative we take in determining the legitimacy of what we hear. Not all information is created equal. Dismissing experts out of hand simply because they are "experts" seems short-sighted. We owe it to ourselves and our bees to make decisions based on the best available, objective information. Science is not infallible. Experts are not infallible. But most are quite willing to admit when they are wrong. Are we?

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