Confessions of a beekeeper

The blogger is back after pausing to finish a novel

Even if some days still feel wintry, birds and bees think otherwise. Carolina wrens and bluebirds have started nests in our boxes. My hive boiled with insects, rising like steam out of the opened hive when I inspected it, every frame covered with industrious bodies filling the comb with pollen and nectar. To avoid them swarming to find more accommodation I need to ‘split’ the hive soon.


After losing some every year (40% on average for Virginia apiaries), I decided to abandon beekeeping if I failed again, but bees won’t let me go this time! Among the threats, careless gardening is high on the list of suspects. Since bugs and weeds flourish in hot and humid Tidewater summers, a huge market exists for pesticides and weed killers.

Some years ago, I wrote to the manager of our local Lowes store asking to draw customer attention to products that can harm pollinators. I didn’t get a reply, but perhaps someone in a distant office had the same thought. Plants for sale now have warning labels in case they have been exposed to pesticide residues in nurseries.

Neonicotinoids (neonics) are synthetic analogues of nicotine and among the most deadly insecticides (think how smoking deters bugs). They affect nerve transmission via the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR), a molecule I am familiar with from research on electric rays at the Stazione Zoologica in Naples. Their electric organ has such an extraordinary density of these receptors it helped biochemists to characterize a protein of great medical significance. Rays need them to stun their prey with an electric shock but made me wary of dipping a hand in their tank.

Skipping the digression, our nACh receptors are different to insects, making us less vulnerable to neonics. If only honeybees were more like us! Mounting evidence shows they have multiple impacts on development, sleep (yes, they do), navigation (finding home) and diet (preferred flowers). Absorbed into the vascular system, they are distributed systemically, including the nectar carried in the crop of bees.

Neonics are used worldwide, except in the EU where they are banned. A backyard hive is not safe from the range of products sprayed on gardens even when a beekeeper carefully avoids them because his/ her bees forage for miles from home. The practices of neighbors, lawn care companies and farmers can destroy bee colonies, often unknowingly. Gardens are supposed to offer a connection with nature but are killing fields to beneficial insects. Home owners bothered by a biting species reflexively call Mosquito Joe to mist their yard and the street, making victims of honey bees, butterflies and other pollinators. To love these insects you must live hopefully and prepare for grief.   

Categorized as Nature

By Roger Gosden

A British and American scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology whose career spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. He married Lucinda Veeck, the embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. They retired to Virginia, where he became a master naturalist and writer affiliated with William & Mary.


  1. Nice to have you back, and love the fresh new look for the blog.
    How much more healthy an environment for wildlife and us we would have if people didn’t resort to chemicals to obliterate anything that doesn’t ‘fit’ into their magazine-perfect home/garden…

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