Becoming a beekeeper is an exciting decision to make, but it is also a hobby that comes with significant responsibility. When you join the community of beekeepers in your region, your bees will interact with other bees that live in the wild as well as other hobbyist hives and potentially even commercial bee operations. Joining the bee world is a particularly impactful decision, which makes it important to understand your state’s apiary regulations and why they’re in place.
Registering with the state as a hobbyist beekeeper is a fast-track way to learn the ropes. States define hobbyist differently, usually based on the number of hives. For example, in Montana it means no more than 5 hives per individual or 10 per household. In Colorado, it’s less than 150 hives.
We talked to Alyssa Piccolomini, State Entomologist at the Montana Department of Agriculture, about her role in supporting healthy bee populations. Read on to understand how regulation, inspection, and hive registering works in Montana, as an example.
>> Or, you can find links to information about your state here: https://apiaryinspectors.org/us-inspection-services/
Why are apiaries regulated by the state?
Apiaries are regulated because our goals are to maintain healthy bee populations and protect our apiaries from harmful pests and diseases. Montana specifically has a large commercial beekeeping industry. Montana has over 250,000 registered colonies which are spread across about 5,700 locations. These bees leave Montana often and go to California to pollinate almonds, citrus, and some go into Washington for apples. It’s a big industry. I think everyone knows pollination is important if we want to keep eating, so it’s imperative to protect the bees doing that work.
Honey production directly from bees is important, too. The value of honey production in Montana is valued at about $24 million (according to the 2018 Montana Agricultural Statistic publication).
Regulating all these hives means we’re all playing from the same set of best practices to keep everyone’s hives healthy.
Commercial vs. Hobbyist
Commercial beekeepers have to register their hives; hobbyist registration is voluntary here, but hobbyists are part of the community, too. Disease and pests don’t care what type of apiary you’re registered as. If colonies are weakened, then it’s a really easy way for those diseases and pests to enter and spread to other colonies. When everyone is aware of the pests and diseases, then we can all take measures to support a healthier collection of bees in the state, so when you register, you’re part of this communication loop.
What is being regulated?
The laws vary from state to state. I recommend everyone reads the laws in your state. Go to this website: https://apiaryinspectors.org/us-inspection-services/ to find your local information. But, for example, in Montana there are 5 pests and diseases that we are vigilant about:
- American foul brood (Amer. Foulbrood Info Sheet)
- Small hive beetle (Small Hive Beetle Info Sheet)
- Africanized bees (Africanized Bees Info Sheet)
- Tropilaelaps mites (Tropilaelaps Mites Info Sheet)
- Cape bees (Cape Bees Info Sheet)
These specific ones have the potential to threaten the community of bees in Montana, but again, this is state-by-state. For context, take American foulbrood. This one is highly infectious and spreads by spores that are viable for decades. Some research papers say 60-plus years. It’s a disease that’s pretty intense. Currently, the only thing to do is burn the hives to get rid of it. If AFB became pervasive in our state, it would be a disaster for the industry.
What about Varroa mites? Aren’t they a big deal?
If you have bees, you have Varroa. This isn’t a top tier priority that the state needs to get involved in from a prevention standpoint. It’s already here. It’s also a pest that beekeepers can manage on their own, if they have the right info. So, as an inspector, I play a support role by trying to help maintain healthy colonies by providing treatment suggestions for Varroa, give them new info about the latest research, and connect them with resources like Honey Bee Health Coalition, which has an amazing online Varroa Management Guide and Decision Tool.
Managing Varroa is something that should be practiced, but it isn’t regulated. If I go and do an inspection and see an astronomical amount, I’m not going to destroy your hive; but you’re probably going to lose it anyway if there is a rampant Varroa problem. The advice I give is to help you keep your bees alive; I’m an entomologist. I don’t enjoy destroying hives because of pest or diseases-related issue. My goal is to help people and prevent loss from happening.
I’ll give you information about management, and there really are tons of options that aren’t based on synthetic chemical applications. Other options include essential oils and organic acids. I highly encourage using IPM (Integrated Pest Management) when treating for Varroa, and of course, to sample for mite numbers throughout the spring, summer, and fall. Tracking numbers across time is essential to keeping Varroa counts low.
You mentioned you do inspections. What does this entail?
I think that, because I am a regulator, people are hesitant to call me. For the most part, I’m only inspecting hives upon request, and that’s mostly at the commercial level. The only time I’m inspecting hives not on request is if there is a disease or pest outbreak and the purpose of that, like I mentioned earlier, is to make sure Montana remains a healthy place to keep bees for everyone.
Side Note: In Montana, commercial operations have to be registered, but hobbyist colonies register voluntarily. More about that below.
I do inspections at the request of the beekeeper, and it is usually to get a health certificate. In order to enter or leave the state with bees, you have to have a health certificate, and you have to have an inspection to get the certificate. Because the commercial industry is so large – they’re exiting and entering the state so frequently – it feels like we’re always putting them first. However, I really do encourage hobbyists to call if they’d like an inspection.
We do charge a fee whether the apiary is registered or not ($42/hr at time of publishing) that starts when I arrive and stops when I leave. For hobbyists, most of the time it’s about a half hour, depending on how many questions and hives they have. I also do Varroa counts during the inspections, which can be really helpful for new hobbyist beekeepers, and I will collect samples for Nosema testing, if requested.
If registering is voluntary, why would hobbyists “bother”?
First, and most importantly, when you register it tells me where the general location of where your colonies are. If there is a disease or pest outbreak in your area, I send you an information sheet documenting the date, general location/county of the outbreak, and a fact sheet on the pest or disease that we found. Then, you know what to be on the lookout for. You’re in that communication cycle. You know what is gong on in your area so that you can be a better beekeeper and a better neighbor to other beekeepers.
Second, and this is new this year: I do free Nosema (honey bee microsporidian parasite) testing for any registered beekeeper. Beekeepers can send bees directly to my lab, or I can collect bees at the time of inspection and send the results back. If you’re not registered, I would charge for the service, and it’d be the same as a registration costs ($19/annually), so at that point you may as well get all the other benefits.
Third, I manage a database of registered apiaries that make GPS coordinates accessible to other industries, so you can see where our bee colonies are. Pesticide applicators use this map to see where the beekeepers are located. They’ll give you a courtesy call telling you when they’re spraying, giving you an opportunity to move your hive. The call isn’t required, but they don’t like killing bees either, and it helps everyone maintain healthy populations.
Last, I’ll never turn down a phone call, but I would like for everyone to remember that the apiary program in Montana is entirely fee for service, meaning fees from registrations is our primary source of income to keep the program running, and I am the only inspector in the state. It takes time to send the letters, talk on the phone, circulate all over the state for inspections, and meet with hobbyist groups annually. Those things cost money. It’s $19/yr, which really is not much to keep your bees healthy, especially considering your investment in equipment. Ultimately, registration helps me to do my job better because of the communication factor and it also helps beekeepers stay in the loop and be better members of our bee community.
Since it’s just you, what should beekeepers read before they call?
Please read the laws and rules before keeping bees. Whether you are a registered beekeeper or not, many of the laws and rules still pertain to you and your apiary. I think this is a really common misconception. If you have any questions about the laws or rules, please feel free to call me! I’m always happy to clarify any questions or concerns. Here are a few other helpful resources:
- MT Dept of Agriculture’s bee website is: https://agr.mt.gov/Bees and beekeepers can find PDFs of the laws, rules, regulated pests, applications, and links to useful websites.
- Montana State Beekeepers Association Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/760355480971159
- USDA Beltsville, MD Lab (this lab runs all sorts of tests on pesticides, brood diseases, etc., and it is where I send a lot of my samples): https://www.ars.usda.gov/northeast-area/beltsville-md-barc/beltsville-agricultural-research-center/bee-research-laboratory/
- Bee Informed Partnership (a great resource for information about colony losses throughout the US and useful management tools): https://beeinformed.org/
- MSU Pollinator Health Center: http://www.montana.edu/pollinators/
- Tools for Managing Varroa: https://honeybeehealthcoalition.org/varroa/