Beekeeper Royally Stung



“Save the Bees!” – with Tetracycline?

A rather sad story today. Sad on several levels. A couple of months ago, we learned that “Prince Charles’ beekeeper” was charged with using a prohibited chemical in his hives. The chemical is a medication used throughout North America and other places around the world, but in the UK, even the king’s own bees aren’t supposed to eat Terramycin without a proper prescription. On Wednesday, the case was settled in court. Here’s why the story is sad.

First, the press coverage. Though Murray McGregor once produced honey for the prince’s Duchy Estates, he’s not exactly ‘the royal beekeeper’ which several news stories contend. Telling the story like that may be a jab at the prince. Prince Charles is known to favour unadulterated organic foodstuffs so the suggestion that honey associated with him might not be wholesome has some folks amused. Mr McGregor is not the royal bee man but the connection has thrust McGregor awkwardly into the news and cast an embarrassing umbra upon the affairs of the crown.

Second, Mr McGregor seems to have been trapped.  He was charged for something that might be commended in other circumstances – keeping his bees alive. He allegedly went online and ordered both Terramycin (to fight brood diseases) and Checkmite (to check mites) as medicines for his bees. He reportedly had asked government vets to provide the medications which he thought his bees needed, but they allegedly were taking too long to produce the paperwork and the meds. So, he acted illegally on his own. From The Scotsman:

McGregor, 61, of Blairgowrie, Perthshire, faced a total of seven charges relating to breaches of the Finance Act 1973, the European Communities Act 1972 and the Veterinary Medicines Regulations 2008.

Of those, he pled guilty to importing the unauthorised medicinal product, Terramycin 100MR, between July 2009 and October 2010.

He also admitted giving the Terramycin 100MR to an animal, namely the honey bee, in contravention of the relevant regulations. He admitted a third charge of possessing the substance without authorisation.

burning-foulbroodThird, the fine is pretty steep. In cash it is over $3000 US, but in the past McGregor has been ordered to “remove the drugs” from his bees. Since chemicals can be identified at rates of parts per billion, his equipment may need to be burned to comply, if this is enforced. So, it could cost tens of thousands of dollars – not to mention goodwill, lost sales, and a sullied reputation.  Mr McGregor – who owns the biggest honey farm in Scotland – will pay for years.

Fourth, this issue casts an unwanted light on the fact that honey bees are sometimes treated with medications. Not all bees and not everywhere, but the average news consumer doesn’t have time to learn that – they often just take home an abbreviated message:   something might be wrong with the honey they poured atop their morning’s crumpet.

Finally, the story is sad because it seems to involve a planned violation of rules put in place by the local beekeeping community. All beekeeping is local. Although American beekeepers have agreed to use some medications to control some bee diseases, other jurisdictions are trying to regulate bee drugs strictly or ban them entirely. Individual beekeepers may find it expedient to circumvent the rules –  but if they do, they undermine efforts (and sacrifices) already made by their colleagues.

Two years ago, Herald Scotland ran a huge piece about Mr McGregor. The story was entitled, “Save our bees – why one Scottish estate is supporting bee keeping and why we should do the same”.  Save the bees? Perhaps that’s why McGregor fed them meds. As his attorney told the court,

“…some of the colonies were showing signs of disease. The scale of this was unprecedented within the industry. Further tests showed it was widespread. The disease continued to spread. If left unchecked it would effectively decimate the bee population. Burning all the hives was not a viable option.”


The Hopetoun Estates – home to the Earl of Hopetoun and 224 colonies of bees

The Herald Scotland’s “Save our Bees” article describes how McGregor tends 224 of his hives on the Earl of Hopetoun’s estate. These are part of McGregor’s 3,000 colony operation. While visiting the estate, the reporter tasted some fresh honey cut right from a comb. The Herald Scotland reporter described it as “aromatic and dizzyingly addictive. It is a cliché but if nectar has a taste, this is it.”  If oxytetracycline has a taste, I wonder what that would be.  If drugs were in the reporter’s tasty morsel, they would have probably been harmless and not likely responsible for the “dizzyingly addictive” effect which she experienced.

This all leads to the general issue of whether we should medicate or not. I’m not going to dig into that today, as I’ve covered it several times in the past and will undoubtedly do it again in the future. I will say, though, that in North America, mites and foulbrood are rampant and will destroy most untreated bees in short order – unless the beekeeper is vigilant and able to keep bees in a careful, diligent manner. This requires dedicating the time and attention necessary to use natural means to keep bees healthy. It may be accomplished by an experienced hobby beekeeper. Occasionally, commercial folks also work out a system that maintains strong healthy colonies with little or no non-organic meds. (See, for example, Randy Oliver’s outfit in California.)

Meanwhile, if an entire nation or two is trying to avoid chemicals or has restricted their use significantly, then a beekeeper is obligated to follow the rules or pay a price.

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