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.
Third, 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 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.
Pingback: Beekeeper Royally Stung | How To Raise Bees
Just to be clear, Ron, this wasn’t about breaching rules of the UK beekeeping community, it was about breaking the law of the land! All bee medicines are licensed in the UK by the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. They need to meet strict criteria for safety and efficacy, and consumer safety. The correct procedure when foul brood (EFB I guess in this case) is suspected is to contact the local bee inspector. If foul brood is confirmed the apiary is quarantined and movement restrictions are also placed neighbouring apiaries, which will be inspected. The inspector may try a shook swarm if colonies are strong, or he may treat with oxtet, but often-times total destruction is the best way forward. For that reason most of us have Bee Disease Insurance to cover the cost of the kit destroyed. I know nothing of the details of this case, but our bee inspectors are very supportive of the beekeeping community and would have only pursued this case if there had been flagrant disregard for the law.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks very much for contributing to this. My sources for this piece were the BBC and various Scottish newspaper websites. I’m certainly not intimate with beekeeping in the UK (though one of my biggest thrills was visiting beekeepers in the Hampshire area a number of years ago!). Regarding ‘breaching rules of the UK beekeeping community”, I understand what you mean, but I also know that regulations around bee health almost always originate within the community. In the US, Canada (where I live), and central Europe, I have seen that associations (“the community”) petition or advise their respective governments which then enact rules that the beekeepers must follow. However, I certainly do not know the situation in the UK.
You have provided some great background – I wasn’t aware of the Bee Disease Insurance nor the quarantine system – and I value your thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to clarify this!
Hi, Ron—This is a very well written examination of how someone can get smeared by association and the media do a bad job of articulating the actual connections—as so often happens. Knowing the many years of work Prince Charles has devoted to honoring regenerative agriculture I feel badly that this situation has been connected to him.
However, I would like readers to know that the knowledge and practice of keeping local survivor stock bees is already being done worldwide. Pastoralist beeks in poor countries have neither the funds nor access to treatments of ANY kind, and their numbers are ignored in analysis of managed colonies. The world has a much larger number of people living on less than $5 a day than the very small number with a much larger cash flow and resource availability. We must remember, for the greater part of human historical association with the honey bee, colonies were not purchased from breeders at distant points and shipped hundreds of miles away. LOCAL stocks of swarms were caught and hived and reflected adaptation to their environmental conditions and climates. All of this has changed in the era of “consumer” procurement of breeder bees of narrow genetic lineage, selected for traits valued by humans, but often stripped of the necessary traits for vigor and resilience. Randy Oliver is now writing urgently about this, in a different way than what I was reading by him when I began keeping feral stock 6 years ago. Darwinian concepts of selective pressure need acknowledgement and allowance for evolving to get us out of the chemical treadmill that has “supported” medication dependent bees for a nanosecond of real time. We are reading more and more research papers and bee journal articles by respected scientists (Tom Seeley and Randy Oliver in the ABJ recently) and the entire beekeeping journal recently launched out of the UK—Natural Bee Husbandry—which also contains scholarly articles from Dorian Pritchard and Tom Seeley. Here—
It seems what you say is true in regard to mites being rampant (not sure about foulbrood) in North America—-in commercial breeder sources stock. People practicing the growing selective process of managing chemical free bees WITH mites as just another background stressor, as evolutionary pressure precipitates, are trying to show the way to better beekeeping. I think some of the roadblock to us humans adapting to another mindset for managing our bees is the propensity to assume we can control things, given enough tricks are applied. Giving up control is very hard.
Nature is a pitiless taskmaster and we ignore her lessons at our peril.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hi Susan, Thanks for expanding upon the issue of chemical-free beekeeping and pointing out examples. I was not aware of the new journal, Natural Bee Husbandry – thanks for the link. Also, particular thanks for your take on the “nanosecond of real time” in which we have attempted to change Darwinian laws. In that perspective, with antibiotics being about 75 years old, ‘conventional’ modern beekeeping becomes quite an anomaly. Nevertheless, I also recognize how humans have affected the environment as a response to feeding the seven billion – something you have previously noted and lamented. Until we get human population down to a few hundred million, we may be stuck with chemical dependency. I personally support controlled use of meds/fertilizers/genetics, though I realize it’s not going to work forever.
I respect those of you who are trying to lead us towards a cleaner future. I also respect those who are providing food to the masses. As you noted, we have a tendency to assume that we can control nature with our bag of tricks and our (short-term) observation has seen this attitude justified in much longer and healthier lives for most people. But long-term, we’ll likely pay a heavy toll. (Unless there is no long-term and World War III starts next week with the whole planet getting a nuclear scorching.)
It is sad indeed but he was mad to risk it. Foulbrood may be rampant in North America but rates are low here in the UK, suggesting the strategy of automatically destroying AFB infected colonies and favouring shook-swarm for EFB infected colonies is working.
From the National Bee Unit website at http://www.nationalbeeunit.com/index.cfm?sectionid=26: “In trials conducted by the National Bee Unit showed that Shook swarm is more successful than OTC for the control of EFB in England and Wales. In the Spring following treatment, shaken colonies were three times less likely to test positive for M. plutonius. This finding appears logical since OTC treatment does not remove the etiological agent present in the hive. In contrast, the Shook swarm method provides the bees with M. plutonius-free material. In addition, OTC treated colonies were five times more likely to show recurrence of EFB the following year than Shook swarm treated colonies.”
LikeLiked by 1 person
A reader sent a link to me via a direct message. The link leads to a page of the UK Beekeepers’ Forum where Mr McGregor has posted his position on this event. It’s only fair that I share the link (http://www.beekeepingforum.co.uk/showthread.php?t=38821) and quote a few of his remarks:
“The options available were destruction of symptomatic colonies, or treatment with oxytetracycline to keep it under control until the situation was clearer. (Shook swarming is another option but in Sept and Oct it is not a practical choice.)” [Ron’s note: Meds could not be fed earlier because the flow was on. Shook treatment in autumn would not likely give the bees time to establish before winter.]
“There are also reports describing Mr. McGregor as the ‘Royal beekeeper’. This is not the case. He has never been such a person. He was fortunate enough to have the privilege of being allowed to place hives on Royal estates from the mid 1980s onwards. At no time has he ever described himself as the Royal beekeeper and indeed it is completely inaccurate to do so. He sincerely hopes the erroneous reporting has not caused embarrassment to the Royal family or anyone connected with it.”
And Mr McGregor wraps up with this:
“We would like to conclude by putting on record our gratitude and appreciation for the effort that all those on the official side in Scotland have made to help see the industry through these critical years.”
Thanks for the link, it does explain the situation better. The press reports were definitely misleading in their description of him as a ‘Royal beekeeper’. I wonder what caused the conditions that led to such a large outbreak of EFB across multiple professional beekeepers. Perhaps something to do with the Scottish weather conditions last year.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I also thought about the infamous Scottish weather as a probable cause, but that should then lead to a regular recurrence of the problem.
Instead, I wonder if 3,000 hives and 5 employee-beekeepers (a number I’d seen elsewhere) may mean that the outfit was stretched too thin to catch early signs of trouble. Just a guess. I used to run about 1,000 mostly alone, but depending on how often hives are moved and what needs done, 5 folks might be understaffing.
Pingback: Beekeeper Royally Stung | Raising Honey Bees
A very interesting article, as all yours tend to be! Certainly the contrast between the UK and Canadian practices in terms of how terramycin is used appears very great. Here (in Canada) it is freely available and, as far as I can tell, is routinely applied by many beekeepers as a ‘preventative’ treatment for AFB. I might well say, dusted on with abandon, although that might not be quite fair. This may be about to change, (veterinary approval to be required) and when that was noted at our most recent beekeeper’s association meeting, there was a veritable ‘buzz’ of discontent in the room. The honey-buying public remains blissfully unaware of such matters, I am sure.
One thing in particular caught my attention in your piece – you say:
“I will say, though, that in North America, mites and foulbrood are rampant and will destroy most untreated bees in short order”.
It certainly seems that varroa are found almost everywhere (although not in Newfoundland and NW Ontario), but is AFB really ‘rampant’, i.e. spreading unchecked? I asked our provincial inspector about this a few years ago and as memory serves, he said he seldom sees it , I think in less than 2% of inspections. It may be hard to get good data. The 2015 Canadian Honey Bee Health Survey, which tested bees in BC, MB, AB and ON, found it in only 0.5% of >1200 colonies checked in Alberta, and that seems representative of the other areas.
I may be wrong, but it was my belief that colonies showing clear signs of AFB infection are rather rare in most parts of Canada. The spores are all over, of course.
Rob in NB
Thanks for reading this blog and for taking the time to write. You are correct that varroa has apparently not been seen yet around Thunderbay and in NFLD. I agree with what you are saying about AFB (and thanks for the link!). When I worked as a bee inspector (way back in the 1970s), the three counties I inspected averaged between three and five percent infection rates for AFB – about the same as your provincial inspector noted 40 years later. Those are the active, visible eruptions (real cases of American Foulbrood). So, you are quite correct that “colonies showing clear sign of AFB infection are rather rare in most parts of Canada.” What I should have written is that AFB spores are rampant and the disease would be common (rampant) if North American beekeepers weren’t using medications to hide the symptoms.
Rob in NB…this is Janet in BC. The foulbroods are a real problem here, and it may be because the commercial mobile pollination industry contains elements that medicate their bees more or less constantly (but certainly off label) for foulbrood (and mites, which I believe have been documented as spreading EFB, not sure on AFB). Drift bees off those hives can spread the problem. Compounding factors may be not having enough bee inspectors to inspect as we’d like, limited ability to enforce good practice, a real and understandable unwillingness to ask a beekeeper to destroy their bees when their livelihood depends on them, and under-reporting of infections. It is a thorny and intractable problem!
Hi Janet….Certainly foulbrood seems to be a ticklish issue for provincial authorities, which take up varied positions on how it should be managed. BC and AB clearly state that prophylactic use of antibiotics is not recommended. This makes sense, as the frequency of antibiotic-resistant AFB seems to be highest in these provinces (the 2016 Canadian Honey Bee Health Survey is now available on line and bears this out). Other provinces (Maritimes, SK and QC) say nothing in terms of official recommendations, or refer to other provinces’ suggestions. ON and MB are ambiguous. Ontario, with glorious sleight of word, says that beekeepers ‘should consider’ prophylactic use of oxytet. Manitoba says that spring packages and wintered colonies ‘should receive’ a dose of oxytet against AFB. https://www.gov.mb.ca/agriculture/crops/production/pubs/administering-antibiotics-and-acaricides-to-honey-bees.pdf
At the same time I believe MB maintains restrictions against importing bees from BC and AB because of the fear of importing oxytet-resistant foulbrood! Some irony here, as they are advocating a treatment regime that will tend to develop this resistance in their home province. A good inspection system with prompt destruction of infected colonies seems best, and probably no prophylactic treatments. Right now our provincial inspection system in NB is being overtaxed by efforts to keep up with SHB. The more we can inspect and monitor as individual beekeepers, the better, I think.