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Organic beekeeping is equally productive as methods using chemicals

In a groundbreaking study led by Penn State entomologists, researchers have discovered that honeybee colonies managed by beekeeping using organic methods are just as healthy and productive as those managed with conventional systems, while avoiding the use of synthetic pesticides for controlling pests and pathogens within the hive. 

The research team believes that their study, which compared the performance of honeybees under three distinct management systems, marks the first time that organic beekeeping management has been shown to be both sustainable and supportive of high honey bee survival and honey production.

Beekeeper-collaborators and research volunteers collect data from honey bee hives as part of a study comparing different beekeeping management systems.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Margarita López-Uribe

Honeybee colony management is crucial for helping bees overcome various stressors. These include pests, diseases, pesticide exposure, and nutritional deficiencies, according to Robyn Underwood, lead author of the study published in the journal Scientific Reports

“Beekeeping management is a key aspect of honeybee health because it can help mitigate some of the negative effects caused by these stressors,” Underwood said. “For example, supplemental feeding can mitigate a lack of flowering plants nearby for foraging, and beekeepers can manage pests such as Varroa mites with cultural, mechanical, and chemical control practices.”

Despite the use of these management tactics, over 30 percent of honeybee colonies in the United States, including approximately 40 percent in Pennsylvania, still perish each winter. Consequently, beekeepers worldwide are constantly searching for the best management practices to maintain healthy and productive bees.

Very little past research on organic beekeeping 

Professor Margarita López-Uribe, a study co-author, pointed out that there is limited research on organic beekeeping. This is primarily due to requirements that restrict beekeepers’ ability to sell their products as certified organic. 

“In addition, existing studies largely have looked at the effect of one or two aspects of management at a time,” she explained. “But in reality, risks and benefits occur in the context of numerous other management decisions involved in beekeeping. Studies like ours using a systems approach can help us better understand the long-term trade-offs among the various practices.”

To assess the effectiveness of different beekeeping methods, the researchers studied nearly 300 honeybee colonies situated on eight certified organic farms. Six of the farms were located in Pennsylvania and two in West Virginia. The research team developed study protocols in collaboration with 30 experienced beekeepers

López-Uribe emphasized the importance of this partnership. “We wanted to replicate what beekeepers were doing in their bee yards. It wasn’t scientists just telling beekeepers how to do things — it was beekeepers telling us how they do things, and then we collected data over multiple years comparing the different systems.”

How the study was done

The study focused on three broad beekeeping management systems based on different philosophies: conventional, organic, and chemical-free management.

Conventional management involves frequent interventions, the use of chemical and nutritional supplements in beekeeping to keep colonies alive, and synthetic chemicals and antibiotics for pest and disease control. Large-scale commercial beekeepers commonly employ this system.

Organic management, on the other hand, is based on intervention only as needed. It excludes synthetic chemicals or antibiotics. This approach is popular among small and medium-scale beekeepers. It incorporates an integrated pest-management approach that combines cultural practices with organic-approved chemical treatments for pest control. 

Lastly, chemical-free management, preferred by hobbyists, is characterized by the absence of chemical applications and minimal interventions to the colony. This system relies on cultural practices for pest control and the bees’ own defenses against pathogens.

The researchers monitored the colonies for three years. They recorded overwintering survival, honey production, parasite and pathogen abundance. Also monitored was the expression of genes regulating immune function as a biomarker of honeybee health. 

What the researchers discovered

The study’s results, published in Scientific Reports, showed that both organic and conventional management systems increased winter survival by more than 180% compared to chemical-free management.

Organic and conventional management also increased total honey production across three years by 118% and 102%, respectively. There was no significant difference in survival or honey production between the two systems.

When compared to chemical-free systems, organic and conventional management in beekeeping both reduced levels of parasites and pathogens. This includes the Varroa mite, Vairimorpha ceranae (the microsporidian parasite causing Nosema disease), and deformed wing virus. Immune gene expression was also lower in the organic and conventional systems relative to chemical-free management.

The researchers believe that their holistic systems approach can be well-incorporated into beekeeping operations. This is because decisions in beekeeping are rarely made in isolation. Study lead author Robyn Underwood emphasized that although the study investigated organic honeybee colony management, the apiary products from these systems cannot be marketed as “certified organic” due to organic certification requirements. 

These requirements call for maintaining at least a 3-kilometer, pesticide-free radius around colonies. This stipulation is difficult for beekeepers to meet. However, the team’s ongoing research on landscape characteristics and honeybee foraging distances may provide a scientific basis for organic program authorities to ease that requirement.

Study results are important for beekeepers

“Our future research about the landscape and foraging should help us to inform changes in the standards for certification to decrease the required radius of ‘clean’ forage, assuming our hypotheses are supported,” said Underwood.

The findings from this study may represent a pivotal moment for beekeeping and beekeepers seeking sustainable, environmentally friendly, and effective management practices. By demonstrating that organic beekeeping can be just as successful as conventional methods, this research could encourage the adoption of organic practices that promote honeybee health and productivity. Simultaneously, it will reduce dependence on synthetic pesticides.

The study involved researchers from Penn State, including Brooke Lawrence, Nash Turley, Lizzette D. Cambron-Kopco, and Brenna Traver, as well as Parry Kietzman from Virginia Tech. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Penn State Schuylkill Faculty/Student Research Endowment and Research Development programs, and the Lorenzo L. Langstroth Endowment at Penn State supported this work.

More about honeybees

Honeybees are small, social insects belonging to the genus Apis, with the most common species being Apis mellifera. Their ability to produce honey, beeswax, and other valuable by-products is well-known.

Honeybees live in large colonies comprising a single queen, thousands of female worker bees, and a few hundred male drones. They play a vital role in pollination. This is crucial for the reproduction of many plant species, as well as food production for humans and the environment.

Honeybees are essential to humans for several reasons:


As honeybees forage for nectar and pollen, they transfer pollen grains from one flower to another, facilitating pollination. This process is crucial for the fertilization and reproduction of many flowering plants, including fruits, vegetables, and nuts that make up a significant portion of the human diet. Estimates indicate that honeybees are responsible for pollinating about one-third of the world’s food crops.

Honey production

Honeybees produce honey by collecting nectar from flowers, which they then store in their hives. Humans have used honey as a natural sweetener for thousands of years. People also use it for its antimicrobial and medicinal properties. Beekeeping is a major producer of honey.

Beeswax production

Honeybees produce beeswax, a natural wax used to build their honeycomb structures. Humans use beeswax in various applications, such as candles, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and food products.

Other by-products

Honeybees also produce other valuable by-products. These include propolis, royal jelly, and bee pollen, which have various uses in the health, cosmetic, and food industries.

Honeybees are also important to the environment for the following reasons:


By pollinating a wide variety of plants, honeybees contribute to the maintenance of biodiversity. This, in turn, supports a range of wildlife, including other insects, birds, and mammals that rely on these plants for food and shelter.

Ecosystem stability

Pollination by honeybees is essential for the reproduction of many plants that form the basis of various ecosystems. These ecosystems provide essential services such as water filtration, erosion control, and carbon sequestration.

In summary, honeybees are critical for human food production, the production of valuable by-products, and the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem stability. 

The decline in honeybee populations due to various factors, such as habitat loss, pesticide exposure, diseases, and climate change, has raised concerns about the potential impacts on food security and environmental health. Therefore, efforts to protect and conserve honeybee populations are crucial for the well-being of both humans and the environment.

More about beekeeping

Beekeeping, also known as apiculture, is the practice of maintaining and caring for honeybee colonies, usually in hives, by humans. Beekeepers, or apiarists, manage these colonies to produce honey, beeswax, pollen, propolis, and royal jelly. They also support pollination of nearby crops and plants.

Beekeeping has been practiced for thousands of years. It has evolved over time, with various methods and equipment used around the world. Here are some key aspects of beekeeping:

Types of hives

The most common type of hive used today is the Langstroth hive, which consists of a series of removable frames that allow beekeepers to easily inspect and manage their colonies. Other types of hives include top-bar hives, Warre hives, and traditional skeps, each with its own design and management style.

Colony establishment

Beekeepers can establish new colonies by capturing swarms, purchasing packaged bees, or by splitting existing colonies. A new colony typically consists of a queen, worker bees, and drones. The queen bee is essential for laying eggs and producing new generations of bees, while the worker bees maintain the hive, forage for food, and care for the brood. Drones’ primary function is to mate with new queens.

Hive management

Beekeepers must regularly inspect their hives to ensure the health and productivity of the colony. This involves checking for diseases, parasites, and pests, such as Varroa mites, Nosema, and American foulbrood, as well as ensuring the colony has enough food and space for growth. Beekeepers may also need to manage swarming behavior, which occurs when a colony becomes overcrowded, and a portion of the bees leaves with the old queen to establish a new colony.

Honey and by-product production

Bees store honey in the hive, and beekeepers usually harvest it once or twice a year, depending on the climate and available nectar sources. During the honey harvest, beekeepers remove frames filled with honey, uncap the wax cells, and extract the honey using a centrifugal extractor. In addition to honey, beekeepers can collect other by-products, such as beeswax, propolis, and pollen, which have various uses in food, cosmetics, and health products.

Pollination services

Many beekeepers also provide pollination services to farmers by placing their hives near crops that require pollination. Honeybees are important pollinators for a variety of crops, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, which can lead to increased crop yields and quality.

Equipment and protective gear

Beekeepers use various tools and equipment to manage their hives, such as hive tools, smokers, bee brushes, and extractors. Protective gear, including bee suits, gloves, and veils, is worn to prevent bee stings while working with the colonies.

Beekeeping can be a rewarding hobby, small-scale enterprise, or large-scale commercial operation. It requires dedication, knowledge, and skills to maintain healthy colonies and produce high-quality products, while also playing a crucial role in supporting pollination and the health of the environment.


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