Texas Ag Code Chapter 131 sets out provisions for regulating Bees and Honey. This section is characterized by a register-inspect-quarantine-treat/destroy regime that has failed Texas Beekeepers from the start.
Registration under current law is voluntary and free. Registration is currently used for appearing “official” in two regards. First, land owners are frequently required to register the hives on their land in order to establish ag valuation for ad valorum property taxes. The registration is one way in which county appraisal districts can defer to a state agency, in this case Texas Apiary Inspection Service (TAIS) for the purpose of recognition of ag use of properties. Second, the registration is required for Texas Master Beekeeper Candidates for official recognition of their activities in beekeeping. Both uses are somewhat arbitrary.
Bee inspections in Texas are focused on disease and pest identification and management. Historically, inspectors usually focused, as they should, on commercial operations that sell queens, packages or nucs, and commercial pollinators – those perceived as having a high risk to vector disease. For instance, large shipments of bees from out of state arrive on trucks in quantities of approximately 400 each. Their potential to vector disease results from 1) their high numbers, and 2) their migratory nature and concomitant exposure to diseases from a variety of ecologies across the entire continent. Nevertheless, these migratory, commercial pollinators currently vector very little disease into the state as their hives are heavily and frequently treated for disease and pests.
Resident beekeepers are occasionally inspected and the results are similar to migratory operators. Economic realities force these operators to carefully monitor and treat their hives.
Hobby beekeepers are seldom inspected as part of the state inspection program, but any beekeeper may request an inspection. These requested inspections require a fee (currently $75) and the results are dramatically higher levels of disease and pests. According to TAIS, for example, the average mite counts for commercial or sideliner operations is 1.8-1.9 mites per hundred bees. The same metric for hobby beekeepers was 5.7, approximately 3 times the level of professional beekeepers.
The mere idea of a quarantine of honey bees is absurd. Bees can not be confined to a geographic area of course, because they’re free to fly. When they forage they will encounter and/or spread whatever diseases or communicable pests that are present in the local ecology. It is also pointless to “quarantine” managed bees when they are surrounded by high densities of feral colonies that will vector any disease or pest around the managed colony quarantine.
This point can not be over emphasized. A leading entomologist at Texas A&M University has written, “As someone who has worked with invasive species my entire career, I can’t think of a single instance where a quarantine stopped the spread of any invasive insect or plant.” He also recognized that feral bees play a critical role in vectoring any pest or disease around “quarantined” managed colonies. “…when Africanized bees first were detected in the State I would have argued vehemently against any quarantine effort. It would not stop Africanized bees and it would only waste resources [and]…feral populations of bees in some parts of the state are more dominant than managed bees.” This was exactly what happened with Africanized bees in Texas. These costly and damaging measures must be considered in the context of efficacy, cost to beekeepers, and benefit to the state.
The bee inspector also has the power to order treatment or destruction of hives, and this authority goes hand-in-hand with quarantines. Despite inspector-ordered destruction of thousands of colonies, this dangerous and economically devastating measure has never stopped the spread of invasive honey bee pests such as varroa and tracheal mites. Occasionally American Foulbrood (AFB), a highly transmissible bacterial infection of honey bees is identified and a hive ordered destroyed by inspectors. The apiary is quarantined and reinspected after treatment. The result of this regime, combined with the economic realities of commercial beekeepers, is that AFB cases are carefully monitored and treated before an inspector can make such a discovery. Professional beekeepers, like every other animal husbandry activity, are perfectly capable to monitoring and treating these routine disease cases without the state supervision. Abandoned hives infected with AFB may warrant a bee inspector’s intervention, but feral colonies remain impossible to inspect, treat, or destroy. The inevitable result is that AFB will persist in the honey bee population.
Current law authorizing the seizure and destruction of hives has been abused egregiously in the past. A former Chief Apiary Inspector ordered thousands of hives destroyed in a futile effort, justified by the inspector as necessary to keep Varroa mites out of Texas. A subsequent quarantine imposed by a former bee inspector when a beekeeper advised the inspector of the presence of small hive beetles in Texas caused economic damage to the beekeeper who was forced to identify his live bee products (nucs and packages) as produced in a SHB infested apiary. Did this quarantine and destruction of bees protect Texas from SHB or Varroa? Of course not. They are ubiquitous now as they were then. Was the law applied equally to all beekeepers found with SHB or Varroa? No. Was the declaration of SHB as a dangerous pest or the declaration of a quarantine reviewed by any expert panel? Was it deleterious to beekeeping in Texas? Are we still issuing quarantines for this pest? No, no, no.
The regime of register-inspect-quarantine-destroy has failed for every imaginable pest in the past, and, according to experts, it is likely to fail for every pest in the future. No disease or pest of the honey bee has been halted or contained in Texas. As we’ve already seen, SHB are everywhere in Texas. African Honey bees spread their influence across the greater portion of the entire state, stopped only by climate/ecology in some regions. The Varroa mite is in every colony in North America, managed or feral. Nosema is common in Texas. Section 131 has failed in each of these introductions.
HB 1293 seeks to expand upon this complete failure with more registration, more inspection, and additional authority to declare quarantines and destruction. Along the way, the bill adds non-honey bees to the authority of an ag inspector.
The declaration of disease and pest should be made by experts after consideration of complicated factors in ecology. A single state official should not possess the power to destroy a business. As with the case of SHB, a single inspector may be badly wrong in his determination. HB 1293 does not provide such oversight by experts or accountability of the Chief Inspector.
The mission statement of TAIS says
“The mission of the Texas Apiary Inspection Service is to safeguard the apiary industry of Texas through the application of science-based regulations, educational opportunities and open communication with the industry.”
HB 1293 does not reflect science-based regulations. It builds upon decades of failed policy, while adding costs and interference to beekeeping in Texas.