TBA Transparency Issues Cast a Shadow on Summer Clinic Success

In an email update addressing the reorganization of TBA which was sent to members the morning of May 1st, Chris Moore, president of Texas Beekeepers Association, said “My desire is to be as open and transparent – both personally and for TBA as an organization – as I can.” He followed this with “discussions and deliberations are, by necessity, confidential to the TBA officers and board until informed decisions can be made.” This has been the message we’ve received from the TBA board for quite some time now; they say they’d like to give the membership access to information about what’s going on… but they won’t.

I went to TBA Summer Clinic in Conroe on June 30th. I gave my “Fights About Mites” presentation and a presentation on bee removal work. I spent the rest of my time there chatting with beekeepers from around the state and listening to Dr. Jamie Ellis speak on a series of topics over the span of the day. It was a great day, and a huge success, which just makes it all the more disappointing and worrisome that TBA won’t allow members to attend board meetings, won’t provide board meeting minutes to the membership, and generally operates in secret behind closed doors. It’s strange to keep information secret if it consists of details that would impress and reassure. It’s strange for triumph to be marked with what essentially amounts to a gag order on the content of board meetings. At $50 per person TBA just brought in around $34,000 on Summer Clinic registrations alone. That doesn’t take into account TBA merchandise, or the money generated by having Roger Farr uncomfortably begging for twenty dollar bills to fill honey supers that TBA had the Texas Honey Queen Program girls carrying around the room. It’s strange that the TBA board members don’t seem to think that the members deserve to know how this money will be spent.

I have personally been asking for access to more information for some time now. My concern regarding transparency started last year, when TBA was pushing hard for House Bill 1293 to update Chapter 131 of the Texas Ag Code: a bill that they eventually and reluctantly admitted (after the information had already been leaked) that even some of the board members were against.

This Spring, after the TBA delegates meeting in Conroe, I asked TBA Director Tanya Phillips if members were allowed to sit in on TBA board meetings. As president of my local/regional club, Trinity Valley Beekeepers Association, I knew it was standard for us to encourage members to attend meetings of the board. Tanya pointed out that her husband had sat in on board meetings before, and encouraged me to ask President Chris Moore. When asked, Chris Moore said he wasn’t sure if that would be ok or not, and went to ask Leesa Hyder, who is the appointed TBA Secretary. Before long Chris returned and told me members were not allowed in board meetings.

Since Summer Clinic traditionally marks the next required TBA board meeting, I called and asked TBA Director Ashley Ralph when and where the board meeting was, and made it clear I wanted to attend. She said I should email the board asking for that information. I did so. My email was ignored entirely by the TBA board… not one of them has responded to it to date. I showed up for Summer Clinic still asking to attend the board meeting, and was told that Chris Moore should have answered my email, and that the board meeting had been held the day before. Requests for minutes from the Spring board meeting have been ignored. Requests for minutes from Summer Clinic board meeting have been ignored. If any board meeting minutes at all have ever been made available to the membership I’m not aware of it. Even the minutes from the 2017 annual members meeting have not been made available, despite conflicting versions of the resolutions which were passed at that meeting having been published in the TBA Journal.

Most beekeeping clubs operate with extreme transparency. Lone Star Beekeepers Association board meetings are open to members. In a recent social media inquiry every local club leader who responded stated that their club communicates openly with the members and allows members to attend board meetings. Comments included “All of our club board meetings are open to everyone.” and “Excluding [the members] cries out that something is deeply wrong with the organization.” The TBA board has a history of being fearful of its members; there was a lot of attention given to the possibility that “troublemakers” would “disrupt” the annual business meeting last year… presumably by asking hard questions or expressing an opinion contrary to that of the board.

Is there a downside to open and transparent conduct? Essentially, from the perspective of a board that has forgotten that they are servants of the membership, I would say yes, it is conceivable that there is. There is the risk that the membership will demand a process, or a timeline, or a bylaw wording, that the members want but the board does not. There is a history of TBA board members clearly viewing member input and contribution as opposition; most infamously, opposition by the membership to board actions was compared to Cain and Abel, to slavery, and to WWII-era Europe in a presentation by TBA Director Roger Farr at the 2017 delegates meeting… a comparison which he has never seen fit to publicly retract or apologize for, and other board members have never seen fit to expect that he do so.

So the question remains: what is the TBA board so afraid of sharing with the membership? Why meet behind closed doors and demand confidentiality? What secret could look worse than the secrecy itself?

Could Texas Ag Code adversely affect Native Bees?

Texas House Representative Tracy O. King of Uvalde County has introduced a bill in the current legislative session that affects changes to the portion of the Texas Agriculture Code that regulates beekeeping.  The proposed changes were filed on January 25 of this year in the form of House Bill 1293.

I believe that H.B. 1293 has the potential to have a significant negative impact on Texas native bee species.

You wouldn’t expect a revision to the state agricultural code on beekeeping to have an adverse impact on pollinators. In fact, most beekeepers are quick to tell you that what’s good for honey bees is good for native bees, and vice versa. They’re right… and yet this bill seems to imply otherwise.

Section 131.001, subdivision 17, defines “Unwanted species of bees” as “a species of bees, including a non-Apis species of bees, that is considered deleterious by the chief apiary inspector and that must be reported under Section 131.025.”

First off, unwanted bees? I’m sure that surprises most of us. We probably know that many US bee species are facing major difficulties. Seven Hawaiian species made the endangered list last year. The protected status of the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee has already made headlines repeatedly in 2017. Nesting site loss, limited forage availability, monoculture farming, agricultural insecticide usage, mosquito spraying, climate change… all of this is hitting our native pollinators, and hitting them hard. We need to preserve our native bees.

Well, before we go any further, let’s just talk for a minute about the implications of “non-Apis” in this bill. The genus Apis includes all species and subspecies of the honey bees, and is placed under Texas Apiary Inspection Service jurisdiction by the definition of “bee” (Section 131.001 subdivision 4). So between these two definitions every single bee in Texas is under the jurisdiction of a department responsible for regulating and safeguarding the keeping of honey bees. All of our native bees are “non-Apis species of bees”. Bumble bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, carpenter bees, sweat bees, digger bees, cactus bees, squash bees, longhorned bees, cuckoo bees, sunflower bees… all under Texas Apiary (root: Apis) Inspection Service control. How odd.

So what did the bill intend to address with the “unwanted species of bees” definition? I’ve spoken with members of the committee who worked on this bill before it went to Mr. King’s office. They say this is intended to address the Cape Bee, a honey bee from South Africa with a tendency to be parasitic on other honey bee hives. Not only is the Cape Bee an Apis species, but it’s actually a subspecies of the Western Honey Bee… as such, it could not be listed as an unwanted species without disallowing all of the honey bees in Texas. I’ve spoken with a TAIS official who confirmed this. The only conceivable positive use of this definition would be to attempt to prevent the influx of some invasive non-Apis bee species into Texas… my understanding is that there is no cause to think any such situation is likely. Even if it were, why would we expect invasive species issues to be regulated by the agency that is responsible for the agricultural keeping of honey bees? There is no reason to think an invasive species of non-Apis bee would have any more impact on beekeeping than our native species do.

Are Texas native bee species “deleterious” to the keeping of honey bees? Common sense would say no. Every beekeeper you ask will say no. But regulatory measures should be written to be able to address the worst case scenario. In conservation situations we frequently refer to this less-than-optimistic mindset as the precautionary principle. So the question is, if someone wanted to use the wording in this bill and make the legal argument that our native bees are deleterious to apiculture, could they? Unfortunately, I’m concerned the answer may be yes. On a most obvious level, bees do compete for floral resources; there is a limited amount of pollen and nectar to gather. What is picked up by one bee is not there for the next. I commonly hear people with an interest in preserving our native bees mention this argument as a downside to the presence of the non-native honey bee. It’s not crazy to think someone might attempt to apply this reasoning in reverse.

Also, pest and disease problems in bee populations are known to spread from their primary hosts to other species kept in close proximity. Traditionally American beekeepers battled many pests and diseases in their hives that had long been problems for Apis mellifera, the Western honey bee. In recent years we’ve battled more virulent opponents as pests and diseases have jumped species boundaries in search of new hosts. Varroa mites have plagued the beekeeping industry since they crossed to our bees from their primary host in Asia. If you ask the TAIS what they fear will be the next big pest issue in American beekeeping, they’ll probably tell you Tropilaelaps parasites… also jumping from another primary bee host to Apis mellifera hives in other parts of the world as we speak. Nosema diseases have crossed species lines as well. Our natives may be less likely than some to share diseases with honey bees, but deformed wing virus does exist in both honey bee and bumble bee populations. Bumble bees are the primary host for Nosema bombi, which is transmitted via shared floral resources but has not yet shown any ability to spread to honey bees. Hopefully the transmission of diseases and pests between these species will never be a concern, but as more American beekeepers get into management of mason bees, leafcutter bees, and bumble bees, it’s not ridiculous to be concerned that crossover issues may occur in both directions. I would hope that the preservation of our native species would always be a top priority as we move forward, and it’s scary to imagine a future where there’s even the slightest hint of a possibility that native species would be destroyed or eradicated (Section 131.022) due to some negative impact or perceived threat to the keeping of honey bees.

Even if you are willing to assume that these bees actually being listed as deleterious is simply a scenario beyond reason and beyond possibility I’m concerned that there’s a negative impact from the wording in this bill. It could be read by uninformed new beekeepers who will see the implication that non-Apis species are unwanted, even if they haven’t been listed as such. This wording solves no known problem; it accomplishes nothing other than sitting there looking bad in print. It’s a black eye to Texas beekeeping to have “unwanted bees” in our ag code, especially with “non-Apis” in the definition. The beekeepers around me care intensely about native pollinator preservation, and this makes us all look like we don’t.

Mandatory Registration of Feral Bees?

Surely not, right?

HB 1293 effectively mandates annual beekeeper registration for anyone owning more than 400 acres. This is due to the definitions of “hive” and “colony”. Let me explain.

According to HB1293 a “Hive” means a container or structure used by a beekeeper to provide a cavity in which a colony of bees is expected to establish a permanent nest. So far, so good. It’s clear that the intention here is to prevent someone who has bees move into their wall from falling under the regulatory aspects of Chapter 131. If the rest of the bill was well-written it would do that.

But then we see that “Colony” means all of the bees living together as one social unit… without regard to whether they are in a container provided by a beekeeper for said purpose. And “Beekeeper” means a person who owns, leases, possesses, controls, or manages one or more colonies of bees. This means that despite the positive clarification of the word “hive” you are still legally a beekeeper if you possess bees living in your walls. You are technically subject to the same requirements, restrictions, and penalties that a person with “hives” is.

Now it’s easy to look at this and think that at least you’re not required to abide by the mandatory annual registrations and associated fees, right? Because nobody has 25 colonies of bees living in the walls of their home. But in fact under HB 1293 it no longer matters how many colonies are in any given location…. “A beekeeper with an annual average of fewer than 25 colonies or nuclei is exempt from mandatory registration”. What this means is that according to the wording of this bill, if you own enough property to have a cumulative 25 feral colonies of bees living on your properties you find yourself subject to mandatory annual registration forms and fees as a non-exempt beekeeper, and if you don’t do this you are theoretically subject to the penalties provided for a failure to register.

So how much property would that take? I heard Dr. Rangel from the Texas A&M Honey Bee Lab give a talk recently that addressed studies of feral bees in South Texas. The study (here) that she was referring to showed that feral bee hives were found at a density of about one hive per 15 acres. Based on this data, one might expect to find 25+ feral hives on any property larger than 400 acres. While we can safely assume this is extremely unlikely to be explored or enforced, it’s just another example of the way this bill is written… relying on TAIS to have the common sense to adjust for the fact that the bill is indistinctly worded and totally unenforceable on numerous levels.

Chapter 131 needs an update, but it needs an update that is carefully planned, carefully worded, & enforceable as written. Failure of common sense is what creates a need for regulation, so we should not be passing regulations written in such a way as to be dysfunctional without common sense.

Some Problems with 1293

My name is Ryan Giesecke. I am a Texas Beekeepers Association member, active in my local associations, and a participant in the Texas Master Beekeeper Program. I run around 50 hives in the Dallas area, do a lot of educational work pertaining to bees and beekeeping, and perform live bee removals as well.

I strongly oppose HB1293 for the following reasons, addressed in greater detail below:
-it sets a pest threshold of zero (mites, hive beetles, etc) for hives to pass TAIS inspections
-it places Texas native bee species under TAIS jurisdiction and subject to destruction
-it mandates fee-based annual registration of beekeepers
-it mandates fee-based annual inspections of apiaries for queen-rearers
-it allows for any manner of state-wide mandated pest treatments
-it extends TAIS regulatory power from applying to a single bee species to encompassing thousands

Detailed Objections:
1) Healthy hives will be unable to reliably pass inspections.  Section 131.025 defines “reportable pests” as being based on a listing by the chief apiary inspector, but “pests” are defined in Section 131.001 Subdivision 12-B as “an insect, mite, or organism that causes damage or abnormality to bees and that is considered deleterious by the chief apiary inspector.” Section 131.044 on inspections refers to “pests” rather than “reportable pests”.  Since Section 131.044 requires that “no disease, pest, or unwanted species of bee” be found in the bees in order to pass an inspection, this sets an acceptable mite threshold of zero.  A modern IPM approach to mite control works off of an “economic threshold” acceptable mite count.  This approach to mite control, recommended by TAIS, TBA, and the A&M Honey Bee Lab, would prevent a hive from passing inspection if HB 1293 is approved and enforced as written.

2) Section 131.001 Subdivision 17 allows for the listing of “Unwanted species of bees” by species.  The desired target stated by the committee responsible for this bill (via the TBA Facebook) was Apis mellifera capensis, a subspecies of Apis mellifera.  To add A. m. capensis to the unwanted species list by species the chief apiary inspector would need to list “Apis mellifera”.  Subdivision 17 does not allow for the listing of subspecies, which would prevent the listing of the targeted A. m. capensis as unwanted.  It does, however, specifically allow the listing of non-Apis species, which theoretically allows the chief apiary inspector to list hundreds of Texas native bee species as apiculturally undesirable, suddenly putting them under TAIS jurisdiction and subject to eradication (Section 131.021).  One could point to diseases in our native bee population which could conceivably cross into our honey bee population as a reason for such actions; theoretically any bee that competes with Apis mellifera for nectar and pollen resources could be defensibly deemed deleterious to apiculture.  Common sense would imply that no chief apiary inspector would take such a stance, but none-the-less the bill as written allows for it.  All it would take is one government official leaving common sense behind; I’m not sure that never happens.  Mark will not always be the chief apiary inspector, and this bill should be written to protect against the possibility of someone unreasonable as his successor. Legal regulation should be written in a way that deals with situations where common sense has failed; it should not depend on common sense in order to be functional.

3) Registration is mandatory for a 25+ hive beekeeper (Section 131.045).  I have registered, but am opposed to mandatory registration for a stationary operation at any scale.  To the best of my knowledge no other form of agricultural animal husbandry other than fish farming in the state of Texas mandates registration with the state.  I don’t know why this should start now.  What problem is resolved by mandated registration over 25 hives?

4) Inspections are mandatory for someone selling 25+ queens (Section 131.023).  TBA says this in the name of preventing spread of pests and diseases.  Yet it seems there are no pest and disease problems which are primarily transmitted via queen cages; I have asked TAIS about documented instances of queen cages as a problematic vector for pests or disease without receiving any such documented examples. I have asked people on the TBA committee who told me that they are not aware of issues transmitted by queen cages, that these regulations are to address as-yet-unknown issues that may conceivably arise some day in the future.  It is regulation justified by the need to solve a non-existent problem. Under the current Section 131 inspections are not a requirement for selling queens. Furthermore, an entire package (complete with queen cage) coming in across state lines doesn’t need a certificate of inspection, but I need one to sell more than 25 queens to my neighbors.  This is regulation against the spread of disease that is applied against transactions within a county, but is not applied to transactions which cross state lines.
Of course inspections have to be done before you start selling, so as a small-scale sideliner you may spend money on inspections to sell queens and end up selling less than 25.  As a newcomer to queen rearing you may just be paying for the privilege of trying.  This is another obstacle to a small-scale beekeeper wanting to get into queen-rearing which serves no practical purpose aside from being that obstacle. These are regulations that widen the gap between small-scale and commercial beekeeping in a way that handicaps newcomers and small-scale sideliners considerably.

5) Allows for mandated state-wide pest and disease treatments.  Section 131.021, “may adopt rules and act as necessary to control, eradicate, or prevent the introduction, spread, or dissemination of diseases, pests, or unwanted species of bees”.  With so much evidence in favor of genetic resistance resulting from selective breeding and non-treatment I am thoroughly opposed to any path towards mandated treatments. This is an out-dated remnant of the days of legislation to control the spread of American Foulbrood. This is the sort of relic this bill should have been limiting rather than expanding upon.

6) Even if Section 131.001 Subdivision 17 did allow for defining a subspecies (ex. A. m. capensis) as an unwanted bee I am uncomfortable with the idea that checking for it is part of an inspection by TAIS (Section 131.044 c).  This would involve genetic testing if done properly, and I see no reason why I should be required to pay for genetic testing to this effect as part of the cost of a routine inspection (which would significant exacerbate the cost issues detailed above).  Aside from the cost-prohibitive nature of genetic testing, my understanding is that A&M Honey Bee Lab is the only testing facility in the state for subspecies genetics, and that they currently require a sacrificial queen in order to perform testing for A. m. scutellata genetics.  I do not believe they offer testing for A. m. capensis at all.  Is a sacrificial queen intended to become part of a standard TAIS inspection?  Is the Honey Bee Lab going to start providing testing for A.m. capensis genetics?  If unwanted subspecies are the target of the Subdivision on unwanted bee species this legislation needs to reflect that, and it needs to take enforcement into account.  Unenforced and unenforceable aspects of 131 are the primary reason it is in need of an update to begin with, and we are better off with an outdated bill in need of revision than a freshly updated Section 131 that is equally in need of revision.

7) The extension of the Texas Apiary Inspection Service’s authority to encompass non-Apis species (Section 131.001 Subdivision 17) is a huge over-step.  TAIS is by definition responsible for the regulation of “apiaries” and “apiculture” (places where honey bees are kept and the keeping of honey bees), and I see no benefit, and many potential drawbacks, to having them theoretically responsible for any of thousands of species of bees that are not honey bees.  HB 1293 gives the TAIS the authority to declare unwanted, and in turn to destroy, non-Apis bee species.  TAIS was not established for this purpose, has never existed for this purpose, and should not be given the authority to theoretically eradicate (Section 131.021) native bee species for being detrimental to apiculture. All that aside, this is a three-person office responsible for enforcement throughout the state… TAIS can’t realistically hope to enforce most of the current regulation, and this bill expands their duties considerably.

8) If unwanted subspecies are the goal of the “Unwanted species of bee” addition, and the concerns in all previously listed objections are resolved such that subspecies can be listed, then my concern becomes Africanized Honey Bees (AHB) and other subspecies genetics that are potentially constructive in breeding programs but may be viewed as undesirable by some.  Certainly Apis mellifera scutellata genetics are in many strong, survivor-stock hives throughout the state.  I just heard Dr. Rangel give a talk which addressed that this is to some degree true, and even specifically addressed “gentle Africanized Honey Bees” in management.  Yet in the eyes of most of the public, and the eyes of many beekeepers, this is a subspecies that is viewed as “deleterious”.  It is not at all unreasonable to foresee a future where the chief apiary inspector could suddenly find him or herself under tremendous pressure to list A. m. scutellata as undesirable.  I am uncomfortable with the idea of selective open-mated breeding programs for survivor stock being unable to pass routine inspections, or even being subject to being eradicated (Section 131.021), if A. m. scutellata were to be listed as an “undesirable subspecies of bee”.  Providing for the listing of subspecies as undesirable could potentially in a very short period undo decades of selective breeding for good survivor stock in Texas.  African subspecies aside, this could also theoretically be used to mandate queen purchases from a certain breeding operation by listing other subspecies.  All these scenarios may seem unlikely, but they are allowable and defensible under the wording of HB1293, if subspecies are allowed to be listed as unwanted.