CATCH THE BUZZ
Egg Laying Union Set To Strike. Two Years And Out Rule Contested.
EGGLAYERS UNION SETS STRIKE VOTE: Mandatory Retirement Age at Issue
Submitted by Eugene Makovec, Newsletter Editor, Missouri State Beekeepers Association, April 1, 2010, St. Louis, Missouri
Members of the International Sisterhood of Egglayers, Local 1851, are set to vote this week on a strike action against SweetBee Honey Corporation.
At issue is SweetBee’s new mandatory retirement age of two years for queen bees. The policy was announced on March 1, and drew an ominous hum of indignation from egglayers across the company’s 1200-hive operation.
“It’s completely arbitrary – it’s not even a matter of individual ability,” buzzed Myrtle, a 26-month-old queen who declined to give her last name. “They just assume we’re too old and can no longer do the job.”
Myrtle was summarily dismissed as she reached her second anniversary at SweetBee, just weeks after the new policy took effect. She was able to find work in a nearby observation hive, and while she considers herself lucky, she acknowledges that this is a huge demotion for her. “This used to be where old, worn-out queens went to die,” she mused. “I love my hive-mates and am treated well by my keeper, but it’s not the same as running a full-scale production hive. I need to be challenged.”
“It’s just not fair,” complained Rosie Romano-Ortis-Petrova-Schultz-Bertolli-Bremer-Maggiano-Boehner-Milosevic-Anderssen-Bommarito-Yurovich-Hegel, a 22-month-old single mother of 54,371. “I feel like I’m just coming into prime production age. I’ve got a lot of mouths to feed, and now I have to worry about one day being plucked out of my work station like some yellow jacket, and tossed out into the grass … or worse.”
SweetBee officials declined to comment for the record, citing ongoing negotiations. But one high-level manager, speaking on condition of anonymity, called it “a matter of simple economics…. It is true that you can’t put a definitive age on productivity,” he said. “But the simple fact is, once they get beyond that two-year point, it’s really hit-or-miss.” And since the union has consistently resisted the idea of its older members submitting to viability testing, he added, “This was our only option.”
Another company official concurred. “Close to 50 percent of queens experience significant production declines in their third year, and the worst part is, it’s so unpredictable. You have a queen who looks to be doing a great job, and suddenly she starts producing nothing but drones. It’s very difficult, and very expensive, to replace her when that happens in mid-season.”
It is widely acknowledged that queen productivity declines with age, often during the third year and almost always by the fourth. The reasons are complex, but experts agree that the largest issue is a decreasing supply of sperm in the egg-layer’s spermatheca. This organ is supplied on a mating flight within the first two weeks of a queen’s life, and is never replenished. (Sperm is required for fertilization of worker eggs, while unfertilized eggs develop into drones.)
In previous labor negotiations, management has floated the idea of requiring queens to make additional mating flights, possibly annually, in order to circumvent this supply issue. But while drones have generally supported that proposal, the egglayers’ union has been vehemently opposed. Some members object on ethical grounds. “It’s just not natural,” said one queen. “No queen in nature has ever been subjected to this ritual more than once, and we shouldn’t have to start now.”
Then there is the safety issue. There are occasional reports of virgin queens falling victim to birds or other predators during mating flights. “Foragers deal with this danger as a part of their job,” said Myrtle, “but they’re also more nimble than we are, and have extensive flight training to boot.” After mating, the only time a queen would typically leave the hive is in a swarm, when she’s surrounded by a large contingent of workers.
The last time the apiculture industry saw open labor strife was in 1962, when the International Union of Drones (DUI) declared a general strike, protesting the industry-wide policy of releasing drones in the autumn months in preparation for the winter dearth period. But the ill-fated strike occurred in late September, at a time when apiaries had little to gain from negotiation with the union. The action was settled within days in a humiliating defeat for the union. In an effort to save face, and in exchange for a promise not to strike the following spring when a work stoppage would have had more serious repercussions, DUI leaders asked for and obtained an unrelated concession -- the free-agent status that their membership enjoys to this day. (Some conspiracy theorists maintain that this was the result the union had in mind at the outset, though most experts agree that drones are just not that intelligent.)
Under the free agent policy, drones are allowed to drift from hive to hive as they see fit. It is not uncommon for a drone to leave his home hive in the morning, visit several drone congregation areas during the course of the day and then follow other drones back to a different hive in the evening. In recent years this state of affairs has been blamed in part for the spread of mites and disease conditions between hives, but there has been no serious discussion about amending the policy.
As far as the impending strike vote is concerned, most believe the motion will pass easily. “It’s just too much,” said an executive at another apiary. “SweetBee can’t expect this big a change to go uncontested. But (a strike) won’t last long,” he added. “The company certainly can’t do without the queens’ services this time of year. I’m guessing management will cave quickly – if they let them walk out at all.”
Meanwhile, Romano-Ortis-Petrova-Schultz-Bertolli-Bremer-Maggiano-Boehner-Milosevic-Anderssen-Bommarito-Yurovich-Hegel, the 22-month-old soon-to-be retiree, is busy planning for life after SweetBee. She’s developing a plan for a pheromone-marketing business, and is looking for consulting work.
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