The buzz around bee health

April 5, 2013

From: Staunton News Leader


Written by Laura Peters


State bee populations have been dropping drastically. But, it’s not just this year. It’s a problem that’s been plaguing the area for more than a decade.


According to Virginia Tech Entomologist Richard Fell, the average annual winter loss from 2001 through 2012 has been more than 30 percent in Virginia.


Virus, mites and certain pesticides could be to blame for the drastically dropping bee population.


According to Fred Hollen of the Shenandoah Valley Beekeepers Association, this isn’t something new — it’s been going on since the mid-1980s.


“We’ve had a succession of different kinds of parasites that we didn’t used to have. They kill off the bees that are vulnerable, then the survivors comes in and replace them,” he said. “Then something else comes along and does it again. There’s been a couple of mite parasites, and then there’s this colony collapse disorder we’ve dealt with the past couple of years. We really don’t know (what’s causing it), it’s possible a combinations of a lot of things.”


Hollen has been keeping bees from almost 20 years, having up to 15 hives at a time. An active hive can contain up to 50,000 bees.


He said that one theory out there of why bees are dying off or disappearing is because of systemic pesticides.


Another theory, he said, is colony collapse disorder.


“This colony collapse, where the bees just kind of disappear, we don’t know what’s happening. A strong theory is it’s the systemic pesticides,” Hollen said. “It’s actually very similar to the stuff you put on your dog or cat to get in their system to kill fleas. But it’s put on the seeds and the plants and it persists in the soil after that.”


According to a Verona beekeeper, Antonio Martinez, there’s a lot swarming around what is causing the bee population to decrease. But he said there’s been problems with the queen bees leaving the hive and just never coming back.


Martinez has been keeping bees for more than a decade.


“They’re fascinating creatures. They’re very entertaining to have as pets, believe it or not,” he said. For him, it’s more of just a hobby.


Known as a super organism, the whole hive seems to have a mind of its own, he said. If a bee is hit with a virus, it will start to affect the entire colony.


Martinez also pointed out the possibility of a virus going around or environmental degradation. The big thing people are blaming is a type of insecticide that is a nicotine derivative called neonicotinoids.


“In simplistic terms, the way it works, I believe it messes with pest’s nervous systems. Kind of like if we took a huge dose of a nicotine derivative,” Martinez explained. “There are people that are saying that this stuff stays in the environment, in the soil and that that’s what’s causing the problems with not just bees, but with others … it’s used very widely.”


He said the neonicotinoids are pervasive, meaning a lot of feed crops come coated in them due to the environmentally friendly insecticide.


Fell said there isn’t enough data to back up the pesticide theory.


“There has been a lot of misinformation on pesticides, particularly the neonicotinoids,” Fell said. “Many beekeepers are claiming that these compounds are killing their hives or causing severe problems and have even requested that these materials be banned from use.”


Fell said there have been a few verified kills from neonicotinoids. The only ones that have been verified occurred during planting and were caused by dust drift, he said.


“Pesticides are easy to blame, and it becomes someone else’s fault. The reality is that we do not have the data to show that pesticides are in fact the major cause,” he said. “We do know that hives often contain a number of pesticide residues — beeswax is a magnet for pesticide residues — but most of these are at very low levels, far below anything that would cause any kind of acute toxicity.”


Mites are also said to cause a problem with bee colonies.


Varroa is a type of mite that destroys entire colonies and preys on the vulnerable bees, Hollen said.


“One of the biggest problems with respect to pesticides has come from beekeeper use of miticides to control Varroa mites in the hive. These compounds — fluvalinate and coumophos — are the two most common residues identified from hive materials, and we do not have a good understanding of the effects that these might be causing,” Fell added.


Martinez said he’s had trouble in the past winters with keeping his hives along with drastic climate changes. As for his seven hives this year, they are still thriving.


“The past two winters I’ve had a lot of trouble with the bees, lost both hives. It looked kind of odd. It could just be that we had tough winters and harsh weather … the bees don’t like when it goes from bitter cold to spring and goes back to bitter cold,” Martinez said. “When the queen starts laying eggs and they start raising brood, and once you have a cold snap they won’t abandon the brood and then the bees with freeze to death. The bees survive the winter by forming a cluster to stay warm.”


How does the dwindling bee population affect the human population?


According to Martinez, 40 percent of the food that the U.S. eats is bee pollinated by honeybees.


“If bees do take the hit, it’s a huge economic issue, particularly which specific crops … like the almond industry,” he said.

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