Beekeepers Feeling the Sting of Bee Affliction

May 28, 2013

From: The Ledger


By Kyle Kennedy


FORT MEADE | This past winter was a tough one for David Adams.


The Fort Meade beekeeper said he lost about 70 percent of his 1,000 or so hives, and in many cases, the adult honeybees seemingly vanished from their homes.


“We were picking up a lot of dead, empty boxes. You kind of dread going out and coming back with empty boxes on the truck,” said the owner of Adams Honey and Pollination. “It’s probably worse than the first year when all of this started.”


He’s referring to December 2006, when The Ledger first visited Adams to report on a strange condition that was decimating his beekeeping operation. It turned out he wasn’t alone. In October of that year, beekeepers in multiple states began reporting unusually high losses of up to 90 percent of their hives; oftentimes the bees were nowhere to be found.


The mysterious affliction has a name: Colony Collapse Disorder. More than six years later, it continues to vex researchers and beekeepers.


A report published earlier this month from the United States Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency offered more clues about bee health issues and the disorder, but it had no definitive solutions.


Those studying the problem say it should not be taken lightly, given the crucial role honeybees play in much of our food supply — about one-third of all food and beverages are made possible by pollination, the USDA says.


“There is an important link between the health of American agriculture and the health of our honeybees for our country’s long-term agricultural productivity,” said Kathleen Merrigan, agriculture deputy secretary, in the new report.


Among the document’s findings: The parasitic Varroa mite has been identified as a major factor in colony losses in the U.S. and abroad. U.S. honeybee colonies need more genetic variation, with breeding focused on improving’ resistance to Varroa mites and disease. Bee nutrition and food supplies also need more attention to make bees less susceptible to parasites and sickness.


In addition, the report says members of the nation’s crop-producing industry are not widely or systematically following established practices for shielding bees from pesticides. The USDA and EPA say more research is needed on pesticide risks.


According to the USDA, honeybee colony losses averaged 33 percent each year from winter 2006 through 2011, with beekeepers linking a third of the declines to Colony Collapse Disorder. Total losses eased to 22 percent in the winter of 2011-2012, but losses from this past winter have been estimated at 31 percent.


Losing some bees is an expected part of the business, but the magnitude of the declines seen since 2006 poses a significant threat to the pollination industry and could drive up food costs.


For Adams, the disorder and related problems have cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses and lost income since 2006.


“Ever since then, it’s been an uphill battle,” he said. “Its kind of cyclical, where one year you’ll have better success and run 25, 30 percent losses, and then the next year you’ll start picking up empty boxes where there’s no reason, where you’ve done everything you’re supposed to do.”


Adams said he has used mite treatments and nutritional supplements with his bees to try and mitigate the damage.


In Lakeland, beekeeper Michael Sadler has employed similar tactics.


“We spend a lot of money taking care of them and keeping them healthy,” said Sadler of Bee Haven Honey Farm. “We usually lose about 30 percent per year, guaranteed. … It’s a full-time job to keep them alive.”


Another Fort Meade beekeeper, Robbie Bell, says his crop pollination services are in high demand because of bee shortages.


“I’ve been a little lucky. I’ve been losing 40 to 50 percent of my operation every year, but I know guys who have lost 60 to 70 percent,” said Bell of Honey Bell Bee Company.


“I’m not going out of business by any means, but it’s getting tough. … There’s not many other businesses that can lose half of their operation and survive.”


Beyond their own financial concerns, Adams and Bell say they are worried about greater impacts on the food supply.


“Everything is taken for granted. Its like, oh, there’s always going to be plenty of bees,” Adams said.


He sounds doubtful.

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