What’s really happening to all of the Honeybees?

by Kevin Jarek, UWEX Crops, Soils, & Horticultural Agent and OCMGA Advisor

Note: this article appeared in the summer 2007 edition of our newsletter. Honeybees continue to be in the news as evidenced by links at the end of this article.

Well, unless you live under a rock, it would have been nearly impossible to avoid hearing some of the numerous theories (and I use this word strongly) as to why we are seeing a sharp decline in the honeybee population across the United States.

GettyImages-518638797-5730da445f9b58c34cad340cHowever, in the event that you are one of those individuals who have not found themselves in the right place at the right time when these stories have aired on T.V., appeared in the newspaper, or showed up on your favorite website or magazine, the long and short of it is quite simple. We have lost an alarming number of honeybees over the past year and it has fueled a great deal of speculation, much of which has ended up in print with little merit to follow. Those involved in the industry have been very vocal about a condition that has become known as Colony Collapse Disorder. If I ever had one piece of advice for every person who has already made their mind up that agriculture is to blame, or the cell phone industry is responsible, or that the 4 horsemen are about to pay a visit and that this is the foreshadowing of something larger than any of us are able to comprehend I would simply say slow down.

Since I do not consider myself an expert in this area of horticulture (or many others for that matter), I did some investigating and found some quite interesting info that any sleuth would be proud of. First, we have been seeing a decline in the honeybee population for the last 25 years, not just this year, so those who are saying this is an unusual trend, strike one. While no one in the industry is happy about it, the bottom line is that this trend exists and has existed for quite some time. Next, as some of you may remember a few years back, the Varroa mite hammered the honeybee population to the point of 80% loss in some parts of the country. While the mite would eventually be brought under control by a naturally occurring pathogen combined with help from the use of miticide inside the hives, this threat was never completely eliminated. From there, you don’t have to be a meteorologist to tell me what we have been on the brink of every summer since 2004, D-R- _- _G-H-T (do you need to buy a vowel?) These dry conditions have meant that the queens have quit producing the next generation of workers early each year, as conditions have been unbearably hot and dry across much of the U.S. At the same time that fewer young have been available to replace older bees, the older bees have had a much higher than average mortality between seasons, so the population drain has been exponentially higher.

Dadant, is a nationally recognized business that has been around for 140 years and has been supply- ing beekeepers with supplies from New York to California, and from Florida to Wisconsin (they have a branch store in Watertown) and I was fortunate enough to be able to speak with the senior editor of their professional publication and he basically said that what we have experienced is the perfect storm with many of the items I have previously mentioned. Phil Pellitteri [sidebar: Phil Pellitteri is an entomologist, a Distinguished Faculty Associate Emeritus and he recently retired as head of the UW-Madison Insect Diagnostic Lab] agreed with much of the information as well. What it comes down to is that we cannot change the weather; droughts are not a friend to the honeybee. The Varroa mites were in larger force the last few years and have been serving as a vector for the spread of disease from one bee to the next. Urbanization has reduced the amount of wild plants that bees benefit from – especially in our rural areas where land use has run amuck. In agriculture, in order to produce a cheap plentiful food supply, we have reduced the number of goldenrod, smartweeds, and other plants that bees prefer, but we control because they reduce crop yields.

A few large beekeepers lost larger than expected numbers and enlisted the help of the media to get the story out, but in the process those with their own agenda starting spinning stories about cell phones (which may be a factor, but all parties I talked to agreed it is not the reason why this has been happening). The miticides inside the hive to keep the mites out are like aspirin, 2 are great for a headache, but 20 will elicit a much less desirable response. Beekeepers have not done a good job of cleaning this product out from year to year and it has reached toxic levels in some hives. Last, but not least, it is the migratory bees that have experienced the biggest problems. The reason for this is that all parties agreed that these bees are being overworked and are being worked silly by being transplanted from an almond grove in California to citrus crops in Florida all in short periods of time with little time allowed for adjustment – do you suppose that could be a factor? There are several small growers who have been unaffected by all of the problems previously mentioned. For that reason, it would not be a complete stretch to think that like all of us with our e-mail, faxes, pagers, and cell phones that keep us “wired” these bees have been “wired” to the point that they have reached their limits. One must wonder, are we next?

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