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Monday, March 19, 2012

“Bee”wildered in the Valley…

bees seeking the sunThose who know I’m a beekeeper always ask me, “How are the bees doing?” When I mention to folks I’m a beekeeper, they ask the same question. Most people, it seems, know there’s a problem with honeybee populations worldwide. Since the problem first arose several years ago, the media has given the issue considerable coverage. The honeybee’s crucial importance to the food industry has prompted much research into “Colony Collapse Disorder,”(CCD) a generic, rather benign term for the devastating disease that causes a honeybee colony to decline, dwindle away, and die out entirely. The scientific community has advanced one theory after another, some as bizarre as the cell tower theory in which it was purported the signals from cell towers interfered with the bee’s GPS system: the bee became disoriented, couldn’t find its way back to the hive. A study published just this week in the American  Chemical Society’s journal Environmental Science and Technology claims a link between CCD and a “neonicotinoid” insecticide used to infuse corn seed. The chemical is applied during the planting stage by a machine that pneumatically sucks in the seed and coats it with the chemical before it is planted. Airborne residual spray has been linked to mass killing of adjacent honeybee colonies. This is just yet another study, I realize, but in a Valley filled with cornfields, I wonder….

Years ago the only challenge this beekeeper faced in the Valley—if you can call it a problem—was dealing with colony strength, not dwindling: keeping your bees from swarming. As spring progresses, the queen of a healthy, overwintered colony begins laying eggs as the days get longer and the daily temperatures rise. A common spring management technique is to feed colonies sugar syrup, simulating a false honey flow, thereby encouraging the queen to increase her egg laying activity. By mid-April, just in time for the big leaf maple bloom, the colonies will be booming with bees, and weather permitting, gather a surplus of maple honey. Then spring management focused on swarm control so when the wild blackberries, the Valley’s main honey flow, bloomed, the colonies would be at maximum strength for nectar gathering. When a colony becomes brood-bound (no room for the queen to lay more eggs), it shifts into “swarm mode.” It’s by spinning off swarms the honeybee insures the species’ survival. During this time certain larvae are selected to be new queens. Just before the new queens emerge (only one will be allowed to live and replace the old queen), up to half the field force and the old queen swarm out. If the beekeeper doesn’t practice good swarm management and allows his bees to swarm at will, his hives will not be at optimum strength for the main honey flow.Then for certain the season’s honey crop is in jeopardy. Even the best beekeeper cannot prevent some colonies from swarming; once a colony shifts into the swarm mindset, it’s nearly impossible to stop it.swarm leaving As a beekeeper, you want to keep swarms at a minimum. It’s all a matter of whether you want to raise bees or collect a honey crop. Good management aside, it was not uncommon for me to experience eight or ten swarms a season. Sometimes I ran out of equipment to hive them and just let the swarms escape into the wilds.Healthy swarm

But those years of swarm management are long gone, and nowadays swarms from my colonies are rare. All that remains is the difficult challenge of wintering over the bees. I used to tell people our Valley was the best place to overwinter bees. When they can’t go on regular cleansing flights and are cooped up for weeks on end as they are in the mid-west or eastern Washington, honeybees are subject to a dysentery-like disease called nosema. There’s scarcely a month out of the year here in the Valley bees can’t get out and fly around a bit. Some years I’ve seen bees foraging in my heather bed on Christmas Day. The last several years, however, if my beehives do survive the winter, only one or two survive into spring. Instead of a colony’s increasing in strength as was the case years ago, now it dwindles down until just a handful of bees remain. A few days later, nothing but two empty boxes. Of the five colonies I had last fall, only two survive now, both in weakened condition. Two of the three deadouts didn’t survive until January. Last year I lost three of my four overwintered colonies. One forms an emotional bond with the livestock he raises. The loss of a honey crop is a disappointment, surely, but to devote all that time and energy to proper management and then have your bees die each spring is much more frustrating than having no honey to bottle. It’s like losing a devoted pet every year. Believe me, there’s nothing more frustrating to a beekeeper than opening a hive as I did three years ago only to find less than a dozen bees remaining. A day or two later I removed the hive cover and found three survivors: the queen and two attendants, faithful to the very end. Sad--and for this longtime beekeeper heartbreaking, indeed!Near collapse...

I’m no scientist, but I believe the CCD epidemic (or pandemic) is far too complex a problem to have a single cause. What I do know is once the parasitic Varroa mite arrived in Washington State and the Valley, beekeeping changed radically. All the trade journals warned of the spread of Varroa. News of the pest’s northward progress state by state did not much concern me, and I wrote off the alarms as a kind of media-induced hysteria in much the same way as the Africanized bee scare. Then one October my four colonies, alive and strong just two months before, all suddenly died. The mites had arrived with a vengeance and are now an on-going issue.

The very nature of commercial beekeeping compounds the CCD problem. By financial necessity the industry is migratory: commercial beekeepers make a good deal of money by providing pollination services to farmers. They transport their colonies interstate from one flowering crop to the next, usually starting in the southern states and follow the spring northward. The agro-industry is largely monoculture and when honeybees are brought to an area where needed, as is the case with the almond groves in Oregon State, suddenly you’ll have tens of thousands of honeybee colonies where there were previously none. The vast number of honeybee hives increases the chances of mite infestation or the spread of disease from a handful of infected colonies to scores of others. When crops are set, the bees are removed from the area and relocated in their summer yards for the summer honey flows. And thus the pestilence spreads.

The environment is no longer organic. Years ago I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the seminal expose’ of DDT and other pesticides. Among the many disturbing facts Carson’s book presented was this one: each year chemicals that never existed before are created and introduced into the environment. Silent Spring was written in 1962, fifty years ago this year. I know for a fact pesticides are devastating to honeybees. Years ago a crop dusting plane sprayed a pea field south of here. By the end of the day piles of dying and newly killed bees were heaped at the entrances of my hives. Before a catastrophic bee kill can occur, however, pesticides have to be applied to crops on which the bees are foraging. Wind drift can also spread the chemicals to bee pasturage and cause widespread colony losses.

But chemicals have an insidious effect, too: they tend to accumulate in the soil and plant tissue and continue to be ever present in the environment. Bees, in their daily foraging for pollen and nectar, bring small amounts of the residual back to the hive where it’s stored in honeycomb and accumulates in the beeswax cells. While the dosages are too mild to kill the adult bees, the eggs and larvae can be slowly poisoned in much the same way as humans are harmed by the long term use of lead-painted plates and cups or drinking tap water from lead pipes. Beekeepers, themselves resorting to chemical miticides to control the Varroa and pharyngeal mites, have created a similar problem because these chemicals, also to the detriment of baby bees, have built up in the wax of the brood combs.

The Valley is a different place these days. Landscaping nurseries now occupy considerable acreage. Who knows what new chemicals are being applied to their nursery stock? Just the other day I saw a nursery worker spraying trees in the back of our place, less than a hundred feet away from my bees. Two or three times a year the DOT sprays the right-of-way. I’m not saying herbicides and pesticides are solely responsible for CCD. (Unless wind drift was involved, I doubt spraying corn seed with pesticide as it’s planted was responsible for those “massive” bee kills: it’s not the way CCD manifests itself). And mites, too, deliver a double dose of trouble to honeybees: not only do they parasitize bee larvae but along with their parasitic ways bring a host of diseases into a honeybee colony. Factor in also the additional stressor of a virulent, medication-resistant dysentery (Nosema ceranae), which thrives in damp conditions--herbicides, pesticides, mites and miticides, dysentery—a perfect storm of stressors and the honeybee is caught dead on in their crosshairs.

It’s a new era of beekeeping here in the Valley. Sad, but true. Every spring the past few years most of my bees are dead and I have to replace them. Not only is this an expensive proposition ($100 per hive) but for one who has kept bees for most of his life, it grates on the emotions, too. There’s something in the Valley that doesn’t like bees. It’s a fact. When you bring new bees to Tualco these days, you feel as if you’re transporting them to the Valley of Death.A swarm in May

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