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The Secret Life of Beekeepers

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By Ken Billington (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons By Ken Billington (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Even local commercial beekeepers have not been spared from Colony Collapse Disorder

Fall is creeping up on the garden. Cilantro and dill tower over the beds, their flowers slowly drying and giving way to seed, and even clover (given free range in the garden due to its soil-building properties and the gardener’s lax attitude toward weeding) is reaching prodigious heights. Tomatoes have fruited, and new flowers have been ruthlessly cut away, allowing the plant’s energy to go directly into ripening fruit. The beans, lovers of cool weather, are still producing while the corn stands in silent testament to yet another year of not-quite-enough hot weather. And everywhere, there’s bees.

Fat bumblebees stumble their way from flower to flower while curious, tiny sweat bees will break away from the garden to hover curiously over the gardener, living up to their name by sniffing out perspiration. And then there’s the honey bees—working busily from flower to flower before heading back to their hive, likely located within a quarter-mile or so, though honey bees have been observed to range up to six miles while looking for food.

The honey bees, of course, are a particular delight to see in a time when the health of honey bees worldwide is still at risk. Though Colony Collapse Disorder doesn’t get the headlines it did  five years ago (“Bee Colony Collapses Could Threaten U.S. Food Supply” “Mystery Disease is Threat to Bee Colonies” “Honeybee Population Collapse Sparks Strange Theories”) the threat—and the mystery—remains.

For some history, back in the winter of 2006/2007, more than a quarter of the nation’s estimated 2.4 million bee colonies simply disappeared. Beekeepers reported almost empty hives from all states in the nation; the queen, young bees, and ample food were still there but the thousands of adult females, the “worker bees” whose job it is to collect pollen, had vanished, in most cases overnight. Strikingly, the dead bodies of these estimated billions of bees have never been found.

And it wasn’t just that winter. From 2006 through the winter of 2011, an average of 33 percent of all managed bee colonies have been lost to CCD every year.

The importance of bee pollinators to industry is enormous. Without honeybees, it’s estimated that $15 billion of crop value would be lost each year. And while $15 billion sounds impressive, what that represents is food to feed our families. The USDA says one bite out of every three we put into our mouths relies on the work of honeybees.

“It was terrible,” said Blaine Harvey, of that first, dark winter back in 2007. “I lost over a hundred of my hives.”

“I lost a lot,” added his brother, Mike. “About 500 to 600 of my hives were gone.”

The Harveys are third-generation beekeepers. Their father Joseph, who received a deferment in World War II because the government needed his honey, and their mother’s father, William Pate, were also beekeepers. Maintaining bees and selling their honey is a long-time family tradition; albeit it one that’s now threatened by the mystery of the bee disappearances.

Both are commercial beekeepers; Mike’s “bee farm” is located in Othello, Wash., while Blaine operates Harvey Honey Farm right here in Clark Fork, Idaho. Declining health combined with a declining number of hives, however, have recently caused Blaine to shift his remaining hives over to his brother’s farm in Othello. (Harvey Honey can be purchased at the Ponderay Co-Op, by the way, as well as at Antelope Valley Supply in Clark Fork.)

Commercial bee keeping, like that done by the Harvey brothers, is more than just a step up from a back yard hive. Bees from commercial operations are trucked all over the country to keep America’s gargantuan agricultural industry afloat, logging more miles than a traveling salesman, with the honey they produce little more than a profitable by-product of their primary job as pollinators.

A typical pollinating schedule for a commercially kept honeybee hive might find it in California’s San Joaquin Valley in the spring. From February through April, the bees are working pollinating massive almond orchards, followed by oranges and blueberries, specialty vegetables and almonds. A commercial hive in the Northwest might move from California to Florida, then up the East Coast to pollinate blueberry fields before returning to their home.

“I think the worst thing we ever did was to put wheels under our bees,” said Blaine, and he’s not just talking at a personal level, because a traveling bee is placed under stress; and stress, just like in humans, can cause bees to become more susceptible to disease and parasites, while the traveling increases an individual bee’s potential exposure.

This matters in an era where bees are dying in massive amounts, with no yet-known explanation. Because we do know of a lot of things that can kill bees, and it’s possible that Colony Collapse Disorder can be laid at the feet of a “perfect storm” of a number of different variables.

Take the vampire mite. It’s not really called a vampire mite, though some beekeepers call it that. But the Varroa mite sucks fluids from bees, transmitting disease and spreading bacteria and viruses that can wipe out a hive. (Deformed Wing Virus, generally not a major threat to a hive, can infect every bee in a hive, it’s been shown, when the mite is also present.) Believed to have first appeared in Florida around 1987, the Varroa mites imperil bees throughout all U.S. states today.

And then there’s the zombie fly (are you noticing an apocalyptic theme here?). The Apocephalus borealis fly lays its eggs inside the bee. The infested bee will abandon its hive in search of bright lights, where it will dance in an increasingly erratic pattern until it falls to the ground dead.

And those are just two factors implicated in bee deaths. The Harvard School of Public Health has published research linking the pesticide imidacloprid with hive losses; evidence of dual infection with the fungi Nosema apis and N. ceranae has also been found in failing bee colonies.

With the threat that Colony Collapse Disorder poses to agriculture, researchers throughout the globe are examining potential causes, racing to find a cure. For while other birds, bees, and insects also pollinate fruits and vegetables, they simply cannot keep up with the demand. The honeybee, introduced to the American continent in the 17th century, is now essential to its ability to feed itself.

These growing problems for bees make commercial beekeeping an iffy proposition these days. “It’s just a lot more difficult now,” explained Blaine. “In  the ‘50s there was only one disease we had to contend with. Now there are threats [to the bees] everywhere.” Since 1940, the number of commercial beekeepers has dropped almost in half; the Harvey’s three generations of beekeeping will likely continue, however, as Blaine’s nephew is now working in the business. 

“It can cost about $200 to establish a hive of bees,” said Blaine, “so losing hives can be disheartening to those in the business.” His brother’s 500-plus hive loss, in other words, translates into a $100,000 failed investment. “We’ll never quit beekeeping... if we can survive at it,” he added. “It’s been a wonderful business for us.”

Blaine is full of admiration for bees—“it’s fascinating to watch them work,” he says—and a few simple facts go far to make that case.

To create a pound of honey, bees must visit around 2 million flowers, and they will travel a distance equal to two times around the earth to do so. In the entire life of a worker bee (who are all female, by the way), it can produce 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey. But 30,000 bees working together can produce and store a pound of honey in just a single day. And they need to—because it takes 35 pounds of stored honey just to keep a small colony through the winter. And those worker bees working over the flowers in the garden are actual the ‘wise elders’ of their hive, because collecting pollen is a job taken on by the females in the final few weeks of their life.

Fascinating, indeed.

In our next issue (God willing and the creek don’t rise) we’ll look at back yard bee-keeping and more local honey producers in our area. In the meantime, you can learn more about the Harvey Honey Farm at www.harveyhoneyfarm.blogspot.com.

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Landon Otis

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Homepage, Headlines, bees, beekeeping, colony collapse disorder, Blaine Harvey, Mike Harvey, Harveys Honey Farm, vampire mite, varroa mite, zombie fly, apocephalus borealis fly, imidacloprid, nosema apis, Harvard School of Public Health

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