The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

May 12, 2013

Where have all the honey bees gone?

Federal report blames combination of problems for disappearance

Star Beacon

— A new federal report blames a combination of problems for the mysterious and catastrophic disappearance of honeybees in U.S. since 2006.

Scientists don’t yet have a definitive answer, but factors cited include parasites and disease, genetics, changing weather patterns, cell phones, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure, as well as farming practices that don’t give bees a pesticide-free buffer zone to forage in heavily developed agricultural regions.

“I lost 60 percent of my hives this year,” Jefferson beekeeper Duane Bannister said. “I think it’s a combination of things — weather, cell phones and pesticides.”

Bannister, also known as “Dr. D. Friend of Bees,” has been a beekeeper for almost 30 years. He will have to buy some bees this year.

Like a lot of local beekeepers, he said feral bees, swarms caught in the wild, seem to be the most resistant to whatever it is that’s killing them.

“I have to blame the weather this year,” he said. “They were doing good until that late cold snap.”

Honeybees are orange and black and they are tropical. The European honeybee has adapted to life in temperate climates by living in insulated cavities, and by forming a heated winter cluster consisting of long-lived, stress-resistant winter bees. A cold snap when a colony is not prepared for it can chill the bees and stress the workers, Bannister said.

“It’s called ‘chilled brood’,” he said. “It happens in the early spring when we have 80 degree weather.”

Honeybees use their stores of energy-rich  honey to get them

through the winter. Worker bees gather nectar from flowers and convert it into enough honey to keep the colony alive.

The decline of honeybees isn’t something new. Between 1947 and 2005, bee colony numbers nationwide declined by more than 40 percent, from 5.9 million to 2.4 million. This decline accelerated in the 1980s, when two bloodsucking parasitic mites were accidentally introduced into the U.S.

If colony collapse disorder continues at the current rate, managed honey bees will be gone by 2035, according to the Status of Pollinators presentation to the U.S. House of Representatives, March 29, 2007.

This latest report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency warns that even with intensive research to understand the cause of honeybee colony losses in the U.S., losses continue to be high and could pose a serious threat to meeting the pollination demands for some commercial crops.

 Growers in California have had trouble pollinating almond trees in the winter, for example, and blueberry farmers in Maine face similar pressures.

“We’re on the brink. I don’t know that we’ve crossed that threshold yet, but we’re certainly getting there very fast,” said Idaho-based beekeeper Zach Browning, who joined USDA and EPA officials in announcing the report.

His 2012 colony losses were double what they were in 2011, said Browning, who co-owns one of the country’s largest honey producers. The producer lost bees to drought, pesticides and hives that didn’t have enough to eat, he said.

Scott Beek, a long-time beekeeper in Canal-Fulton, Ohio, who sells bees to many Ashtabula County beekeepers lost 60 percent of his hives this past winter. He said he doesn’t know what is killing the bees.

“There’s a lot of talk about genetically engineered corn crops and pesticides,” he said. “But some of the hives I lost are far away from any corn fields.”

In Medina County, beekeepers from all over Ohio lined up last week to buy bees, hoping to recoup their losses.

A semi-truck loaded with pallets of honeybees — a total of 6,900 pounds of bees — were sold, according to Fox 8 news in Cleveland.

Local beekeepers say pesticide use is the talk in recent months, and some researchers fear this latest report didn’t emphasize enough the possible effects of the widespread use of a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.

“I think it really downplays the effects of pesticides,” said Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based nonprofit group, which has sued — unsuccessfully so far — to force the EPA to consider the effect of pesticides on endangered species when it authorizes or reauthorizes pesticide use.

“There’s some pretty strong links now, especially to the neonicotinoid pesticides and colony collapse disorder,” Miller said. “There’s some science showing that pesticide impacts may be increasing vulnerability to disease.”

Bannister asks area residents to think twice before spraying their yards with pesticides and never, ever use powder.

“Think of the bees,” he said. “They take that powder back into the hive and it’s lethal.”

Officials in the European Union this week voted to move toward a ban on three popular pesticides in an effort to restore honeybee populations. In the United States, environmentalists and beekeepers have sued the EPA to stop the use of some of the pesticides.

The Associated Press and Scientific contributed to this article.  For more information on bees, contact your local bee inspector at 440-594-5626 or the Ashtabula County Beekeepers Association on Facebook.