Posted July 6, 2009
Nearly 30 percent of the nation’s honeybee colonies died over the winter of 2008-09, marking a third straight year of devastating bee losses, but researchers and local agriculture experts are seeing a bright side after several years of bad news.
One bit of good news is that die-offs caused by the mysterious colony collapse disorder last winter are not as severe as they had been in preceding years.
In a national survey, the Apiary Inspectors of America recorded a 28.6 percent loss of managed honeybee colonies across the country. That compared to losses of 35.8 percent and 31.8 percent respectively for the two preceding years. Current data was unavailable for the state and county levels, but Pennsylvania lost about 27 percent of its bee colonies over the winter of 2007-08.
Also, researchers believe they are narrowing down causes of the disorder.
On the local scene, new beekeepers are cropping up in record numbers to supplement losses with new colonies. Beekeepers also are using better techniques to care for their colonies.
“I wouldn’t say my bees are doing as well as they were six or seven years ago, but I think they’re much healthier than they were a year ago, and the honey is stronger,” said Lee Miller, president of the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association and former director of the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Beaver County.
Miller said he is hearing from local beekeepers that they are experiencing similar improvements with their hives.
In recent years, colony collapse disorder has been killing honeybees across the globe by the millions. Diana Cox-Foster, professor of etymology at Penn State University and part of a team working on the phenomenon, said regions of China and Japan are completely devoid of honeybees because of the disorder.
She said honeybees also can infect other bees and flying insects that pollinate fruit and vegetable plants.
“When you consider that one out of every three bites that we eat depends on honeybees or bees for pollination, this can be a huge problem,” she said.
Researchers now believe multiple factors could contribute to colony collapse disorder. Cox-Foster said insecticides and herbicides, as well as mites, parasites and viruses, have been found in dying colonies.
They also believe lack of nutrition could be a contributing factor.
Miller, who has experienced annual honeybee losses of 30 to 40 percent in recent years, said he has managed to build his bee population back up by splitting colonies and buying queens with better genetics and tolerance to mites and viruses. He also feeds his bees nectar when natural food sources run low.
Publicity about the honeybee dilemma has triggered an interest in beekeeping, Miller said. Miller, who conducts classes each year for new beekeepers, said attendance has increased dramatically.
“The number (this year) increased by maybe 60 percent more over the previous two years,” he said. “We conducted a meeting in Monaca and the attendance was 250, a record attendance.”
Penn State researchers have recruited volunteers from the school’s master gardener program to assist in providing data on local bee populations.
Master gardeners from Beaver County have created a “pollinator” garden in Brighton Township, designed to attract different species of bees and other pollinating insects, such as butterflies.
Liz Gentile of Brighton Township, one of the project participants, said about 15 volunteers are involved. They are required to spend 10 minutes each month with each flowering plant in the garden, recording such data as time, temperature, wind speed, cloud cover and the types of insects that visit the plant. The data will be sent back to Penn State for study.
She said Pennsylvania has 400 to 450 different species of bees.
“The overall aim of this is to help identify plants that serve as good food sources for the diverse bees that are in our state,” she said.
FLIGHT OF THE BUMBLE BEE
Fortunately for farmers, other insects, such as bumblebees, have taken the place of honeybees for pollination purposes.
Ed McConnell, whose family has owned a farm in Independence Township since 1787, said he’s noticed fewer honeybees this year than in the past.
Two of McConnell’s main crops — peaches and corn — are pollinated by the wind, but the farm depends on pollinating insects for plums, apples and vegetable crops.
“Each year, there has been a marked increase in bumblebees, so if there is a decrease in honeybees, the bumblebees are making up for it,” he said.
Bob Bauder can be reached online at firstname.lastname@example.org.
July 2, 2009
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Copyright © 2009, Beaver County Times, Pa.