Rare queen sets beekeepers abuzz
Pests have wiped out 99 percent of wild species in United States
It's rare a Russian queen bee shows up as a door prize.
But Thursday, the insect -- valued for its resistance to the mites that decimated honey bee populations across the United States -- was coveted by nearly 200 bee enthusiasts who gathered in Charlotte.
For these beekeepers, attending the N.C. State Beekeeper Association's summer meeting, the quest for a stronger bee -- like those the Russian queen could breed -- has become a priority in recent years.
Due to the unintentional introduction of exotic pests, close to 99 percent of U.S. wild bee species have disappeared over the last 20 years. Mites and beetle species that attack larvae or destroy the production system inside a honey bee hive are to blame.
About one-third of all food consumed in this country directly depends on bees for pollination, so it's fortunate beekeeping techniques have preserved the nation's honey bee populations, said David Westervelt, apiary inspector and researcher for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Chapters of beekeeper associations exist across the country and serve to help area beekeepers communicate and learn more about developments in the field -- especially ways to combat pests, such as introducing new varieties and pesticides.
Olav Rueppell, assistant professor of biology and a geneticist at UNC Greensboro, joined his local chapter because he maintains several hives for research purposes.
"You have to have a lot of local knowledge and you get that through contact," Rueppell said. He hopes to gain an even wider perspective from the statewide convention in Charlotte.
Throughout the convention, bee researchers from across the United States and Canada will present their latest findings. Workshops on topics ranging from pesticides to apitherapy (the use of bee products for health and healing) will be held, as well as testing for master beekeeper accreditation.
Many enthusiasts report increasing demand recently for honey bee colonies, which farmers rent for pollination purposes.
Don Hopkins, state aparist with the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, explained that North Carolina's agriculture is transitioning away from traditional tobacco. Farmers, Hopkins said, are turning more and more to crops like cucumbers, melons and berries.
Unlike tobacco, these flowering plants require a healthy dose of pollination, primarily from honey bees, which makes both commercial and local hobby beekeepers increasingly integral.
Some enthusiasts, though, worry that the field doesn't readily attract younger generations.
"Most beekeepers are 65 years of age or older," Westervelt said. "It is very much a retired person's job." Caring for hives, he said, is very time consuming.
But, a few younger enthusiasts like Jeff Knight, an environmental health specialist for Union County, assure the future of beekeeping. Knight is even proving that beekeeping can move beyond a hobby.
Knight, of Monroe, co-owns Old North State Apiaries, which sells honey products including candles, soaps and lotions in addition to the honey itself. He has set up sales on the Internet at www.beeguys.com
Many beekeepers acknowledge, though, that the number of hobby and commercial beekeepers nationwide is falling, due largely to the difficulties pests have posed.
"Over the last 30 years we've gone from an industry of 6 million hives to 3 million in the U.S.," said Westervelt. "We've lost three-fourths of our beekeepers."