Honeybee shortage concerns keepers, experts
"Pleasant words are as a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and health to the bones."
Proverbs 16; 24
The Bible makes 68 references to bees, honey or honeycomb. Bee byproducts have been touted for centuries for their health benefits.
But the lowly honeybee serves up an even greater good as chief pollinator for crops like cucumbers, squash, strawberries, melons and more.
A virulent species of mites has decimated the state's honeybee population in the past 20 years. Bee experts and beekeepers alike agree the reduced number of bees, combined with the aging - and fewer numbers - of beekeepers, has dramatically affected how local crops are pollinated.
Without pollination, yield decreases year after year, according to bee experts like N.C. State University entomologist David Tarpy.
"Many of the agricultural crops across the state depend on cross pollination," Tarpy said. "The life cycle depends on the pollination and seeding of future generations of the plants. Without having a sufficient number of bees, we won't get the same yields of these crops."
The top six crops hurt by the honeybee decline are cucumbers, apples, blueberries, watermelons, squash and melons, Tarpy said.
"Overall, these crops add an extra $100 million per year to the agricultural economy in the state," Tarpy said. "We have been talking with beekeepers who rent out their hives for cross pollination and we estimate there is a huge shortfall of commercial honeybees needed for commercial agriculture."
Swaney agrees with the predictions. He's been a beekeeper for 26 years and has gradually increased the number and variety of his hives each year.
"I started out with three colonies of some of the meanest bees I have ever seen," Swaney said.
He now keeps 56 colonies and all of them stay busy during the growing season. He rents out hives for vegetable growers, especially those who depend on cucumber, watermelon and strawberry yields for the bulk of their income.
Swaney has placed hives in cotton fields during the bloom season so his bees can gather nectar for honey. A tasty byproduct of bees, the quality and quantity of locally grown honey is affected by the honeybee shortage.
"With fewer bees, and fewer beekeepers, there is less honey to go around," Swaney said.
N.C. State and several other state institutions want to increase the number of bees and beekeepers.
"We hope to address the shortage of bees by bolstering the number of managed hives," Tarpy said. "We have a program here at N.C. State to do that, and the tactic we are taking is to increase the number of beekeepers."
That entails providing training about the science of beekeeping and certifying beekeepers for commercial use.
"Hopefully, we can foster their excitement about it and they will stick with it," Tarpy said.
Tarpy and Swaney agree that many certified beekeepers are growing old.
"Take me," Swaney said. "I'm 73 years old. There are a lot of beekeepers who are my age or even older, so we have to get the interest of beekeeping passed along to younger folks."
Swaney said he believes the N.C. Beekeepers Association and N.C. State's entomology experts will help revive the state's bees.
"The honeybee is a truly great gift from God," Swaney said. "They provide us with so many good things in life."
Karen McConkey can be reached at (252)527-3191, Ext. 232, or firstname.lastname@example.org