Beehives facing more obstacles, deadly results
Fighting The Elements
CHARLES WALSH firstname.lastname@example.org
On a late March afternoon, the sun slicing through the stubborn winter chill, Leslie Huston crunches through the fast-melting snow toward the line of six honeybee hives at the edge of her Newtown back yard.
Donning thick, magna-cuffed gloves and a full head veil to protect her from any bees that might object to having their winter rest disturbed, she begins inspecting her hives to see how the bees have survived the winter.
Moving slowly, Huston gingerly lifts the cover of the first hive. What she sees is not pretty.
The floor of the hive is piled several inches deep with bee bodies. Every one of the hive's tens of thousands of bees is dead.
Before she's through, Huston will find that of the eight hives she maintains (two are located nearby in an apple grower's orchard), only five have made it through the winter.
"Three hives dead out of eight," she says, "that's more than I usually find, but other keepers do a lot worse."
In fact, a survey of the Connecticut association of amateur beekeepers, the Backyard Beekeepers Association, showed that last spring the group's members lost nearly 70 percent of their hives to pests, disease and
Bees scatter once the lid is opened in one of Baum's beehives. (Jeff Bustraan/CTPost)
the relentless cold. It looks like this spring will be worse.
Although in the end it turned out to be the cold that killed Huston's hives, the top concerns among beekeepers are two tiny mites, tick-like parasites, called varroa and the tracheal mite.
The reddish-brown, pinhead-sized varroa does the most damage. Some scientists think it may have killed up to half the North American bee population in the last 12 months. Varroa is especially virulent in California, where that state's almond industry has been severely damaged by the lack of pollinators.
Varroa, which is visible to the naked eye, feeds on bees during all stages of their development in the hive. Adult varroas hitch rides on the backs of worker bees, feeding on them as they go.
"Varroa's a really big problem here," says Ira Kettle, the state's official beehive inspector. "It gets into the larvae shell and even can ruin the honey."
According to Steve Sandry, an entomologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, there are 370 beekeepers in Connecticut, both amateur and commercial, and they have 2,375 hives. If last year's 70 percent hive mortality rate is repeated this spring, it will mean only 713 hives will have survived.
Dead hives are not the end of the world for beekeepers. After purging the dead bees and cleaning the frames, a new queen and bees can be purchased and the hive will be buzzing again before summer.
Beekeepers also fear the microscopic trachea mite, which lodges in a bee's windpipe, eventually killing it. While the trachea mite is somewhat less widespread than the varroa, it is nonetheless a major problem in Connecticut and the rest of the country.
In both cases, the mites can reduce a hive's population so dramatically that the remaining bees can no longer keep their environment warm, which they do by rapidly flapping their wings. Eventually, the cold penetrates and kills the colony.
All this might not be so dire if honeybees were not so vital to agricultural crops.
Pollination by honeybees is required in plants that make up a full third of the human diet. Even the clover and alfalfa that feeds cattle depend on bee pollination.
The chief weapon for fighting varroa mites are two products known by their brand names, Apistan and Check-Mite. Apistan is the most commonly used, but over the years
the mites have built up immunity to it.
Check-Mite works better, but many beekeepers are reluctant to use it because its main ingredient, coumaphos, is also an ingredient in nerve gas that's also toxic to humans.
Tracheal mites respond to doses of antibiotics, but there are signs the bees may be becoming immune.
With chemical treatments losing their effectiveness, many beekeepers are resorting to natural remedies to combat mites and other diseases.
Essential oils such as lemongrass, menthol and tobacco are used to create environments in the hives that mites cannot tolerate.
Some of the mite remedies sound downright bizarre. Some beekeepers feed bees a mixture of Crisco and sugar, causing the bees to become so slippery the mites could not maintain a grip and fall off the bees' backs.
In Connecticut, it is the apple crop that is most vulnerable to poor bee pollination. According to Kettle, to be adequately pollinated, an apple blossom must be visited eight times by bees. Anything less and the apples that result will be misshapen, good only for cider.
Irv Silverman of Silverman's Orchard in Easton said to make sure his apple crop
Winthrop Baum shows one of his beehives in the backyard of his Fairfield home Sunday morning. (Jeff Bustraan/CTPost)
is adequately pollinated he has to rent about 40 hives from commercial beekeepers every spring.
"We used to rely on feral bees to pollinate the crop, but that was 20 years ago," Silverman said.
The mite problems and other diseases have become so bad, says bee entrepreneur Howard Blackiston of Weston, that many younger beekeepers are quitting the hobby.
"My gloomy view is that it it's become a difficult hobby and an even more difficult commercial pursuit," says Blackiston, the author of "Beekeeping for Dummies" who also runs a Norwalk-based Web site that sells bees and bee supplies.
Blackiston's own hives have had their share of setbacks in recent years.
"Once I lost no hives over the winter," Blackiston says, "but this year I expect to find half of my hives dead."
Like most knowledgeable beekeepers, Blackiston sees the breeding of mite-resistant bees as the best hope for the future in the battle against mites.
Many beekeepers, also called apiarists, are already buying strains of European honeybees called Russians that are said to be more mite-resistant than domestic bees.
Newtown's Huston says she has had "good luck" with her Russian queens, with more of their hives surviving than those of other bees.
A bee breeder in Minnesota has developed a queen bee that hates mites. The bee's genes contain something called "the Minnesota hygienic trait," a kind of obsessive neatness drive that causes bees to compulsively groom each other, picking off mites and cleaning the bee larvae infested with the mites from the hives.
However, experts say breeding mite-resistant bees is a very slow process. Enhanced bees may never reach all the different lines of bees found in commercial bee colonies or in those in the wild.
Meanwhile, research into new miticides goes on and the beekeepers are buying more Crisco.