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N.J. HONEYBEES FEEL THE STING
Farmers worry about getting their fields to thrive as mites leave crops usual pollinators cold and silent in the hive
Friday, April 22, 2005
BY ALEXANDER LANE
More than half the state's honeybee population died this winter, most succumbing to a bloodthirsty mite that has grown immune to pesticides, experts and beekeepers said.
The die-off threatens to leave farmers scrambling for bees to pollinate their crops, and could ripple through the economy, raising prices at the grocery store.
"This is the worst year I've seen," said Paul Raybold, the Department of Agriculture's bee specialist. "It's not just a state problem, it's countrywide."
From Utah's famous "Fruitway" to the orchards of Virginia to the almond groves of California, farmers are feeling the impact, and in some cases are paying two to three times the normal price for a visit from the beekeeper.
The impact on New Jersey's farmers is more muted so far, with prices rising just a few dollars --to about $45 -- for rental of a colony. But bees are essential for growing cranberries and blueberries, two big New Jersey crops, and with prime pollinating time approaching in the next few weeks, the state is preparing to field calls from desperate farmers, said Secretary of Agriculture Charles Kuperus.
"We're going to do everything we possibly can to connect the growers with the pollinators," Kuperus said.
So far, the clearest impact is on the thousands of hobbyists and semi-professional beekeepers in the state, a quiet but fervent subculture that has a mutually dependent relationship with New Jersey's small farmers.
"I have never experienced losing as many hives as this year," said Joseph Lelinho of North Caldwell, whose honey won Best In Show at the New Jersey Beekeepers Association's annual contest this year. "You go into the hive, the hive is empty. It looks like a ghost town."
Raybold said that of the 756 colonies he has inspected this spring, 438, or 58 percent, were dead from some combination of the erratic winter weather and mites. The state has about 12,000 hives, according to state officials.
The mites, the worst of which are from Southeast Asia, were first found in the nation's bee population in 1987 and hit New Jersey hard in 1996. In recent years, beekeepers have been able to control them with pesticides. This winter's carnage suggests the mites have adapted, said Michael Stanghellini, who heads Rutgers University's bee research program.
"Now we have to go through all kinds of searching for other compounds," Stanghellini said. "Right now it's the greatest threat to global beekeeping."
Two types of mites are killing honeybees. The more deadly, known as the Varroa mite, attacks when bees are most vulnerable: in their pupal stage. As the pearly white pupae develop within the wax-capped confines of a comb's hexagonal cell, the mites feed.
"They just suck so much blood that the bee comes out not very well developed, or even deformed," Stanghellini said.
The afflicted bee often dies shortly thereafter, sometimes at the hands of its colleagues. Once Varroas invade a colony, it usually is wiped out within 18 months to two years unless the beekeeper finds a pesticide that works.
Another common parasite, the tracheal mite -- which is native to European honeybees -- lodges itself inside the honeybee's air passages, debilitating it with congestion and eventually piercing its insides.
Federal and university labs are trying to breed bees that can resist the mites, and Stanghellini and other researchers are trying to concoct new mite-killing compounds out of organic acids and plant oils. But that is little consolation this year.
Bob Hughes of Yardville, president of the state Beekeepers' Association, said he took a terrible beating. "Worst I ever had," he said.
Hughes considers himself a "sideliner," the common term for beekeepers who are more ambitious than hobbyists but not quite professional. He keeps about 200 hives at various farms in Burlington County and beyond, bartering his bees' powers of pollination for space and nectar sources. He harvested about 12,000 pounds of honey last year.
He lost five of the six hives he kept at the Honey Brook Organic Farm in Pennington, leaving farmer Jim Kinsel concerned.
"It's a widespread crisis," Kinsel said. "There isn't like a 24/7 pollinator service you can call."
Some crops self-pollinate -- all it takes is a little wind. But cranberries and blueberries depend on bees inadvertently carrying pollen from one blossom to another as they harvest nectar. Watermelon, squash, cucumbers and other crops will produce fruit without pollination, but it often emerges misshapen, and yields tend to be lower.
Honeybees are not native to North America. They probably were imported from Europe in the 17th century, experts believe.
Kinsel said this year's problem spurred him to move ahead with an effort to encourage native pollinators, such as bumblebees, orchard bees, gourd bees, beetles and even some flies, which are resistant to the mites. They are less predictable than honeybees, and produce little or no honey, but Kinsel said nature's pollination methods were looking more appealing these days.
"The honeybee is kind of an artifact," he said. "Like many of our artifacts, it's susceptible to problems resulting from unsuitability or whatever. We are going to be relying more on what nature can provide, whether we want to or not."
Alexander Lane covers the environment. He can be reached at email@example.com
or (973) 392-1790.