Area beekeepers are a mite upsetParasite attacks bees, cuts honey output, pollinationBy Franco OrdoÃ±ez, Globe Staff | May 29, 2005
The buzzing behind Howard Crawford's farmhouse in Franklin is usually unmistakable, the busy sound of about a half-million bees. But nowadays things are a little quieter than usual.
Crawford, 82, lost hundreds of thousands of bees from five of his 21 hives after an attack this winter by parasites that feed on bee blood.
''It's very serious," said Crawford, a usually jovial man with broad shoulders and weathered, thick fingers, who has been raising bees for honey and to pollinate his apple trees and blueberry bushes since the late 1950s. ''It's been a struggle. If we don't have the bees to pollinate, we won't have any blueberries."
The honeybee is under attack. A parasitic mite known as the varroa has cut the bee population in many states, including Massachusetts, roughly in half. Specialists say the eight-legged mite has grown resistant to federally approved pesticides. Coupled with unseasonably cold weather, some beekeepers are reporting the greatest losses they've experienced in years.
Ted Shylovsky, recording secretary for the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association, said that members reported losing as many as 60 out of 70 hives because of the parasite. A healthy hive can contain between 40,000 and 60,000 bees.
Medway beekeeper John P. Williams, a member of the Norfolk Beekeepers Association, estimated he has lost more than 100,000.
For area beekeepers, he said, ''this past year is definitely the worst."
The Massachusetts Beekeepers Association estimates that thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars' worth of honey will be lost. And there is growing concern about potential losses for local fruit and vegetable farmers who depend on honeybees to pollinate their crops during the late spring and early summer.
The US Department of Agriculture estimates the annual benefit nationally of bee pollination at $15 billion. The honeybee helps pollinate more than 100 crops, including broccoli, oranges, melons, and almonds.
Even area gardeners may find their cucumbers are not as big or their tomatoes as plentiful this spring, said Shylovsky, a Sudbury beekeeper, who estimated that his bees help fertilize dozens of large local gardens.
''It isn't just the honey that is of value," he said. ''Without good pollination, all these local gardens might not produce nice fruit."
The varroa attaches itself to an adult bee or burrows into the cocoonlike cells of developing bees to lay its own eggs, specialists say. Mark F. Feldlaufer, leader of the USDA bee research laboratory in Beltsville, Md., said as many as five female varroa mites can lay dozens of eggs in a single cell of a developing bee.
Fighting the mite is a constant problem, he added, because pesticides must be developed to kill the mite but not the bee. And it can't contaminate the honey, which will be eaten by humans.
In California, almond growers resorted to bringing beehives in by truck to pollinate their plants during their February and March blossom season. In New England, the blossom season for apples and blueberries is underway. Cranberries bloom from mid-June through July.
In Massachusetts, there are roughly 4,000 acres of apple orchards and 13,000 of acres of cranberries, according to the University of Massachusetts Extension Service in Amherst, a program that helps growers produce better crops. It takes roughly two hives to pollinate an acre of crop, the extension service said.
Many local farmers, learning from California, have ordered truckloads of beehives to help with the pollination. Professor Carolyn DeMoranville, director of the University of Massachusetts Cranberry Station, said it is too early to tell what effect the depletion of bees will have on the fruit crop.
''There is no question that the problem is getting worse," she said. ''The potential is there for this to become a big issue. It's going to depend on how all this plays out and whether there are enough bees to go around."
Crawford said he gets stung as many as 100 times a year, but it's more than worth it to produce his award-winning honey. He said that last year, he produced 1,900 pounds of honey, which he generally sells to local clients by the jar. He also uses it to make a skin cream, which he says doctors have used to treat such ailments as bedsores. And he has a steady number of clients who also visit his farm each year to pick fruit from his 200 apple trees and 75 blueberry bushes.
But he is concerned that there may not be much to pick this year. He purchased more queen bees in hopes of rebuilding his hives.
''If you don't pay attention to your bees, they're going to disappear," Crawford said. ''Beekeeping is a lot of work today. It used to be fun. You have to be like a doctor to the bees."http://www.boston.com/news/local/articles/2005/05/29/area_beekeepers_are_a_mite_upset/