Tracking missing bees isn’t easy

Forget the flowers, where have all the bees gone? Since 2006, there has been a growing concern among beekeepers about disappearing colonies, a trend which has since been labeled as Colony Collapse Disorder.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service estimates that from 2006 through 2011, colonies across the country have averaged losses by about 33 percent each year, figures which if continued could threaten the industry. This is not limited to honey production, but to the vital pollination services bees provide to orchards and farms. On its site, the ARS estimates that bee activity is crucial for $15 billion in increased crop value for domestic agriculture, with some crops such as almonds and certain fruits largely or wholly dependent on bee pollination.

The USDA and Environmental Protection Agency released a report (http://goo.gl/bC6CF) Thursday, outlining the findings of the National Honey Bee Health Stakeholder Conference in Alexandria, Va., last October. The conference was a three-day consortium of experts, apiarists, government officials, consumer groups, pesticide manufacturers and environmentalists the wide range of interests concerned in the decline of America’s bee population.

Together, the report finds that a combination of factors contribute to CCD, primarily due to parasites but also from lack of genetic diversity, nutritional ills caused by poor land management, varied keeping practices, and the possibility of pesticide exposure, which the report recommends should be researched further. One class of pesticide linked to CCD, neonicotinoids, was banned from use by the European Union on Monday.

More than most, the report is of particular interest to North Dakota. According to the the state’s Department of Agriculture, 201 keepers in the state produced more than 34 million pounds of honey last year, making North Dakota one of the nation’s top producers of the stuff. In addition, its keepers generally transport their bees south for the winter, where they are rented out to farms and orchards for pollination services. The statewide industry represented about $64 million of revenue in 2012, an 18 percent increase over the previous year.

Brent Woodworth, of Woodworth Honey & Bee Co. in Halliday, has noticed that beekeeping has become more difficult over the past 15 or so years. “Before, you could do it with your eyes shut,” he said. “It was just a timing thing,” where the problem might have been having too many bees rather than CCD. Woodworth was born keeping, currently running the apiaries his father had founded around 3,600 today.

His colonies have only seen a loss of 12 percent this year. “For the last four years now,” Woodworth has noticed population losses over the winter are about back to normal. Keeping his bees healthy does not simply happen on its own, however. “Most of what I see is the problem is the verroa mite,” which the USDA and EPA had specifically named as a strong suspect behind CCD in their report.

The verroa mite is a parasite resembling a crablike red button that only affects two species, the Asiatic and European honey bees, the latter of which is common to North America. Attaching itself to the bee’s body, the mite sucks on its hemolymph the arthropod’s equivalent to blood. In addition to just generally weakening the bee, verroa mites increase their susceptibility to disease. These parasites are common threats to the beekeeper’s livelihood, and there are several ways to deal with them.

Three times a year, Woodworth uses a gel form of formic acid, which he explains is found in many plants and insects and is also an alarm pheromone. So long as temperatures remain below 90 or 95 degrees, a roll of the stuff can be placed in each hive, only mildly affecting the bees but burning the “hairy, waxy exoskeleton” of the mites, killing or otherwise sterilizing them in the colony.

Mites are only one of many factors that can adversely affect bee health, which is part of the problem in finding a solution to CCD. “When everything is aligned just right,” as Woodworth says. An illness caused by mites or gut parasites that “doesn’t particularly kill the whole hive,” when compounded with other weakening factors such as poor nutrition or harsh temperatures can mean the death of a colony. The problems vary regionally and even locally, further complicating the search for a countermeasure.

“It’s an ongoing problem,” said Will Nissen, president of the North Dakota Beekeepers Association. His hives saw about a 27 percent loss in population last year, a figure he considers relatively fortunate. Even with all the research into the causes of CCD, he says “there’s not a smoking gun.”

Unlike Woodworth, Nissen wasn’t born an apiarist. “If you could believe it, there was no work in August of 1978,” he recalled. While doing some odd carpentry work for a local beekeeper, he found himself eventually trading his planer for a bee suit. As the owner of Five Star Honey, he now commands about 300 colonies of his own.

“We do everything we can” as beekeepers to keep their colonies in good health, he explained. “It depends on how you manage your company.” Among other things, Nissen finds that periodic requeening can positively affect the bee population. As it sounds, requeening involves replacing a queen bee “when we have a problem in the hive.” Queens have a life expectancy of four to six years and as they age tend to produce more unfertilized eggs, so it is recommended that they are replaced after several seasons with a younger queen.

“You find what works best for you,” said Woodworth, finding the proper balance “in order to do the most good.” With the conclusions reached in the report, beekeepers might be able to find that balance with greater certainty.