By KT Tomey
By now, most people have heard that honeybees around the world are struggling with a health problem that is causing a dramatic decline in their numbers. In the past few decades, most US beekeepers have suffered heavy losses. In Michigan, it’s not uncommon for beekeepers to lose 60% of their bees during the winter months. Roger Sutherland, President of Southeast Michigan Beekeepers Association (SEMBA) has been keeping honeybees for 42 years, and characterized the first 20 years as “the land of milk and honey.” In the past 20, he has seen as a gradual decline with greater winter losses each year, no matter what he does.
The term “colony collapse disorder” or CCD has made its way into the popular press since 2006 when it was first characterized. Though CCD has wreaked havoc nationally, claiming a quarter of our 2.4 million honeybee hives, CCD has not been much of a problem in Michigan. According to Sutherland, only one case of CCD has been reported in the state. The disorder is defined by several very specific criteria, including a complete absence of adult bees in colonies with little or no build-up of dead bees in or around the colonies, the presence of honey and pollen that are not immediately robbed by other bees, as well as several other conditions. CCD has mainly been an issue among commercial beekeepers, though admittedly formal data collection on backyard hobbyists is lacking.
When asked about the cause of bee deaths, most beekeepers will say that mites are major contributors to the problem, particularly the Verroa and tracheal mites. Prior to the arrival of these parasites in the 1980s, normal winter losses were 10-20% in the Midwest. Another major culprit is Nosema apis a spore-forming parasite that invades the intestinal tracts of adult bees causing nosema disease, a sort of bee diarrhea. Bees are more likely to have a problem if they can’t get out of the hive to “go to the bathroom” during the winter because the lack of ventilation allows spores to build up. A couple of warm days throughout winter months can help to mitigate the impact of this parasite, though it won’t necessarily prevent the disease. On the flip side, if winters are too consistently warm, bees are likely to be more active and eat through their food stores much earlier in the season, leading to a risk of starvation in late winter months.
Diseases are only part of the problem. Many entomologists and beekeepers are pointing their fingers at pesticides such as Merit that are routinely used on domestic crops such as apples. Many apple orchards are sprayed with Merit early in the season and when honeybees are in full pollination mode. And while the American government has yet to act, four European countries have already banned a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids because of their suspected impact on honeybee deaths. These pesticides are systemic chemicals that work their way through the plant, attacking the nervous system of insects that come into contact with it. The substances also get into life-sustaining pollen and nectar.
Our changing food system is also to blame, according to Royal Oak-based organic beekeeper Rich Wieske. Increased demand for pollination services nationwide has lead to dramatic increases in the stress level of bees. A Midwestern beekeeper who rents his bees to pollinate a California crop will pack them onto a truck and travel to the site with the bees in tow. Along the way, bees are fed high-fructose corn syrup and pollen substitute. Wieske says the process is like feeding a kid nothing but Coke and hot dogs and keeping him up all night traveling across the country. Once on site, the “kid” is thrown into a schoolyard with 20,000 other undernourished “kids” for a couple days in quarantine, and then asked to get to work. Wieske wonders how people could possibly be scratching their heads wondering why the bees aren’t healthy.
On top of the poor diet and stress of traveling, pollination of big-ticket crops such as California almonds is needed in January or February when most Midwestern bees are dormant; activity during this time of year means disrupting bees’ hibernation-like state. About half the colonies from Michigan are moved to warmer climates during the winter, and bees are often packed up and hauled from state to state repeatedly, pollinating as many as 7-8 different crops. Some bees are rented in state during other parts of the year for crops like apples.
Pollination services have become critical in the past few decades in part due to the decline in the feral or “wild” bee population. Loss of feral bees has been largely blamed on mites, but experts also blame reduction in bee forage and habitat.
The growth of the almond industry in California has boosted demand, and US population growth has also contributed an increase demand for food and pollination. Another key systemic factor, according to Roger Sutherland, is that “there’s no money in honey.” Cheap imports from China and Argentina are undercutting American honey prices, and US beekeepers can earn much more pollinating than selling honey.
Another critical issue not discussed much outside “bee circles” is queen rearing. In order for a hive to survive, a strong queen is needed to lay eggs and keep the workers on task. Most beekeepers purchase queens from regional queen rearing operations. The number of these outfits has sharply declined, however, to just five from about 30 a decade ago. The main ramification, aside from reduced supply and increased cost, is the loss of genetic diversity in hives across the region. Such diversity is crucial for bees to adapt and survive in our environment, which is becoming less and less hospitable.
Improving honeybee health is vital for their survival and for ours. These bees continue to be the pollinator of choice because they are available throughout the growing season, because they pollinate such a wide variety of crops, and since they can be concentrated in large numbers whenever and wherever needed. They are critical to the diversity in our diet; one third of our food is derived directly or indirectly from insect pollinated plants and 80% of insect pollination is accomplished by honeybees. Honeybees pollinate 65 of Michigan’s 125 agricultural crops, including apples, tart cherries, blueberries, peppers, watermelons and cucumbers.
There are some bright spots on the horizon. In the past couple of years, Rich Wieske has been building a local queen rearing business; last year he raised 100 queens, and aims to raise 2,000 queens in 2009. He hopes that this will help improve genetic diversity in the region, and is encouraging others to do the same. “It is definitely much more of a sustainable venture than just merely selling honey. If you raise 200 queens per week, and queens are going for $20-25 each, you can do that for almost 3 months out of the year [in Michigan], and can get into serious money.”
Wieske and Sutherland also promote beekeeping. According to Sutherland urban bees do very well because of the diversity in nutrients, “something’s always blooming.” But beekeeping is not the only way to aid honeybee health. Buying local honey supports local apiaries and is a win-win situation for domestic plants that benefit from pollination. Increasing the diversity of the plants in your yard and reducing insecticide use will improve bees’ foraging habitat. A recent article in Bee Culture magazine recommends mixing 20% white clover (or white Dutch clover) in with your grass to provide a summertime buffet for honeybees and other pollinators. White clover also adds nitrogen to the soil. Clover seeds can be spread in late winter when the ground is still frozen, and will thrive if not cut too short. Other recommended backyard plants include thyme, Russian sage, lavender, bee balm, anis and hyssop. A birdbath will provide a vital water source for a variety of pollinators. The more hospitable your yard for honeybees and other pollinators, the more it will come to life.
Rich Wieske is the owner of Green Toe Gardens. He raises bees in 60 hives in the Detroit area totally drug free; no chemicals are used in any part of the process. His honey is available at Avalon bakery and the Royal Oak farmer’s market the first and third Saturday of every month year round. He teaches beekeeping classes throughout the year. For more information, you can contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org