Honey bees buzz offLocal beekeeper sees honeybee population declining
Five years ago, Andy Bailey and his wife, Robin, ventured into the world of beekeeping.
“For the first few years, we did fine even though we were novices,” Andy said.
But then something strange began happening.
Last year, Andy lost three of his hives when the bees just disappeared. This past winter, the same thing happened with the new hives the Baileys had set up until every hive was empty.
“Last week I went into the last one, and they were gone,” Andy said. “They left, and they don’t come back, and they don’t want to do that in the winter. That’s very not natural.”
Normally, bees spend the winter inside the hive in a cluster, which is basically a big huddle of bees that helps to keep them warm through the cold months. Leaving the hive during the winter is pretty much a death sentence because cold weather below 50 degrees will quickly kill a bee on the outside.
Andy said he checked the hives, and there was no sign of distress that might have caused the bees to die. More importantly, there weren’t any bees, dead or alive, to be found.
“Ten to 15,000 bees should be in there,” Andy said, explaining that if the bees had died in the hive, it would be very obvious.
However, the hives were full of honey, so the bees were not starving, and before they all left, Andy noticed no signs of distress or disease among the population.
“There was food and they were healthy going into winter. They should have lived,” he said. “We don’t know where they went.”
A spreading problem
The problem is not unique to the Baileys’ hives. Andy said he’s had several beekeeping neighbors within a mile of his home tell him they’ve also had hives “die” in this way. The count is up to 26 now. At a recent Haywood County Beekeepers Association meeting, the guest speaker was from Buncombe County, and he said he has been experiencing similar issues, Andy said.
“I’m sure that he’s very experienced,” Andy said, explaining that the man makes his living from renting out his hives to orchard owners and other farmers who need bees to help pollinate their crops.
The beekeeper had 65 hives but lost 45 of them in just a few years.
“It’s a mystery to guys like him as well as me,” Andy said.
A national trend
According to the EPA, the condition is called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and reports of CCD have been occurring since 2006. While research has been and continues to be done, a definitive cause for CCD has not been identified.
Scientists studying the disorder have theorized on a number of potential causes that could be acting separately or together to cause CCD, including pesticide exposure, invasive parasitic mites, an inadequate food supply, or a new virus that targets bees’ immune systems.
County Extension Director Bill Skelton, with North Carolina Co-operative Extension, just completed a survey of the beehives in Haywood County, and he said the problem is becoming extensive.
“We don’t really quite know what it is, and it’s not just here. It’s across the state and across the nation as well,” he said, adding there has been a 50 percent loss of hives throughout the country in the last few years.
“It’s awful disheartening,” Skelton said, especially since there is currently no solution to the problem.
Until the exact cause of CCD is known, the future of honeybees is not looking bright, and even more disturbing is the impact the loss of the bees could have — and is already having — on food production.
Although on the surface, honeybees might not seem so important, their role in a healthy ecosystem is vital. Far from being just honey producers, bees are the biggest pollinators of many food-producing crops, and no bees means no food.
“When you consider one third of what we eat is connected to honeybee pollination, that’s quite significant,” Skelton said.
The list of crops that depend on honeybees for pollination include apples, cucumbers, broccoli, onions, pumpkins, carrots, avocados, almonds, many types of berries, and much, much more.
California almond farmers are already reporting a shortage of almonds because there simply aren’t enough bees to pollinate the trees, and the cost of renting beehives is skyrocketing.
If honeybee populations continue decreasing, “we’re basically in big trouble,” Andy said.
While there isn’t much Andy and other beekeepers experiencing CCD can do to stop the phenomenon, Andy is determined to spread awareness and possibly get more people interested in raising bees.
“It might help if more people got involved and kept bees,” he said. “With the declining bee population, if more people become beekeepers, ultimately it’s going to help.”
In the meantime, the Baileys have restocked four of their hives with the help of a beekeeping friend in Cherokee, and Andy said he hopes his hives will flourish this time around.