As you may have read, we have an increasing problem concerning the decline of our honeybee population. There have been many different explanations for the cause of such extreme loss: Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), global climate change, pesticide and insecticide use, nutrition problems, viruses, and mites. Whatever the cause, this widespread loss is especially troubling; approximately “one-third of our food depends on bees” (Modern Farmer) including apples, blueberries, cucumbers, and almonds. The long and short of it is that we are dependent on honeybees for our food, so it is time to start living in a way that values and protects honeybees, an interesting challenge to those of us who are not beekeepers or farmers. The first step is always becoming informed about the issue and what is being done to deal with it. There are many people working in diverse ways to build up a healthy population of stronger bees.
The term “honeybee breeder” is a new one to me, but fortunately for us there is a network of them across the country that are working on a hardier honeybee called the “survivor stock”. Modern Farmer’s Katie Mast wrote an article on these breeders called “Honeybees: Keep on Survivin’ ” These breeders have been focusing on finding hives that have the best pest resistance as well as the ability to survive winters and other harsh elements, breeding these bees, and introducing them into different regions. Some breeders focus on producing healthy queens, some research comes from the lab and uses instrumental insemination. But the general approach is to introduce survivor bees into areas in hopes of spreading their genetic advances. Honeybees are very susceptible to inbreeding so new stock has to be brought in fairly consistently to avoid more loss. This is an ongoing experiment that is not an exact science, but is necessary for a step in the right direction. As these breeders continue to actively support stronger bees, we need knowledgeable beekeepers to care for and foster the bees and mentor new beekeepers.
Papa Spuds’ local source of honey is from the father-daughter beekeeping team, Sarah and Al, otherwise known as The Pleasant Bee. I called Sarah to talk to her about their hives and to hear her insight on the loss of honeybees. Sarah works at a honeybee research lab as her day job, so when I told her about the Modern Farmer article, she was able to give me a lot of information about issues that beekeepers are facing. CCD was identified in 2006-2007 and was noted as widespread in 2008. Unfortunately, the term Colony Collapse Disorder is widely misused and is often blamed for the overall loss of a hive, which is incorrect. The symptoms of CCD are very specific: the hive seems very healthy but there is one queen and only a handful of workers attending to her, most importantly there are no dead bee bodies, it’s as if they just disappeared. This is particularly strange because worker bees don’t abandon their queen–if they were to leave the hive they would take her with them. Research has shown that CCD is most likely linked to a virus called Nosema that is carried by Varroa mites, a very serious predator to honeybees. Varroa mites essentially suck blood out of honeybees and carry many different viruses that are harmful to honeybees. Varroa can be tested for by using powdered sugar or rubbing alcohol which causes the mites to fall off of the bees; the general threshold is that treatment is necessary if there are three or more mites per 100 bees.
In their eight years of beekeeping The Pleasant Bee has never experienced any serious hive loss, just an ongoing battle against Varroa mites. They have 20 hives spread out around the county in about five different locations in order to ensure that the bees have enough access to food. They harvest honey twice a year right after a big honey flow and basically leave the hives alone in the winter. If you open a hive when it is below 55 degrees Fahrenheit you could freeze the bees, so they make sure the bees have at least 50 pounds of honey to eat in the winter and let them be. Sometimes in the spring they have to supplement the bees food with sugar water before the flowers begin to bloom. The second biggest threat to bees is nutrition. We live in an increasingly industrialized world, so there are far fewer flowering plants available for bees.
Here is where you can easily do your part to help support the health of all different kinds of bees (there are 4,000 different bee species in North America and about 300 in North Carolina). You can plant flowers in your yard that attract bees and other pollinators. Sarah introduced me to an App made by a company her research lab has worked with called Bee Smart App–you put in your zip code and it brings up the plants natural to your area that attract bees and other pollinators. I downloaded the app to see what it is like and found it to be highly informative and extensive. You can select by pollinator, bloom color, sunlight, soil type, and plant type to plan our your garden perfectly. So, if you need some floral inspiration to motivate for the spring, this is a good place to look. In the meantime, to support honeybees, just eat their honey!