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Ted Elk scrapes honey off of a comb.  Yum!  Photos: Julie Grant
Ted Elk scrapes honey off of a comb. Yum! Photos: Julie Grant

Tough times for bees

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We get one of every three bites of food from crops pollinated by bees. That's about $15 billion into the U.S. economy each year. But North Country beekeepers are losing huge numbers of their little, busy coworkers.

Apiarists (beekeepers) from around the country--and the world--have been dealing with what's called Colony Collapse Disorder. It's been around for five years now.

Julie Grant visited with some beekeepers, and reports that scientists and the government don't agree on what should be done to help them.

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Not many bees in this hive.  Elk suspects CCD.

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Julie Grant
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Ted Elk is checking out some of his hives near his house in Hammond. They’re on the backside of a corn field, tucked away in the brush. The colorful boxes are stacked on top of each other, some seven boxes high. The more supers, as he calls them, in a stack, the more honey for Elk.

He pries open the hives one at a time. Some are buzzing with activity. He scrapes the comb:

"And that is all goldenrod honey. See how yellow that is?"

I want to eat it. It’s almost irresistible. But not all the hives look this good.

"Here’s one that’s not gonna make it through winter. It’s light, there’s no bees, there’s no weight to it." 

He pries it open and lifts out a comb. There’s honey on the comb, but few bees.

Elk suspects this hive has colony collapse disorder. There aren’t dead bees around. It’s like they disappeared. Elk has seen this before.

Like many apiarists, Elk takes his bees on the road in the winter. He puts the hives on the tractor trailer, throws a net over them, and they’re off. These days, most bees travel more than most New Yorkers. They might go to Florida to pollinate oranges, to California for almonds, to Maine for blueberries, to Wisconsin for cranberries, and back to New York for apples.

Experts say these polination road trips are stressful for bees.

Elk’s hives only go to South Carolina for winter. He thought they looked healthy when he put them on the truck to head home to Hammond last spring:

"And then when I got in to start working them, one hive, two hives, four hives, it wound up 250 hive loss. That’s a real hit in the wallet."

Thousands of dollars. When Elk started keeping bees 18-years ago, he might lose 5 or 6 percent in the winter. But nationwide, a thirty percent winter bee loss is average nowadays. 

Elk called in the state apiarist to investigate what had happened to his bees, "and it was colony collapse.  Brood, no bees on the brood.  Honey left in the hive.  But why?"

Why? That’s the question vexing researchers around the world. 

Paul Cappey is the New York state apiarist, the one who investigated Elk’s losses. He’s been a beekeeper, himself, for more than 50 years. He says the troubles go back forty years:

"It started with a fungus disease called chalk brood in the 70s, then in the 80s we started getting parasitic mites that were devastating the industry. Now because of the mites, viruses are a bigger factor."

Bees are normally hygienic, and leave the hive to defecate. But one of the common viruses gives them dysentery, so they soil the hive, making other bees sick.

Cappey says when a new problem shows up, beekeepers need deal with it, while continuing to manage all the known diseases:

"What we have been looking at here in New York is to try to minimize the impact of all these pests, pathogens, and viruses that are killing our bees, by doing different management programs to help beekeepers."

Beekeepers spend a lot of time managing their hives nowadays. 

When Ted Elk started, he says keeping bees was easy. Now he’s constantly managing. Timing when to apply pest strips for mites, anti-biotics for dysentery, and feeding them expensive sugar syrup to keep them well nourished.

"You can keep treating the symptoms, but what’s the main problem here?" Elk asked disparagingly.

Beekeeper Kathy Finnerty says all this management is just a stop gap:

"Nothing is getting better here with these bees.  It’s like a person that smokes, and they keep getting bronchitis. And they keep going to the doctor, and the doctor keeps giving them antibiotics, but they keep smoking, so the problem never really goes away."

Research is starting to show that the problems of bees may be largely beyond the beekeepers control.  Diseases, pests travel stress, malnourishment, and now farmers are using more chemicals that are toxic to bees.

James Frazier is an entomologist at Penn State University. He and his team have been researching the affect chemicals used on farm fields and home lawns has on bees.

"Much to our surprise, an average of about seven different pesticides that in each pollen sample the bees bring back to the colony is about average. Which is certainly much higher than we had anticipated."

Frazier says a few years before the collapses started, chemical companies started selling a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. And they’ve become really popular. They’re safer for human health than the older chemicals, and they do a good job killing unwanted insects.

But, he says, they also kill bees.

"Just because it’s safer for humans doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safer for bees or other pollinators.  And that’s where this particular class of neonicotinoids has surfaced to the top, because they are exquisitely toxic for honey bees."

Frazier says neonicotinoids and other pesticides interfere with the bees ability to learn, to navigate, and to fight off disease. He says that might explain why the bees disappear. 

For example, a forager bee's job is to fly out to find nectar and pollen.

"It remembers the picture of where the colony is in relation to other things in the environment, so when it flys back it can find the colony. If it cannot remember that image, then its not going to be able to orient its way back to the hive.  And there are studies that show the honeybees orientation behavior is disrupted by neonicotinoids and other pesticides as well."

Frazier isn’t convinced that neonicotinoids are to blame for the collapse of bee colonies.

Kim Kaplan is the lead spokesperson on Colony Collapse Disorder for the US Department of Agriculture.  She says the USDA did a major survey of honeybee colonies and looked for pesticides:

"We’re not saying you’re not finding the neonicotonoids or their residues.  What we’re saying is that when you take that pattern and map it, here’s where we’re finding it and at what levels, and then you map across the U.S. all the outbreaks of CCD, the two patterns don’t match."

But some researchers say bees move around so much, that mapping them doesn’t prove anything. They want more study about how the newer pesticides interact with older bee diseases, like dysentery. New research shows the synergy kills bees.

In Hammond, Ted Elk is getting ready to take his bees south for the winter again. But he can’t afford to lose nearly a third of his hives again this year. He wants help.

"Give me something tangible, that will work."

Elk wants a silver bullet fix.  But unless researchers and the federal government can agree on what’s causing colony collapse disorder—and whether regulation is needed—they don’t have much to offer the bees.

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