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Ted Elk scrapes honey off the comb.  Photo: Julie Grant
Ted Elk scrapes honey off the comb. Photo: Julie Grant

NNY Beekeeper frustrated, but rebuilding hives

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Beekeepers nationwide reported a 30-percent loss in bees over last winter. There's concern worldwide about the future of bees. Their numbers have been declining since 2006.

The European Union recently issued a ban on certain farm pesticides, because they've been linked to bee deaths. But the U.S. says pesticides aren't to blame. We took an in depth look at this issue in 2011. Here's a bit from that story:

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Reported by

Julie Grant
Reporter and Producer

"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."

Things aren't much different this year, according to Elk, who we spoke with last week, after he returned from overwintering his bees in South Carolina.

"It was a really tough winter in South Carolina.  They went down really, really heavy, and by the time we got down there to work them, they had eaten up pretty much all of their stores that they had for the winter, just because it was so cold there this winter, and we lost, probably 400 hives this winter."

That's half of Elk's hives.

A federal government report this month blamed the rapid decline of American honeybees on parasitic mites, and other factors, including viruses, bacteria, poor nutrition, and genetics.

In contrast, the European Union voted to ban a class of pesticides called neocotinoids that has been associated with the loss of bees.

But the U.S. report, issued by the EPA and USDA, ranked pesticides at the bottom of the list of potential causes.  It says there is no clear evidence pesticides are causing bee deaths.

Elk manages his bees against mites and viruses, but still recent years have brought devastating losses.

"Right now, I will continue to rebuild, and get my numbers back up.  I think I'm within around 100 from being where I was last year at this time.  They're in the orchard in Chazy, Rouses Point, up in the apple orchards up there.  When they come out of there, they'll go right into production.  Everything's looking like a fairly decent year for honey production."

The Syracuse Post Standard reported this month that honey season would be delayed this spring, and there might even be a honey shortage this year because of bee losses.

Elk doesn't think that will happen.

"At least here in New York State, I think the honey production will be just as good has it has.  Nationwide, you might see a little blurp. I know guys in the Midwest who lost 60, 70, 80 percent of their bees, but they're in the rebuilding mode. So, the worst case scenario is honey may go up 10-cents a pound.

Beekeepers can rebuild, but Elk says there's reason for concern.

"It's a horrendous expense.  Those bees that we've lost, we may be able to build those numbers up in the spring, but it's keeping those numbers up all throughout year. So you've got the loss of the bees, then you've got the loss of the production of honey, it amounts to a significant dollars."

The USDA says it's hearing similar stories from beekeepers around the country.  A government expert tells NPR, beekeepers can only afford bee losses of 15-percent.

Elk says in addition to the cost of rebuilding the hives in spring, and the loss of honey production,  he also spends more money, and time, than he used to trying    to stave off mites and viruses each winter.

"I'm having to work twice as hard for the same thing that I worked for 10 years ago that I worked half as hard for.   Don't get me wrong, I'm all about working hard, but it gets to the point where you ask yourself, 'Why?'

 Elk wants the U.S. government to consider a pesticide ban, similar to one recently approved in Europe.  But U.S. farmers and pesticide companies are opposed to that.   And the Environmental Protection Agency says it's not convinced a ban would do much to help bees.

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