Threatened honeybees important to economy, agriculture
By Victoria Hampton
Small clouds of smoke fill the air as Clint Carl uses a smoker to calm a box of bees before his inspection. Once the buzzing of the disturbed bees becomes a relaxed hum, he lifts up the lid, exposing a world 50,000 bees strong.
Honeybees land on Clint’s exposed shoulders and hands. His fingers gently lift one frame after another, searching for the bee responsible for this catacombed colony.
“There she is,” Clint says as he spots the queen at the bottom of a frame, nestled in a bed of bee larvae.
Clint is just one player in an industry vital to crop production and, by extension, the nation’s economy. However, the future is uncertain because of challenges such as mysterious bee die-offs that have researchers and beekeepers searching for answers.
Clint says the best part of his job as a beekeeper for his family’s business, Mt. Adams Honey in Zillah, Washington, is caring for the hives.
“I like to get inside the hives and manipulate their world to make it better,” he says.
His family has been in the business of beekeeping for more than 40 years. Clint picked up the trade from his grandfather and mother.
As he became invested in beekeeping, he traveled to California to learn how to breed queen bees.
“I learned a lot of new practices while there that I use with our bee business,” says Clint.
Mt. Adams Honey is a migratory bee company, which means it moves its bees to pollinate crops on the West Coast year-round. From November to March, Clint’s bees are stationed in California. They then are moved back to areas in Washington, such as the base of Mount Adams and Spokane.
Among the crops Clint’s bees help pollinate are almonds, vegetables, snowberries and apricots.
Mt. Adams Honey harvests the bees’ honey in August. It is processed for two months and bottled. It is sold at several fruit stands, and the company has its own website and eBay sales.
“Beekeeping is a huge world,” says Clint. “There’s a lot to it. It’s hard to put it all into a nutshell.”
Modern-day beekeeping businesses are products of the honeybee’s propagation in the United States.
“Humans have kept bees for thousands of years for honey,” says assistant horticulture professor Ramesh Sagili. “Honeybees were introduced by the Europeans in the 1600s. They knew how to keep bees, and that is how bees were populated here.”
Today, honeybees are responsible for $20 million worth of pollination a year, says Ramesh, who researches honeybees at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon.
“They pollinate 90 different crops,” Ramesh says. “In California, they pollinate 900,000 acres of almonds. Blueberries and pears in Oregon wouldn’t be possible without bees. Our nutrition would be greatly affected without (them).”
In turn, honeybees create a variety of honey that takes on different colors and flavors depending on the types of crops or plants they pollinate.
Thistle honey is a rich molasses color that beekeeper Jim Buxton harvests in Vernonia, Oregon.
Since 1973, Jim has kept bees as a hobby, selling small amounts of honey.
“I was interested in agriculture and wondered what I could do here to be self-sufficient,” says Jim.
Through the years, Jim has kept as many as 22 hives. Right now he has just one on his property.
The bees he keeps feed off fireweed and thistle from a clearcut behind his home.
“This last year I had a weak colony,” Jim says.
Rather than harvest the small amount of honey the bees produced, “I let them keep it,” Jim says.
As a hobbyist, Jim says he has no problem leaving the honey if a hive is not thriving. But a low population and accumulation of honey can be detrimental to farmers who depend on bees for pollination and companies that depend on sales of honey, he notes.
During 2006-2007, beekeepers nationwide reported 50 to 80 percent colonization loss, which represents the total number of bees.
“There are a lot of stress factors on bees, such as malnutrition, migration, pesticides and not having a diversified diet,” says Ramesh.
Add a weakened immune system and the problems are compounded, he says.
Among the biggest threat to honeybees are mites. Varroa mites were introduced to the United States in 1987. The mites suck the blood of bees, transmitting seven different viruses that then kill the bee. Another mite that affects bees is the tracheal mite. It attaches itself to the bee’s airway, deteriorating the bee’s lungs so it cannot fly.
“Our bees don’t have a resistance against them,” says Ramesh.
Some companies and beekeepers treat their bees for mites with store-bought chemicals or natural remedies.
“When you don’t treat the bees, they generally die,” says Clint. “We’ve went through different all-natural treatments to keep them alive.”
He uses menthol, thyme oil and hops.
Bees also are susceptible to parasites and fungi.
The extent of the problem has changed in the 17 years Barbara Stockwell has managed her family-owned Stockwell Honey Co. in Arivaca, Arizona.
In the early years, she says, the only diseases she had to worry about were different types of fungal diseases. That changed when her company started transporting bees to California for the almond harvest.
“People bring in bees from all over the country to California, and now you catch everything,” says Barbara.
Since 2006, Ramesh says, beekeepers have reported average annual losses of 30 percent.
“The reason for decline is a multifactorial, complex problem,” he says.
Colony collapse disorder is a blanket term coined in 2006 to help explain what was happening to the honeybees. Ramesh says it is not one disorder, but a combination of factors that causes bees to abandon hives or results in the death of the entire colony.
“These are a mix of all different stressors that compromise bee immune systems,” he explains.
While researchers have an idea of the statistical honeybee decline, they do not know the effect on native bees.
“Native bees that are in the wild—no one has done studies on those populations,” says Ramesh. “Some bumblebee species have completely disappeared on the West Coast.”
Other concerns Ramesh has for the future of honey and native bees center on climate change.
“We have seen some plants blooming earlier than they did 10 or 15 years ago,” he says. “Plants blooming early or late could pose a problem because bees won’t have access to the flowers they are used to.”
Ramesh also is concerned the beekeeper population is growing older, with younger people uninterested in the trade.
He recognizes beekeeping is not a very profitable enterprise, and that it is an intense, specialized trade. But he stresses that pollination is essential to the prosperity of crop and plant growth.
Beekeeping associations are trying to inspire the next generation.
The Southcentral Alaska Beekeepers Association in Anchorage, Alaska, has monthly meetings, inviting members to share discoveries in their beekeeping regimen and offering help to those new to the trade.
“It’s quite a vibrant club,” says president Steve Victors. “We have about 150 members. It’s good for beginning beekeepers to talk to more experienced beekeepers about complications with hives and general questions.”
During each monthly meeting, the club discusses beekeeping strategies, and plans educational activities for the state fair and beekeeping classes.
Steve started beekeeping in 1996 after a large wildfire burned a portion of his property. His family bought 10,000 trees to replant the area and got bees to help pollinate to re-establish the undergrowth.
“Our honey started out with a large fireweed component,” says Steve. “As the understory came back it added a wild flower component.”
A large percentage of fireweed honey is a combination of wild raspberries, wild roses and other lowland flowers, Steve says.
In time, Steve went from two hives to 120. In recent years, he has scaled back to 15.
Steve learned the trade from attending a beginner course in beekeeping and from talking with other local beekeepers.
As president of the Southcentral Alaska Beekeepers Association, Steve orders large shipments of bees for beekeepers throughout the area.
“We bring in about 1,500 packages per year distributed from Fairbanks to Homer,” says Steve.
The bees are shipped to Alaska in mid-April from Sacramento, California. The bees come in 4-pound packages. One package satisfies one hive.
Jim Buxton also buys his bees every year—although one season he harvested his own hive from the wild.
In the woods of Vernonia, Jim strung a pulley system from a bee box to the branch of a tree where a large hive was built. He scaled the tree, cut the limb and, sure enough, the hive landed right on the box.
However, during the limb sawing, a few bees dropped onto Jim and crawled under his pant legs, resulting in a series of stings.
Jim says he has never climbed down from 20 feet up a pine tree so fast in his life.
No matter the methods or struggles behind beekeeping, the nature of the trade keeps people harvesting hives year after year.
“It’s a great thing to do,” says Jim. “It is just the science of it. It’s like the hive is an organism that consists of all of these single individuals. There isn’t any one thing as fascinating.”
As the sun sets over the roaming hills of central Washington, Clint closes the lid on the bee box and leaves the bees to what they do best.
For today, this colony is secure and healthy. From sunrise to sunset, each hive will multiply, pollinate and produce.
Although the future of honeybees is uncertain, the people behind the beekeeping trade keep these vital creatures alive for the benefit of crop producers and consumers alike.