Schenectady County

Strange illness makes beekeeping a challenge

John Griffith of Fultonville said Saturday that keeping honeybees is more difficult now than when he

John Griffith of Fultonville said Saturday that keeping honeybees is more difficult now than when he started 30 years ago.

At one time, Griffith, one of about 200 attending the Southern Adirondack Beekeepers Association’s annual spring seminar, said he had about 50 hives.

Now trying to tend five in semi-retirement, he predicted that this season he’ll only have two survive from last year and they are not likely to be strong.

“Bees were much healthier back then. We didn’t have to worry about these serious health issues. Now, we have to worry about things like mites, beetles and colony collapse,” he said.

Various pests have been threatening the survival of honeybees over the years, including the varroa mite, which began attacking honeybees in the 1980s and was described as “public enemy No. 1 in the beekeeping world” by Shane Gebauer of Brushing Mountain Bee Farm in North Carolina.

But in the past year, a new, unexplainable phenomenon has emerged to vex honeybee populations, called Colony Collapse Disorder.

After a year of research, scientists have not been able to come up with a cause for CCD, which killed millions of honeybees last year, according to Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University.

“No one thing yet can account for CCD,” vanEngelsdorp said. “It is probably a lot of things working together.”

VanEngelsdorp updated participants at the beekeepers seminar held at the University at Albany about ongoing research to find a cause of CCD.

VanEngelsdorp talked about his research, offered possible causes of CCD and gave the beekeepers advice about how to keep honeybees healthy.

Researchers from across the country are helping to study CCD, including those from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Penn State and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. The public became aware of CCD in fall 2006, but vanEngelsdorp said the phenomenon probably started a couple years before that but was dismissed as varroa mites.

“Clearly, varroa mites can’t explain these loses,” vanEngelsdorp said.

VanEngelsdorp said the symptoms of CCD are the appearance of the queen honeybee, dead bees are not present, the remaining bees appear young and there are an insufficient amount of bees to care for the eggs.

Many believe that CCD is due to stress on the honeybees when they are moved, especially in commercial beekeeping operations that have thousands of hives.

VanEngelsdorp said he doesn’t believe the disorder is caused by stress from movement because beekeepers have been moving honeybees for hundreds of years. He said CCD is probably due to a bacteria or virus.

“It is increasingly likely that we are dealing with the bee flu,” he said. “Like the flu in humans it is worse some years than others.”

He said the researchers are currently gathering data to see how bad the CCD problem was this year. He said anecdotal evidence shows that it was about 80 percent as bad as the previous year.

Until a cause is found, vanEngelsdorp encouraged beekeepers to control varroa mites in their colonies, eradicate or don’t use equipment where a colony has completely died, and use protein supplements when necessary to keep bees strong.

“I do think there is hope. I don’t think we can keep the bees healthy,” he said.

The health of honeybee colonies is not only important to the production of honey, but to the agriculture industry that relies on honeybees to pollinate crops. Most flowering plans rely on pollinators to bear fruit.

VanEngelsdorp said the current honeybee population is just enough to meet the pollination demands of the country’s farmers.

“All of our extra bees are gone, and there are a limited number of bees left to meet the pollination demands,” he said.

Griffith said he is not convinced that his bee colonies had died due to CCD. Rather, it seemed as if starvation was the biggest contributor, he said. Nevertheless, Griffith said he’ll give beekeeping one more season before giving up.

“I just bought five more hives that I’ll release in April,” he said. “If they don’t make it, I’ll give up.”

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