Apple growers feel sting of mysterious honeybee loss

Colonies of honeybees died across the region this winter, a year after the first national reports of
A bee pollinates an apple blossom Friday at Riverview Orchards in Rexford.
A bee pollinates an apple blossom Friday at Riverview Orchards in Rexford.

Colonies of honeybees died across the region this winter, a year after the first national reports of a mysterious bee-killing phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder.

Some local beekeepers lost half or more of their bees, and hive losses in double-digit percentages were common, according to some of those involved. Everyone has a different theory about why.

The losses could mean a honey shortage down the road — but there’s also a more immediate concern.

Bees play a critical springtime role, pollinating apple blossoms. There have to be enough of them to get the job done on the 10 million apple trees in New York, or there won’t be apples this fall.

It appears orchards have been able to rent enough bees from beekeepers for the annual pollination, but is wasn’t necessarily easy.

“This is the second year in a row when we’ve gone into our bloom with a tremendous amount of concern about the bee situation,” said Peter Gregg, a spokesman for the 700-orchard New York Apple Growers Association.

The trees are currently in bloom, and the bees need to be at work, right now.

“I’ve had calls from orchards I haven’t had before, looking for bees,” said Dan Kerwood of Johnstown, president of the Southern Adirondack Beekeepers Association.

But Kerwood, who last fall had about 50 hives, lost 75 percent of his bees over the winter. He said he knows of beekeepers who were wiped out.

The problem is almost certainly complex, but Kerwood believes the biggest factor locally was a relatively warm winter. That means the bees stayed active when they should have been dormant and eventually starved when honey reserves ran out before spring.

“Beekeepers are having a tough time right now,” Kerwood said. “Imagine if a farmer with 100 cows came into the house and said, ‘Honey, 20 of the cows just died.’ ”

A national survey by the Apiary Inspectors of America found a 36 percent decline in the commercial bee population this past year, on top of a 32 percent decline the year before, The Associated Press reported earlier this week.

The state Department of Agriculture and Markets is tracking the decline, which is also being monitored by researchers at Cornell University.

“Everybody has a different theory, and that’s one of the problems,” said Jessica Chittenden, a state Ag and Markets spokeswoman.

Mark Rulison of Rulison Honey Farms in Montgomery County supplies pollination bees to 10 Capital Region orchards, including Riverview Orchards in Rexford and Bowman Orchards in Clifton Park, and Indian Ladder Farms in Albany County.

He’s screening orchards this year to see if they use a class of nicotine-based pesticides some beekeepers suspect in declining bee health.

“We’re struggling with more and more bee stressors, and there are some things we just don’t know,” said Rulison, who estimated his winter losses at 15 to 20 percent. “They used to be single-digit.”

The first reports of Colony Collapse Disorder came out a year ago, and the reasons for the massive die-offs remain mysterious.

The virroa mite, Thai sac brood virus, warm winters and pesticides or other chemicals are all possible culprits, Kerwood said.

Wild honeybees have been slowly disappearing for many years, which is one of the reasons orchards now rent hives at pollination time.

“We used to think we could depend on wild bees,” said Isabel Prescott, co-owner of Riverview Orchards. “They’re getting more and more scarce in the wild.”

The orchards need to be pollinated during the 10 days or two weeks when trees are in bloom or there won’t be McIntosh, Golden Delicious and Braeburns this fall.

The hives are in the orchards now. Rulison placed his last hives at a Johnstown orchard early Friday morning.

Chittenden said the state is tracking both declining bee health and the potential impact on orchards.

“It’s an ongoing concern that seems to be getting worse every year,” she said. “We’re not seeing any decline in [fruit] production, but we realize there’s a risk.”

Kerwood has resorted to an unusual strategy to try to restore his bee population.

He’s replenishing his gene pool by taking calls from people with nuisance complaints about wild bees in their old houses. He traps them and brings them back to his hives.

“I’m hoping to breed disease-resistant bees,” Kerwood said.

Bees are essential to pollinating not just apples but many other fruits humans consume, he said.

“We need bees. We need to figure out a way to solve the problem,” Kerwood said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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