The bees are busy at Rulison Honey Farm.
Put an ear to any of the 1,000 hives and it sounds alive, like the buzz of a city. It’s the season of accumulation. The Rulison family readies their hives in the spring and harvests in the fall. Over the summer, the bees do the work.
Under the low ceilings of the old farmstead barn, as Gary Rulison, his cousin Mark and his son Ben sorted bottles and jugs for future packaging, relief was as thick as the smell of honey in the air. If the spring had gone differently, the hives would be a lot quieter, and the Rulisons would be looking for alternate career options.
“With the early spring, and all the apple blossoms, we thought it would be a great year,” Mark said. “Then we got hit.”
Mid-May, a few hives were blighted by Nosema ceranae, a microsporidian fungus that infects honeybees and can decimate their population.
“One day I went out to check on a new hive,” Gary Rulison said. “It was healthy when we put it out there, 5,000 bees. When I looked inside, there were maybe 40. It scared me.”
Gary and Mark have worked the family bee farm in the town of Florida their whole lives, trained by their fathers, folding honey cartons as 12-year-olds. Ben, in turn, was trained by Mark as the fourth generation of Rulison bee farmers. Over the years, they’re overcome heavy bee losses from mites or poor weather. But they’ve never seen anything weaken a hive as fast as the fungus.
“It only takes two weeks for a strong hive to get weak.” Mark said.
Fearing for the 1,000 hives that make up the family livelihood, the Rulisons set about looking for a treatment.
“We were desperate,” Mark said. “We started calling all the beekeepers we knew, inspectors, looking for anything that would work.”
Mark recounts praying to God for help, then finding an article in the American Bee Journal entitled, “How I saved my Bees.”
The article, written by Minnesota beekeeper Don Jackson, recommended using a natural formula of lemon grass and spearmint oil along with Nozevit, an extract from the bark a tree that grows in Eastern Europe. It’s a home remedy that no one quite understands. The Rulisons theorize it works like a multivitamin for the bees, but they didn’t know what else to do.
They shelled out $2,000 for equipment and the cocktail of oil and extracts, and traveled to their 38 hive locations for 9 days, spraying their swarms.
Now, a little over a month later, the bees are fine. In all, they lost fewer than 50 hives, which Gary says is hardly anything in the grand scheme of things.
Last year, they made 58 tons of honey, and while Gary says it depends on how the rest of the season turns out, they don’t expect much less than that.
“We caught it just quick enough,” he said.
Bees on the whole, however, are facing widespread problems.
According to Southern Adirondack Beekeepers Association President David Wood, a survey of club members across 10 counties around the Capital Region showed a 40 percent bee population loss over last winter.
“Years ago, a 10 percent loss would have been big,” he said. “Now 40 percent is normal. If it keeps going, we’ll be in trouble. There’s only so much you can make up over the summer.”
Wood said the loss is due to any combination of weather patterns, pesticides, herbicides, and perhaps even radio frequencies.
“The cloud of chemicals that surrounds us hasn’t really been tested on bees,” he said. “A fungicide might not hurt them on its own, but when mixed with another chemical used in the area, it can be deadly. There are so many it’s impossible to tell.”
The fungus that endangered the Rulison hives was present before without the devastating effects.
“There’s an underlying issue,” Ben Rulison said as he applied nutrition labels to empty honey jars. “You can have healthy bees with fungus, so it’s a two- or three-pronged problem.”
One possible answer is that the Nosema ceranae fungus weakens the bees, making them more susceptible to the viruses passed by the varroa mite, which has plagued the Rulison farm for years.
Currently, they treat their hives every winter when the bees aren’t producing. A mixture of 10 ounces of oxalic acid (a deck cleaner) four pounds of sugar and a gallon of water is sprayed over the sluggish bees. The acid penetrates the shells of the mites without hurting the bees, and since the bees aren’t making honey, the product stays pure.
Rulison honey farm is still in the process of learning what exactly their bees are up against, but so far they count themselves lucky.
“Some of our beekeeper friends in Rochester are being hurt bad by pesticide kills,” Gary said, “and the big operations out in North Dakota, it’s so dry the bees are still eating their winter honey and not producing at all.”