Bee tragedy averted in Santa Cruz County?

Posted: Thursday, Oct 11th, 2007

When last we heard from honeybees, the buzz was bad.

A new ailment had emerged last winter, causing bee colonies around the country to mysteriously flee, and fueling fears that the vanishing honeybee would threaten crops that depend on bees for pollination.

But Santa Cruz County’s honeybees are still here. Some honeybees thrived this summer, area beekeepers reported. Crops, including apples and raspberries, were richly pollinated.

To be sure, colony collapse disorder, which destroyed 23 percent of U.S. beehives last winter, remains a real worry. But for now, bee experts can’t identify a single confirmed case of it here over the summer.

“It was a fair year with one of our lower crops in 12 years, but it’s not necessarily connected to colony collapse disorder,” said Cathy Walls, a Soquel beekeeper whose 1,400 hives serve local wholesale markets.

The biggest problem this year was drought, and more recently, predatory yellowjackets, said Bob Miller, a Corralitos beekeeper who serves as director of the California Beekeepers Association, representing 300 beekeepers.

“Bee populations start to slow down in October and November, so we’ll soon have a better idea” how local hives will fare, said Miller.

Scientists hoping to pinpoint the cause of the nation’s honeybee decline recently identified a previously unknown virus, but stress that parasitic mites, pesticides and poor nutrition all remain suspects.

Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, worries that on top of pesticides and narrowing habitats, disease could be the last straw for many of the bee species.

“It definitely could all come crashing down,” he said.

The nearest mass disappearance was earlier this year in Los Baños, said Walls, but it was not confirmed as a case of colony collapse disorder.

Walls and the roughly half a dozen other beekeepers who are based in Santa Cruz County shuffle their bees around California throughout the year so the bees can pollinate crops as they come into bloom.

A raspberry farmer who rents honeybees said that prices are going up, but he could survive on the Pajaro Valley’s population of wild honeybees if necessary.

“We in the Pajaro Valley aren’t going to feel the problem as bad as those in the San Joaquin Valley, where there isn’t as much natural habitat and almond growers are especially dependent on pollination,” said Virgilio Yepez, general manager of Dutra Farms.

Unlike most raspberry operations, strawberry growers don’t depend on bee pollination because the strawberry plants are clones raised in greenhouses, said Peggy Dillon, a spokeswoman for the California Strawberry Commission.

Although scientific sleuths have yet to weed out many of the suspects, they have eliminated one of the catchiest theories: that cell phones were somehow to blame.

To be sure, Miller decided to conduct his own experiment near Mount Madonna, one that might not pass snuff with scientists, but was enough proof for him.

“I parked a truck of bees under the Channel 8 tower for four months,” Miller said. “There’s all kinds of microwave radiation coming off that thing, but the bees suffered no ill effects, as best as we can tell. They’re actually some of the healthiest looking bees we have.”

Unlike other diseases that strike hives, the collapse disorder leaves a colony without most of its worker bees despite the presence of plentiful food, a queen and other adult bees. It has devastated an industry that produces honey and pollinates lucrative crops such as almonds, oranges and apples.