Beekeepers stung by disappearing bees
Posted on Thu, Apr. 10, 2008

With a third of the nation’s honeybees disappearing because of a mysterious malady, Florida’s beekeepers are working to restore their hives and nurse their bee colonies back to health.

Not only do the bees create Florida’s $11.3 million annual honey crop, they’re also responsible for the pollination of a significant part of the state’s winter vegetable, fruit and citrus crops. Nationwide, pollination is an estimated $18 billion segment of the agricultural industry.

”One out of every three bites of food that we put in our mouths is put there by the honeybee pollinating those crops,” said Dave Hackenberg, a 46-year veteran beekeeper, pausing between checking hives south of Dade City. Bees buzzed noisily around him in the balmy afternoon sun.

Most people equate bees just with honey and miss the critical role they play in the state’s agriculture. Bees are so critical to agriculture, said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, partly because they are “our No.1 pollinator.”

”We’re the fruit and vegetable basket for the whole northeast United States basically, and big parts of Canada, during the winter,” Bronson said.

The honeybees pollinate a wide range of crops, from strawberry, avocado, and blueberry to cucumber, squash, tangerines and zucchini.

The abrupt disappearance of honeybee colonies in North America began in 2006. It’s been attributed to Colony Collapse Disorder, but scientists have been unable to pinpoint the cause of the disease.

When CCD happens, adult bees vanish from the hive, leaving and never returning.

It could be the result of a combination of factors, experts say, including pesticides, stress caused when the bees travel from state to state to pollinate; drought; varroa mites, a tiny but fierce enemy of bees that by itself has been devastating, or perhaps even a completely unknown disease or a known disease breaking out at a more severe rate.

”I guess the biggest thing that upsets me is that scientists have been at this for 16 months, and, not their fault, but we don’t have any answers,” Hackenberg said.

Statewide, about 33 percent of the bee population has been affected. South Florida’s honeybees have been less impacted by the disorder.

Lee del Signore, a Homestead-based beekeeper, said that might be attributed to the area’s year-round warm weather, rich diversity of fresh pollen and nectar for the bees. Also, the bees that are sent out for pollination
are transported shorter distances.

But Hackenberg and many other of the state’s 165 or so commercial beekeepers have felt the sting of CCD.
Hackenberg said he has been hit with $400,000 in lost bees and revenue over the past two years. He has replaced most of the colonies, but not all of them.
He’s had to increase his prices to recoup his losses. Once charging $45 per hive to pollinate apples, he now charges $65. Blueberries have gone from $60 to $90.
And those prices, he adds, are passed on to consumers.
He and other beekeepers have had to rebuild their colonies, mostly by installing new groups of bees into hives.
The workers scurry from hive to hive, gently calming the bees with a few puffs of smoke, installing new broods of young bees, sometimes adding queens and checking on the health of each hive. Each step adds to the growth of the hive.

Now he’s readying about 2,900 colonies of bees for the fruit orchards and vegetable fields from mid-Florida to the Northeast where they will pollinate everything from apples to pumpkins.

On Wednesday, a panel of bee experts convened in a Senate office in Washington, D.C., discussing research into what one called an ”alarming decline” in the bee populations.

It is unlikely the bees will become extinct but the beekeepers might, said May Berenbaum, who heads up the entomology department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

”Our pollinator portfolio is in great disarray,” Berenbaum said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who is pushing for $20 million in federal funding for bee research, noted that many of her state’s crops, including almonds and berries, are dependent on “healthy pollinators.

”There is so much for people to be concerned about here,” Boxer said. “Our food supply is under a grave threat.”

California is the biggest honey producing state, followed by North Dakota and Florida.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been scrambling to assign more of its money to honeybee health issues. The Senate has passed the five-year farm bill with $100 million over five years for bee health while the House has passed one that spends just under $85 million over five years. The two numbers will be worked out by a conference committee.

”This is a serious problem nationwide and some other places in the world,” said U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, who majored in zoology in college and has introduced funding legislation in Congress to help the beekeepers.

”I can tell you that it impacts us an awful lot. And not just from the standpoint of those who are in the industry,” he said. “But if there are no bees, there is no pollination.”