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Feature Story: Bee Afraid! The mysterious case of disappearing pollinators

Published on 26th September 2012

All seemed well that late winter morning when Bend resident Allen Engle headed out to check on his hives. The chill in the air held a hint of spring, the ducks flew overhead returning north and Engle was ready for his bees to rouse themselves out of their winter torpor.

A shocking sight awaited him when he lifted the first lid and saw the neat stack of wooden frames, thick with honeycomb but not a single bee.

In his 20 years of keeping bees, Engle had never experienced such a dramatic loss, yet in the months since he has lost four more hives with no explanation.

He’s not alone.

At the monthly meetings of the Central Oregon Beekeepers Association, he regularly hears similar stories from fellow beekeepers, some of whom have lost half their hives or more.

Their meeting topics have evolved from basic beekeeping strategies to serious science as they struggle to answer the question plaguing beekeepers, not just in Central Oregon, but across the country: What is happening to our bees?

There are several hypotheses out there, but it appears that, overall, a wave of bee killing phenomena has swept the country in recent years. The effect has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, and scientists have assembled a lineup of suspects, including an explosion of parasitic mites, a mono-crop diet and a lack of genetic diversity. No matter what the cause, the decline of honeybees could have a devastating effect on the health of crops and the entire agricultural system.

MEET THE DOMESTICATED BEE

To those of us unschooled in the art of beekeeping, maintaining a thriving colony of Apis Mellifera, aka the common honeybee, may seem a simple undertaking. Let them forage for pollen all summer, collect the honey in the fall, and tuck them into the hives for a long winter’s nap.

In reality, successful beekeeping requires as much attention to detail and knowledge as raising other animals en masse. Like ranchers protecting their herds, beekeepers must balance the hives’ nutritional needs, prevent parasites, stave off disease and keep an eye on the health of the queen.

For hobbyist beekeepers like Engle, the Central Oregon climate presents extra duties. Without a natural year-round supply of wildflowers, the bees require a good amount of honey to sustain them through the winter. So beekeepers supplement the hives with extra honey, pollen patties and fresh water.

To survive an average winter, the hive needs about 100 pounds of honey—a volume Engle guesstimates by lifting one side of the hive, judging the weight and adding food as needed.

Even under the watchful eyes of their keepers, the honeybee population has plummeted over the past half-century. The United States Department of Agriculture estimates that beekeepers managed over five million hives in 1947; by 2005, the number of hives had dropped by half due to a variety of factors, including fewer people keeping bees and a decline in the health of bee populations.

For Central Oregon farmers like Jim Fields, fewer bees could have a real impact on the produce he grows, he said. Pollination problems are especially evident among the various squash and zucchini plants.

“If the blossoms don’t get pollinated, you’ll see a brown tip where the blossom was, and it’s not nearly as good,” he explained.
Fields and his wife, Debbie, lost a hive this year. To ensure his crops are properly pollinated, Fields relies on local beekeepers, including Allen Engle, who maintain hives on Fields’ farm. This arrangement is a win-win relationship. Fields’ crops are abuzz with pollinators and the bees have access to a pollen bonanza.

While honeybees, like the ones at Fields Farm, have become almost completely domesticated. Several species of wild bees are still out there, and still serve as essential fruit and crop pollinators, but their population has fared even worse. New studies out of the University of Illinois estimate population drops of up to 96 percent.

One finding hits home: the Franklin bee, unique to Southern Oregon and Northern California, has not been spotted since 2006 and is suspected to have gone extinct.

Like their domesticated cousins, feral bee species face a daunting list of environmental changes that could threaten their survival: loss of habitat, loss of biodiversity in the wildflowers they forage and increased use of pesticides. Plus, there’s no stopping wild bees from mixing it up with domesticated bees, picking up debilitating mites and pathogens.

With no beekeepers to nurse them back to health, wild bees may leave the domestic honeybee as the sole pollinator of everything from almonds to zucchini, and this trend concerns both beekeepers and scientists.

POLLINATORS: IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT THE HONEY

Stroll through any Central Oregon farmers market and you’ll quickly come to appreciate honeybees as the unsung heroes of the produce world. The juicy peaches from Hood River, the fat purple marionberries from the Valley, the leggy carrots from local farms—they all depend on pollination by honeybees (yes, even carrot flowers need to be pollinated in order to make seeds.) The shortage of bees in each of these locales has created a niche for migratory beekeepers, who truck their hives around the country, following the pollination schedule of major crops.

Migratory hives may solve the pollination problem, but they generate a whole new set of factors that may contribute to CCD. Devin Prescott, a commercial beekeeper in Redmond, has seen the problems firsthand as he hauls his 150 hives throughout the West Coast over the course of the growing season.

“My hives are in the California almond fields in February, in Corvallis by late March for the berries, and in Madras by July for the onion and carrot fields,” said Prescott.

In his four years of beekeeping, Prescott has become increasingly aware of the stress that the migratory lifestyle has on the bees.
“Managing hives that live on mono-crops, with only one type of pollen, is tricky. Like us, bees need a variety of amino acids to thrive,” he explained.

Like the proverbial chicken and the egg, mono-crops and migratory beehives create a self-perpetuating problem. Consider the almond fields of California’s Central Valley, where perfect rows of almond trees stretch for miles in every direction. Consumer demand for almonds pushes farmers to keep planting, and every single blossom will need to be pollinated by a honeybee. Yet once the blooms fade and the nuts begin to develop, how could native bees survive? With nary another flowering species in sight, the mono-crop of almonds eliminates the possibility that bees could naturally live here year-round.

In response, migratory beekeepers from Oregon to Florida drive their hives to California and deposit an approximate 1.5 million hives (more than half of the country’s total number of managed hives) along the edges of the rows. As the bees get busy pollinating, they share whatever pathogens they brought from home.

“The bees drift more than you’d expect,” said Prescott. “So whatever problems the nearby hives have, you’re going to get too.”

Pollination of the California almond fields has become the most extreme example of our food supply’s dependency on migratory bees. Almond farmers expect to harvest more than two billion pounds of almonds this year—a bumper crop worth more than 3.6 billion dollars, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. A dwindling supply of honeybees thus creates a double threat, putting both the almond supply and the Central Valley economy at risk.

CCD: THE BEEKEEPER’S WORST NIGHTMARE

In some cases, there are no explanations for Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. That frustrates bee experts.

Dr. Ramesh Sagili, Professor of Entomology at Oregon State University, has been following CCD trends very closely since they were first identified in 2006.

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