When 45 billion honeybees die Bees: About 60 percent of the honeybees in the northern United States has been destroyed by an infestation of mites.

Sun Journal

June 13, 1996|By KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

PHILADELPHIA -- In 30 years of beekeeping, Bob Berthold had seen nothing like it.

In August, he was quietly tending 20 healthy bee colonies on the Doylestown, Pa., campus of Delaware Valley College of Science and Agriculture, where he teaches. The colonies were home to about 1.2 million honeybees.

Three months later, a million of those bees were gone.

"It's like someone just sucked them out with a vacuum," said Berthold.

Evidently they were wiped out by a plague of mites that has decimated the nation's honeybee population.

Although it will be hard to measure, those mites may end up taking their toll on consumers in the form of higher prices for honey, apples, cranberries, blueberries and other goods.

Across the northern United States, about 750,000 honeybee colonies -- 60 percent or more of the total -- have been destroyed, said Roger Morse, a professor of agriculture with Cornell University. That may mean as many as 45 billion honeybees.

About 60 percent of New Jersey's honeybee colonies were lost during the past several months. So, too, were up to 75 percent of Pennsylvania's.

No hard numbers were available, but the percentages for wild, or feral, bees lost to the plague probably are even higher.

Those losses likely will hurt many small and midsize farms (not to mention home gardeners) that rely on wild bees to pollinate their plants.

Experts blame two blood-sucking mites that have targeted honeybees, which are important for crop pollination.

One, a microscopic tracheal mite that entered the country in 1984, lodges in the hair-thin breathing tubes of adult bees.

The second, a deadly verroa mite that is the size of a pinhead, arrived in 1987. With its piercing and sucking parts, it feeds on developing and adult bees, weakening and deforming them.

Why the mites have targeted honeybees, as opposed to other species such as bumblebees, carpenter bees and yellow jackets, is a mystery, experts say.

The mite devastation has escalated in recent months, and that is probably related to the record drought of last summer and wintry weather that lasted from Halloween to Easter.

The drought cut bees' food supplies heading into the winter, and the cold and wet winter was unfavorable for foraging.

"Everything sort of came together this past year," said Hachiro Shimanuki, research leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"This has no doubt been the worst winter for wintering bees, maybe ever," said Troy H. Fore Jr. of the American Beekeeping Federation, based in Georgia.

Bees pollinate about 25 percent of all U.S. crops, worth about $10 billion. Nationally, bee pollination is a $40 million business, said Shimanuki.

"Without the honeybees, you may not have much of a harvest," he said.

In the Philadelphia area, the biggest pollinated crops are cranberries, blueberries and apples, he said. Bees can increase cranberry yields as much as tenfold, said Delaware Valley's Berthold.

Given the extreme weather of the last year and other factors, the experts said, it will be hard to isolate what variables eventually will drive prices, but industry experts are certain that mite infestation will have some impact.

"It's going to be a ripple effect," said David Hackenberg, owner of Hackenberg Apiaries and Buffy Bee Honey Co. in Lewisburg, Pa.

Hackenberg is one of the nation's estimated 1,500 commercial beekeepers. Like others, in addition to selling honey, he cultivates bees for pollination.

Right now, Hackenberg's bees are pollinating blueberry crops in Maine, where there is a serious bee shortage, according to Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture magazine in Medina, Ohio.

Hackenberg has increased his prices by 25 percent for apple pollination and 35 percent for blueberry -- costs that eventually may get passed along to consumers. (Shimanuki said beekeepers typically charged $40 to $50 per acre for setting their beehives out among crops.)

He said he had to raise prices because it was costing him more to raise bees. He said he was paying up to $50,000 extra to keep mites from ruining his 2,000 colonies and to keep his bees nourished.

Honey prices, which already have risen because of a worldwide honey shortage unrelated to the mites, may go up even further, said Flottum.

Beekeepers are fighting the tracheal mites with menthol vapors, and the verroa with fluvalinate, a pesticide sold under the trade name Apistan.

"It's very effective," said Flottum. "It's also very expensive."

It is unclear why the mites have targeted the honeybee, a dark-colored bee that looks something like a hornet on a diet.

"I wish I could answer that," said Shimanuki.

Honeybees are notoriously fastidious, and this may have conspired against them during the winter, said Maryanne Frazier, an entomologist and senior extension associate with Pennsylvania State University. They will not eliminate waste inside the hive, instead waiting for a break in the weather to make their so-called cleansing flights.

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