Beekeepers busy after fatal winter

Pollination: Parasites have all but wiped out Maryland's wild bees and with harsh weather are devastating domestic colonies crucial to the state's agriculture.

July 06, 2001|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

HURLOCK - Peering across the dark cucumber field, Oliver Collins carefully steers his pickup truck to a point just past the irrigation lines. He climbs out to inspect the wooden crates on his trailer. Everything looks good, so he quickly shoves them open.

The bees are set free.

On this cool and breezy night, Collins' honeybees are calm and complacent, sticking close to their hives until he's safely back in his truck. This is his chance to return to the normal rhythm of beekeeping, after a deadly winter that claimed as many as half the state's bee colonies.

It's a nice break after a week of fighting heat, fatigue and restless bees, hauling his trailers of hives to the sprawling produce farms here on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Recent months have been hard on the state's beekeepers, who have been hand-feeding and chemically treating honeybees in attempts to coax them through one of the worst periods of bee devastation in Maryland history.

"There was such a loss," says Collins, an athletic, talkative 61-year-old who is one of the state's largest commercial beekeepers. "Then, before you knew it, the crops came on, and everybody needed you right away.

"The crops only bloom so long ... so I'm pretty much out here till 1 or 2 in the morning, moving bees."

Even in an era of modern machinery and genetically engineered crops, produce farmers still rely on timeless basics: soil, sunshine, water - and bees. All kinds of vegetables and fruits, from apples to cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and blueberries, would grow poorly, if at all, without bee pollination.

Some occurs without human help, but there aren't enough bees in the wild to spread plant pollen on thousand-acre farms. Farmers typically rent hives of commercially raised honeybees to pollinate their orchards and fields.

The bee business, an occupation pursued only by the most hardy, has grown increasingly critical in recent years since 90 percent of the nation's wild honeybees have been wiped out by parasitic mites.

Now, despite chemical pest controls, domestic honeybees are also dying.

"We're right on the edge of barely having enough for our crops," says I. Barton Smith, Maryland's apiary inspector, who blames the past winter's bee demise on bad weather and increasingly resistant mites.

Farmers have few places to turn. Of Maryland's 898 beekeepers, just 8 percent make a living from renting out their winged workers. A few others sell honey. The majority keep a handful of hives as a hobby - to pollinate their vegetable gardens, taste fresh honey or simply study the insects' habits.

Biologist David Bernard is fascinated by honeybee society: their communication through intricate dances, their work ethic, their mating rites. "The aesthetics are amazing," he says, "the beautiful golden bees, the beautiful honey that accumulates. ... All your senses are kind of alive."

Bernard has built up enough bee colonies to help a couple of pumpkin growers near his home in northern Montgomery County. But by winter's end, he had lost 17 of his 24 hives.

Largely to blame are two parasites that came into the country in the late 1980s and spread rapidly in recent years. Tracheal mites live in the bees' breathing tubes but can be controlled with menthol fumigants. More damaging are Varroa mites, which cling to honeybees like ticks on a dog, draining them of blood.

Beekeepers try to kill them with chemical strips. But lately, some of the mites are surviving.

"I'd pull the strips out at the end of the recommended treatment time," Bernard says, "and they were just crawling."

He ordered new queen bees through the mail. His replenished colonies are enough to satisfy his usual customers, but he can't count on harvesting any honey this year - and he's fielding frantic phone calls from other farmers who can't find bees.

So is Oliver Collins. Shortly before 10 p.m., as he finishes unlatching a bee trailer in a field, Collins' cell phone rings.

"He wants how many hives?" Collins asks, with a note of disbelief. "Seventy-five? I don't know. When's he need them? OK, I guess, I'll see if I can make it work."

If anyone can, it's Collins.

He was quick to notice last fall that the dry weather was hurting honey production because the bees could not find enough plant nectar. Some bees were starving. Collins and his wife, Cheryl, spent much of the winter feeding sugar solutions and fighting the deadly mites. It paid off: They lost only 25 percent of the hives.

Driving his Ford down the back roads of Dorchester County, Collins supplies bees to produce farms that stretch for miles. He owns 1,500 bee colonies, which he rents out for roughly $35 apiece, and moves every few weeks to "follow the bloom." It's a tiring one-man operation, but it's also one of the few that's profitable.

His bee business, begun after he inherited his father's 85-acre farm outside Vienna in 1970, grew more sizable in the 1980s with the machine picking of cucumbers.

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