Md. honeybee crisis appears to be over

The buzz: Commercial honeybee colonies, vital for pollination, are nearly back to normal after being devastated last year.

May 09, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

With a helping hand from Uncle Sam, Maryland's honeybees are making a comeback.

A year after the state lost approximately half of its commercial honeybee hives - causing a serious threat to fruit and vegetable production - the bee population is just about back to normal.

"We're not in a crisis stage anymore," I. Barton Smith Jr., the Maryland Department of Agriculture's apiary inspector, said yesterday. "The bees came through this past winter in good shape. They're doing real good at this time.

"We lucked out last year. The damage to crops was not nearly as serious as it could have been."

Smith said fields of watermelons, cucumbers and squash turned out better than state officials had expected.

Smith said the state lost 15 percent to 20 percent of its commercial beehives last winter, which is about normal.

Smith said that with the help of a $55,000 federal grant, state beekeepers are moving rapidly to replenish their hives.

The government pays about half of the price of buying a new hive. The beekeepers buy the bees from a dealer, paying about $25 for a 3-pound package containing about 10,000 bees, he said.

The dealer then sends a form to the state Department of Agriculture to be paid an additional $25. Smith said the state subsidizes the purchase of five packages of bees per beekeeper.

Fifty-five percent of the state's 860 beekeepers have one or two colonies, and 94 percent own 10 colonies or fewer. A package generally grows into a colony of 40,000 bees by midsummer.

Beekeepers moved quickly to take advantage of the government program. Dennis Miller, a beekeeper in Chase who also sells bees, said he has sold nearly three times as many bees this year as last.

"I went down to Georgia and picked up 370 packages of bees and hauled them back," he said. "They were sold before I got back. I would say that is primarily a result of the government grant.

Miller said he lost 90 percent of his 30 beehives during the winter of 2000-2001. "A lot of people don't realize ... that without the bees, half the food we eat wouldn't be there," he said.

Smith said the loss of bees last year was "was pretty much a problem along the whole East Coast, from Maine south to Georgia," although Iowa lost about half of its bees.

Backyard vegetable gardeners would not notice a shortage of bees, but the commercial colonies are critical to Maryland's $40 million-a-year fruit and vegetable industry.

Smith said the commercial bees are rented by farmers to pollinate crops such as watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers and zucchini. Without proper pollination, the vegetables are odd-shaped and don't grow to full size. Bees also are vital to apple and peach harvests.

The cold weather takes some bees each year. Others succumb to the attacks of pinhead-sized Varroa mites that feed on the blood of bees and their larvae.

Smith estimated that 10,000 commercial bees colonies exist in Maryland, about the same as in 2000. That is down from 16,000 in the mid-1980s, he said.

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