Between 40 percent and 50 percent of Maryland's bee colonies die off each year, and these losses must be made up every spring and summer by buying replacements and by splitting existing hives. Can you imagine the attention the poultry industry, the horse industry or pet owners would demand if half of their animals were lost annually? Maryland beekeepers need public support, through an adequately funded apiary inspection program, Maryland-specific research and an extension service that applies the research to the practice of beekeeping.
Maryland agriculture depends on honeybees. Every time we eat, we should ponder what neglecting our honeybees will cost us. One-third of our diet is produced through insect pollination.
Some plants, such as onions, cucumbers and squash, depend entirely on bee pollination for a successful crop. Others, such as apples, have increased yield or increased certainty of a good yield, when bees are present. Without a transfer of pollen, there is no fruit. Pollen grains stick to a bee's fuzzy body, then rub off and fertilize the blossoms.
The bees must be available when the blossoms open, and someone has to arrange for them to be there. The pollinators that just happen to be in an area will not be sufficient to pollinate hundreds of plants blooming at once. A beekeeper either maintains hives in a permanent location close to the crop or brings in colonies when the season requires. Nurturing the bees involves knowledge and hard labor, but recently that has not always been sufficient.
Maryland may see increasing bee losses soon. A mysterious ailment, Colony Collapse Disorder, is affecting hundreds of millions of honeybees across the nation. Experienced beekeepers find their once-thriving hives empty and abandoned. Despite intense research efforts across the United States, the cause of the problem is unknown.
We have not seen the effects of Colony Collapse Disorder in Maryland - yet - but our beekeepers are already experiencing steady losses. Because of invasive pests and diseases, it is harder and harder to keep bees healthy each year. We need specific information about caring for bees in Maryland's diverse climatic zones, and how to apply national research to Maryland's bees.
The unique structure of our beekeeping community makes quick action imperative. Just three Maryland beekeepers own half of all the bee colonies in the state. If any of them were to get out of the business, Maryland farmers would have to import their bees from out of state, at increased cost and risk. Most of the other 1,300 or so Maryland beekeepers have only a few hives each, but taken together they are so effective at pollinating Maryland's crops that Maryland had to import only 379 bee colonies last year. Delaware, in contrast, imported approximately 4,000 colonies. To keep the Free State self-sufficient, we have to help not only our bees, but our beekeepers, to thrive.
Unfortunately, the Maryland Department of Agriculture has only one full-time employee, plus some part-time contractors, to inspect hives for diseases. These inspectors have to do double duty advising beekeepers - which is not their job - because in 1996 the Maryland Cooperative Extension eliminated the last apiculture extension faculty position. If the system were working properly, the University of Maryland would do research on how to improve beekeeping, and agricultural extension would bring it to the beekeeper.
But it's not happening. One example of this neglect: Since 1984, two types of invasive mites have devastated Maryland bees, becoming resistant to several treatments in turn and leaving beekeepers without effective controls for these pests. But the Cooperative Extension has not revised its printed beekeeping handout since 1983. The inspection program needs better support; UM should do more practical honeybee research; and the beekeeping extension program needs to be revived.
To substitute for our lack of extension services, Maryland is a member of the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium. The consortium is located in Pennsylvania and does some regional research. We contribute no money to its budget, and it does not do any Maryland-specific activities or conduct activities in Maryland. It is no substitute for real extension.
Nor is Colony Collapse Disorder the only threat on the horizon. Africanized honeybees are now established in Florida and are heading north. Africanized bees are much more difficult to live with than the gentle bees we're used to. The state Department of Agriculture and UM estimate that they could reach Maryland in five or six years - or much sooner, if a swarm hitchhikes on a truck heading up Interstate 95. A strong local beekeeping community is our best defense against them. Efforts to strengthen our bees and beekeepers now will pay tremendous dividends, if and when Africanized bees arrive.
Together, our beekeepers large and small take care of Maryland's apples, pumpkins, cantaloupes, cucumbers, berries, melons, squash and other crops with low cost and high reliability. Beekeepers, like the bees they keep, are quiet toilers in our fields. We may scarcely notice them - but we would sorely miss them if they were to disappear.
Marc Hoffman is a director of the Maryland State Beekeepers Association. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. This article reflects his views, which are not necessarily those of the association.