State not feeling sting of missing bees

On the farm

May 11, 2008|By Ted Shelsby

Those hard-working honeybees so vital to the success of Maryland's $80 million-a-year fruit and vegetable industry are faring better here than in other parts of the country.

Commercial beekeepers across the nation reported that they lost 36.1 percent of their honeybees over the winter, according to a recent survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

A large portion of those losses -- about a third -- are due to a phenomenon scientists call colony collapse disorder, or CCD, in which the adult bees leave a hive and die.

"We normally lose about 25 percent of our honeybee population over the winter," said Kim Kaplan, a representative of the Agricultural Research Service Center in Beltsville. "This year, we lost about 10 percent more than usual."

The loss is a major concern for bee researchers at the Beltsville center.

Honeybees are critical for agricultural pollination. They add more than $15 billion a year to about 130 crops -- especially high-value specialty crops such as berries, nuts, fruits and vegetables.

In general, honeybee colony health has been declining in the U.S. and other countries since the 1980s, with the introduction of new pathogens and pests, according to the USDA.

At the same time, the demand for hives to supply pollination to farms has continued to climb.

This means that bee colonies have to be trucked farther and more often than before, which also stresses the bees.

Colony collapse has been blamed for the deaths of billions of bees in 35 states. Scientists think it caused the destruction of about 38 percent of the nation's 2.4 million bee colonies last year, according to an Apiary Inspectors of America study published by the American Bee Journal.

But Maryland farmers have not suffered because of the outbreak of colony collapse disorder.

"We have never had a case of CCD in Maryland," said Jerry Fischer, the apiary inspector with the state Department of Agriculture. "We have not lost one colony due to CCD."

Fischer said Maryland has only three commercial beekeepers and that they are used primarily to pollinate fruit trees in Virginia and West Virginia and for large cucumber fields in Delaware.

Fischer said most of the pollination services in Maryland are handled by what he called "backyard beekeepers or hobbyists."

Before 1987, he said, state farmers did not rent bees to pollinate their crops. "They relied on feral colonies," hives of bees living in the wild and not managed by anyone.

He said Maryland has 1,531 registered beekeepers and 10,000 colonies (a colony is a single beehive) at 1,700 locations.

"Sixty-three percent of the beekeepers in Maryland have two or less colonies," Fischers said. "At this time, we have adequate pollination."

Looking at the national situation, Kaplan said there are also enough bees to provide all the pollination needed this year.

"But," she said, "we could be getting close to the tipping point. We have fewer hives, and we keep asking them to do more work.

"We need to do the research now," she said of efforts by the Agricultural Research Service to find a cure for CCD. "We can't wait until people have nothing to eat to find a cure."

Jeff Pettis, research leader of the ARS Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville said that CCD is likely a combination of factors, as opposed to a single, discrete cause.

Scientists around the world are studying four broad classes of potential causes. They include: pathogens; parasites; environmental stress, which includes pesticides; and management stresses, including nutrition problems, mainly from nectar or pollen dearth.

E-mail in the field

In the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, heard voices from his cornfield.

That was fantasy, but now it's possible for farmers to get text messages on their cell phones from plants in the field saying they are thirsty.

Accent Engineering Inc., of Lubbock, Texas, has developed SmartCrop, an automated drought-monitoring system based on a patent held by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.

It is being offered for sale in time for the growing season.

Battery-operated infrared thermometers placed in irrigated fields monitor leaf temperatures and relay the information to a computerized base station.

A cell phone modem can be hooked up to the base station to download data to a personal computer. This modem can also send text messages to a farmer's cell phone.

A spokesman for the company said the basic system costs $1,200 and cell phone modem, costing about $600, is also needed.

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