Beekeepers in Ashe County are reporting alarming losses this season as they open their beehives to find them mostly empty.
“Everybody is reporting losing at least one or two hives,” said Shelley Felder, proprietor of The Honey Hole in West Jefferson, who saw seven of her nine hives die off in December.
“On average people are losing 50 percent,” according to Ashe County Beekeepers Association (ACBA) Program Director Doug Ehrhardt.
Harry Galer, President of the ACBA, opened his hives at his Crumpler home Saturday morning to find he had no bees at all.
Galer said he planned to recommend the ACBA do a survey get a handle on the true extent of losses in the county. “We’ll talk about this in our next meeting,” he said.
Based on reports she had heard, Felder said, “We have fared much better up here than the Piedmont or the Coastal Plains.”
President of the North Carolina Beekeepers Association Danny Jaynes of Raleigh said numerous reports of “devastating losses” statewide were only anecdotal at this time — no hard figures are available. But, said Jaynes, “50 or more percent statewide would not surprise me.”
North Carolina is home to more commercial and hobbyist beekeepers than any other state, according to Erhrardt.
Similar hive deaths have been reported along the Eastern Seaboard, throughout the Southeast and in Texas, Jaynes said.
On an April 2 edition of ABC’s Dan Rather Reports, some of the nation’s biggest beekeepers reported losses of up to 90 percent this year.
Some Ashe County beekeepers, including Felder, cited last winter’s “crazy weather” as one possible cause of hive failure locally. They theorize a scattering of warm winter days enticed bees out to forage just in time to be killed off when the temperature suddenly dropped again at night.
Jaynes disagreed. A 130-million-year-old species, honey bees are well-adapted to coping with weather variations, he argued.
Massive honey bee losses have been in the media frequently in recent years with the onset in the U.S. of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in 2006. Despite years of research by scientists and entomologists, the precise cause of CCD has not been proven beyond doubt, Jaynes said.
But, he said, widespread use of a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids has been fingered as a likely suspect. Chemically similar to nicotine, they affect insects’ central nervous systems, and are thought to have a disorienting effect on bees, preventing them from finding their way back to the hive after foraging in areas where insecticides are present.
A 1999 Japanese agricultural study, “Nicotine to Nicotinoids: 1962 to 1997,” found that these chemicals are the most widely used insecticides in the world.
Ashe County beekeepers claim misapplication of insecticides on Christmas tree farms is a prime factor in colony collapse in the High Country. Department of Agriculture guidelines require that trees be sprayed at night to minimize harm to bees, who are active during the day, Jaynes said.
A large majority of tree farmers comply, he said, but it only takes a handful of violators to create a dangerous situation, with particulate chemicals carried away from treated areas by the wind. “When they spray in the middle of the day it’s devastating,” he said.
Honey bees have no organs for filtering toxins out of their bodies, Felder said, so even sub-lethal amounts of chemicals stay with them and are taken back to the hive.
“Bee’s are an indicator species,” Felder said. “They’re like the canary in the coal mine; when an environment is toxic they’re the first to know.”
A healthy honey bee population is crucial to N.C. agriculture, Jaynes said. Staple fruit crops like apples, peaches, strawberries and blueberries, as well as greenhouse and nursery products, will be in shorter supply with fewer bees available for pollination. Prices will rise accordingly, he said.
Even small farmers with just a few acres of strawberries are worried there might not be enough bees for adequate pollination, he said. “I get calls everyday: ‘Have you got bees?’”
Asked why there seemed to be no public outcry over such a serious problem, Jaynes said, “There’ll be a public outcry at the end of the season when there’s a shortage of vegetables.”
“One in every 12 jobs in the state is in agriculture,” Felder said, adding that about quarter to a third of the food we eat cannot be produced without honey bees.