After a long winter, the first sign of life at Wyatt Bates’s beehives is, ironically, the dead bodies of honey bees outside the hives.
“A lot of dead bodies is good. That means there are live ones in there hauling the dead ones out as they do their cleaning,” said Bates, a Scioto County Farm Bureau member who has raised bees for more than 10 years.
No activity around the hive is a buzzkill for beekeepers — it means their bees didn’t survive the cold weather. The end of winter is always nerve-wracking for Bates and other beekeepers because they are anxious to peek inside the hives to see how their bees are doing.
“But you know that if you do, you’re going to lose a lot of heat and hurt the bees. It’s a waiting game to see if your bees are out of the woods,” he said.
Bates and other beekeepers have good reason to be concerned about the health of their honey bees, which are responsible for pollinating one out of every three bites of food we eat. Two winters ago, Ohio beekeepers lost between 50 percent and 80 percent of their honey bees, said Reed Johnson, an assistant professor of entomology at Ohio State University. This comes on top of a dramatic drop in honey bees for several years in Ohio and across the nation for a variety of reasons, including colony collapse disorder (CCD), an unexplained mass disappearance of adult bees. CCD was first documented in 2006.
“Things have not improved much. We’re not seeing CCD in the strict sense where bees disappear for no reason,” Johnson said. “Now it’s just good old fashioned death” for a variety of reasons.
Johnson, state apiarist Barbara Bloetscher and other experts believe there are several culprits involved in the honey bees’ demise. Those include varroa mites, viruses carried by the mites, nutritional challenges, pesticides/insecticides and genetic issues. Varroa mites date back to the 1980s when they were accidentally introduced to the United States. When Johnson first started raising bees, controlling the mites was as simple as hanging up a pesticide plastic strip. Unfortunately the mites developed a resistance to the strips and have been attacking bees for the past 15 years.
“The varroa mites are a real focal point because it’s easily measurable. If you can take out varroa, it may be enough to lighten the load on bees so they can survive other stressors,” Johnson said.
The varroa mites have wiped out a lot of the colonies of wild bees, which were first imported to North America in the 1600s. Because there’s not much wild stock left to enrich the genetics of Ohio’s domesticated bees, many beekeepers are getting their bees from the South.
“There’s a lot of suspicion that our queens and bees are southern belles that can’t handle the kind of climate we have here because they are adapted to a Georgia climate,” Johnson said. “Nobody has been able to prove that, but their overwintering success is not good. There’s a big push to rear Ohio queens and collect stock that does well in our climate.”
Bates agreed, noting that new bees he recently purchased from a warmer climate all died while his older colonies continue to thrive.
Pesticide/insecticide application in rural and urban areas also puts stress on the insects. Much has been written about neonicotinoids, a class of insecticide, but more research is needed, Johnson said. Ohio Farm Bureau policy calls for educating landowners on proper pesticide application to reduce the risk to honey bees.
Another challenge is that there aren’t as many flowers in Ohio anymore for honey bees to collect nectar. The average colony needs 600 pounds of nectar per year, and many of the nectar rich flowers such as clover and alfalfa aren’t as prevalent, Johnson said.
“Honey bees need flowers and the more diversity they can get, the better off they are,” he said. “They are different from other pollinators in that they need some type of mass blooming thing. There are a lot of mouths to feed” in a colony, which can have more than 30,000 bees.
Research currently being done at Ohio State shows that honey bees tend to do best in rural areas in the fall when goldenrod and other high nectar flowers are in bloom. Fall flowers in urban areas are typically bred for showiness and not nectar production, Reed said.
Interest is high in Ohio in helping the honey bees, including increasing demand for beginning beekeeping classes and more pollinator friendly flowers and plants being planted in gardens and even along highways. Ohio currently has 4,400 registered beekeepers who manage 39,000 colonies. Becoming a beekeeper is a skill that requires both research and experience, Bloetscher said.
“There’s a lot to learn and some misinformation on the Web,” she said. “I’d suggest talking to a lot of beekeepers and using reference books and not rely on the website unless using university fact sheets.”
Despite the numerous challenges, Bloetscher said she is optimistic about the future of the honey bee.
“We’re becoming more and more sophisticated in the type of research we are doing,” she said. “I think we’ll find a solution. We’re not going to lose our bees.”
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP THE BEES?
By pollinating plants and flowers, honey bees add more than $14 billion to the value of U.S. crop production, according to the American Beekeeping Federation. Without honey bee pollination, many of the nation’s crops would not exist, including cucumbers, melons, apricots, cherries, pears, apples, blueberries, seed onions and almonds.
Tips from Reed and Bloetscher on how to help honeybees:
- Plant nectar-rich flowers and plants such as aster, clover and flowering herbs.
- Pick plants with long blooming cycles, and plant in the fall when flowers are scarcer.
- Avoid applying pesticides/insecticides to anything that blooms. For example, grub control for lawns with clover or dandelions could poison bees.
- Support local commercial beekeepers by buying their honey. Their years of experience and beekeeping knowledge is critical for the industry.
Ohio State University Extenion has a fact sheet with additional tips for attracting pollinators: Attracting Pollinators to the Garden by Denise Ellsworth, Department of Entomology.