By Shermakaye Bass

So far this winter, things are looking fair-to-middlin’ for David Ellingson’s honeybees, but the Minnesotan is holding his breath until later this month, when he learns how two-thirds of his commercial hives have fared during their wintering season down south.beekeeper-ellingson.jpg

Ellingson has 1,200 hives in Southeast Texas (normally 20,000 to 30,000 bees inhabit a healthy hive), where he hopes the bees are fattening up in the warmer, moister climate. His remaining 700-800 hives buzz about the fields of California, where they are helping to pollinate the state’s massive almond crop.

The next few weeks are critical for the third-generation beekeeper.

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Ellingson, a past president of the American Beekeeping Federation, will learn if he’ll have a repeat of last winter, when he lost 65 percent of all his bees. Also, in the next few weeks, he and those affected by Colony Collapse Disorder and other honey-bee health issues will learn if the current Farm Bill, which has a proposed $75 million for research and disaster-relief, will even make it to the House and Senate floors.

“This year so far our bees look better… If I had another year like last year (Ellingson saw an additional 15-20 percent loss during the ’07 summer), we would be getting ready for a sale. I’m 54 years old. I can’t go any deeper into debt.”

For him, a lifelong passion and family tradition are at stake.

Ellingson’s Inc. celebrated its 60th anniversary last year, but sadly, the latest patriarch is not sure his farm two hours west of Minneapolis in Ortonville, which could boast more than 40 million bees in healthier times, will survive.

For the past 15 years or so, commercial apiarists around the country have seen a slow, steady decline in honeybee populations, due to what many assumed was mite infestation or beetle damage – or even the cumulative effects of chemicals that infiltrate bees’
systems when they pollinate pesticide and miticide-treated crops.

But that slow attrition was nothing compared to “the disappearing act” that began around 2003 – the first winter that CCD ravaged Ellingson and other American honeybee hives.

For the Minnesotan, the huge losses subsided for a year or two. Then, in 2004-2005, he lost 40 percent, followed by a reasonable year. And finally, last winter the beekeeper lost 65 percent of his bees, drawing national attention and ultimately propelling him to speak before a House Subcommittee on CCD last March.

Now it’s nearly March again, and the father of two wonders if that testimony had any impact. He wonders what next month will bring, next summer – next year, if he makes it that long.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he says. “I can recall when I was a kid and bees were wall-to-wall, two-stories of bees all winter (bee boxes, which are stacked up as worker bees produce honey to feed the colony). We didn’t see this disappearing act or anything.”