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Hobbyists sweetening the picture for threatened honey bees

November 16th, 2009

By Chris Reinolds
Green Right Now

Beekeeper Laura Johnson enjoys tending to her buzzing friends, but the real motive behind her hobby is stopping the decline of honey bees.

Honey Bees (Photo: USDA)

Honey Bees (Photo: USDA)

Bee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been threatening bees, and the dozens of crops they serve, around the world for the past several years.

So Johnson, an organic gardener in suburban Atlanta, decided it was time to jump into honey.

It wasn’t a great year to start. An unusually rainy season cut honey production for many Georgia beekeepers. And since Johnson’s hive was so new, she decided to let the bees keep their honey this year instead of harvesting it.

“That’s part of the reason I got a hive. I figure if we help the bees along maybe that will help. Without bees we won’t have food,” she said.

Johnson reasons that more bee keepers can help slow the decline of honey bees. And with scientists breeding stronger strains of bees, she hopes they have a fighting chance.

Right now she has one hive, but has plans for another in the spring.

“I’m trying to do it as natural as possible, with no chemicals,” she said. “I was green before it was cool.”

For example, she puts powdered sugar in the hive to get rid of mites and cinnamon to discourage ants.

Bee keepers across the US had a slightly better year in 2009, with honey bee losses slowing slightly in the U.S. over the 2008-2009 winter, when the most bees succumb to disease. About 29 percent of the domestic honey bees died from CCD and other causes, compared with 36 percent and 32 percent in the previous two winters.

While the year was better, losses of that magnitude are not “sustainable,” according to the report by the Apiary Inspectors of America and the USDA.

Georgia saw a rough harvest this year, according to avid beekeeper and county cooperative extension agent Tom Bonnell.  Honey production was down due to a weird confluence of heavy rain and heat. Bonnell’s hives only produced eight gallons this year, compared with 15 gallons last year.

Like his fellow bee keepers, Bonnell monitors reports about CCD, a phenomenon in which the bees leave the hive, become disoriented and fail to return, leaving the hive to die.

Some experts believe Colony Collapse Disorder can be attributed to a virus caused by the varroa mite; others say the bees are being poisoned by pesticides that act on the nervous system. The bees are exposed to the pesticides while eating pollen in crop fields, and the neurotoxins cause them to lose their bearings.

Some believe another contributing factor to CCD is the way bees are used in commercial agriculture, with beekeepers taking hives large distances across the US to pollinate fields. This theory maintains that the traveling bees become vulnerable to disease and stressed as they move in and out of their home turf.

HPIM4760

Tom Bonnell demonstrates his working honey hives

“About every 10 years something comes up and aggravates the honey bee,” Bonnell said. “I think CCD is hitting the commercial bee keepers and not the hobbyists … (is) because they (hobbyists) don’t drag bees all over the United States.”

“Once you drag them from state to state you don’t know what they’re getting into.”

Heightened awareness of CCD has led to an increase in the number of new beekeepers and bee clubs, Bonnell said. And that’s a sweet situation.

“It can be a family adventure. You can look at that as an heirloom to pass down to generations,” Bonnell noted.

Commercial beekeeper Billy Engle also relishes the practice of bee keeping, but has decided to downsize this year because it’s too much work for his failing health.

Engle has operated Rose Creek Honey Farm in The Rock, Georgia for more than 20 years.

“It was not a good year for bees. Mine really have not died off like the previous two years, but I only had half a honey crop this time,” he said.

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