U.S. beekeepers having to rebuild stock of hives

Monday, March 19, 2007
Grant Gillard of Jackson burned paper and leaves to make smoke to calm down his bees before approaching their hives in this 2006 file photo. Gillard raises honeybees as a hobby and sells the honey out of his home. While his bees are doing well, other beekeepers have had entire hives die off.
Diane L. Wilson

For Jackson beekeeper Grant Gillard, honeybees are ideal workers.

"They come to work every day without complaining, they don't show up with a hangover and they never require any kind of coaching," he said.

But lately the honeybee population is facing a problem, something scientists are calling Colony Collapse Disorder.

CCD is the massive die-off of a bee colony. Studies of the syndrome are incomplete, but theories about the cause include environmental change-related stresses, malnutrition, mites and pesticides.

"The bee is unable to come back to the hive," said Kenny Norman, president of the Missouri Beekeepers Association. "They get lost and just die going somewhere."

Honeybees are the most available, affordable and effective crop pollinators. A 1999 Cornell University study supported by the National Honey Board documented the contribution made by managed honeybees hired by U.S. crop growers amounted to just over $14.6 billion.

One-third of the U.S. food supply depends upon honeybee pollination, according to the American Beekeeping Federation.

"We're going to have to bring a lot of bees into Missouri and rebuild our stock," Norman said. "The more bees we lose, the less crops we're going to have."

In Southeast Missouri, few beekeepers had no bees. Norman said some of the larger beekeepers in other parts of the state, Springfield, for instance, have lost at least 50 percent of their bees. Some attribute it to CCD. Others say the cause is something more typical, like varroa mites, tiny parasites that kill bees.

CCD may be a bigger concern for beekeepers on the East Coast and in Texas, which have reported losses of more than 70 percent in some instances.

Replacement bees are being imported from Australia to repopulate some of the empty beehives, but, according to the American Beekeeping Federation, it's only an expensive stopgap. Beekeepers will unavoidably have to charge higher pollination fees.

"I'm sure it won't be an issue for me having bees," said Neal Bergman, a beekeeper in Kennett, Mo. Having more than 8,000 bee colonies scattered about the area makes Bergman the largest beekeeper in the state. He also has beehives in San Joaquin Valley, Calif., that, along with his honeybees here, have not suffered CCD.

Bergman's honeybees do the pollinating for commercial crops like cucumbers, apples and watermelons in most of eastern Missouri.

As for honey, Bergman suspects the U.S. economy may suffer some from CCD.

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, honey production in 2006 from producers with five or more colonies totaled 155 million pounds, down 11 percent from the previous year. Last year there were 23.9 million colonies producing honey, down 1 percent from 2005.

Missouri had 15,000 honey-producing colonies last year and the same number in 2005, according to Lisa Jager, industry services director of the National Honey Board. Yield per colony in 2006 was 46 pounds, down four from 2005. The average price per pound was $1.49 in 2006 and $1.22 the previous year.

In Southeast Missouri, Gillard has about 120 hives of honey-producing bees at about 10 sites in Cape Girardeau County. "My bees are doing good," he said.

Gillard believes the vanishing bee syndrome has been blown out of proportion and that such things come and go.


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