Mystery disease stinging bees, keepers

Tuesday, February 26, 2008
European honeybees surrounded the queen bee, painted red for identification, Monday at a hive exhibit in the nature center at Cape Girardeau County Park North. (Fred Lynch)

When the Rev. Grant Gillard is not shepherding his flock at the First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, he's tending to 100 beehives.

Making honey is a profitable hobby, but his crop faces a long-term threat.

In 30 states and two Canadian provinces, honeybees are disappearing at a faster rate than the normal 10 to 15 percent a year. Some commercial beekeepers have lost as many as 25 percent of their hives -- loss estimates vary, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture putting it as high as 30 percent in the last year. Bees are the most efficient way to pollinate the nation's $15 billion in crops.

"If you've got some guy in his backyard with four hives and he loses one, it's no big deal. If you've got a beekeeper with 4,000 hives and his loses 1,000, that's a big deal," said Bob Sears, president of the Southeast Missouri Beekeepers Association.

Scientists call it Colony Collapse Disorder. The possible causes range from mites to a virus to the effects of insecticide, pollution and genetically modified crops or, believe or not, stress and possibly a poor diet.

Commercial bees are trucked from Illinois apple orchards to Michigan blueberry fields to Texas grapefruit crops or California almond groves.

"It's like giving your children nothing but macaroni and cheese at every meal for a week, then nothing but cantaloupe, then nothing but roast beef," Sears said.

Gillard said he's seen hive populations depleted on a cyclical basis for more than 20 years.

He hasn't had much trouble with his hives, so far, but his are more backyard bees than those raised for industrial use. He wonders if some of the claims of the "disappearing disease" really have more to do with lazy beekeepers than the mysterious syndrome being documented in North America.

At this point, the only cause ruled out is cell phones.

No joke.

"In England they took a cordless phone and brought it close to bees and they got disturbed," Gillard said. "The story got distorted to cell phones. There's no legitimate connection to cell phones."

He compared cordless phones' effects to that of "someone bringing a blaring boom box into the office."

The first line of defense, Gillard said, for both bees and their keepers, is resilience. Sears agrees. He would like to cultivate more beekeeping hobbyists. At a seminar hosted by the Southeast Missouri Beekeepers Association on Saturday, 170 people showed up; Sears said he turned many people away. In the past, he said, a turnout of 50 would have been considered good.

Bees are worth cultivating as a hobby, he said.

"It's not a lot of work because they are so independent. If you've got chickens, you've got to keep them in at night, or coyotes get them. Cows can get into the highway and into traffic," he said.

Bees, he said, "mostly they take care of themselves."

A.J. Hendershott, regional supervisor at the Missouri Department of Conservation, said honeybees are considered an exotic species because they were brought to North America by Europeans.

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