What’s happening to honeybees?

by marlys good

What is causing the unprecedented losses of honeybees in the United States that has been occurring within the past decade, but more so in the past seven or eight years? Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)? Parasitic mites? Nosema? Pesticides? Or a combination of all four?

The blame can be spread almost evenly across all four. According to Gary Patrick, owner/manager of River Road Honey, “In the ‘90s we started seeing a change. It was hard to keep colonies healthy. There were stories about whole operations collapsing. Suddenly people were finding their bees were gone; the hive was gone. It was a huge problem.“

In the winter of 2007-08, the loss of honeybee colonies across 21 states averaged 35 percent. A lot of the cause was CCD which is unlike other ailments that affect honeybees because worker bees simply disappear, and never return to the hive. The main symptom is very low or no adult honeybees present in the hive, but with a live queen and no dead honeybee bodies present. Often there is still honey in the hive and immature bees (brood) are present. Varroa mites, a virus-transmitting parasite of honeybees, have frequently been found in hives lost to CCD.

The parasitic mite, Patrick noted “gets on the backs of bees and lives there – on the blood of the bee. It doesn’t kill the bee outright, but it weakens them. It used to be we would lose 10-20 percent of our hives every year; now we lose 30-40 percent, about double.”

Pesticides are most likely a part of CCD. As their use has increased, so have the side effects. One of those is the toxicity to honeybees.

Pesticides damage the ability of bees to gather food and are also killing them. Since bees are the most important pollinators of crops, the use of pesticides has considerably reduced the yields of cross-pollinated crops.

Some pesticides kill the bees directly, such as when they are on the flower at the time of application; other types allow the bees to return home; then they die. Some pesticides have no effect on adult honeybees but cause damage to the young, immature bees.

Patrick said lack of forage for the bees is also a problem. Today “all row crops and irrigated areas, even borrow pits, are sprayed, so there is no longer any natural forage for the honeybee.”


Patrick said as beekeepers, he and youngest son and right-hand man Nathan, have to be vigilant. “Staying on top of the queen bee is an issue, a big problem, part of the problem keeping hives alive. Some will fail in raising their queen and we have trouble defining that in time. We have to catch them when they are going bad, keep them requeened.”

About 15 years ago Patrick started migrating his bees to California for the winter. “Before we migrated the bees we went through the winter (here) and it took longer to build them up to make a good crop of honey. I’ve developed a friend in California to receive the bees, he puts them through (his) almonds, takes care of them and sends the back; we split the pollination fees.”

To migrate the bees the Patricks put hives on pallets, load them on a semi (about 408 per load), net them down and send them off to the west coast.

“Come spring we go to California, bring them back and having just come out of the almonds, they are very strong.”

The advantages of migration are spread both ways. Almond growers in California had found their hives decimated, which created a pollination shortage that threatened the almond crop, the first to bloom in the spring.

The loss was a clear indicator that further pollination shortages for fruit, berries, vegetables, tree nuts, oil seeds and legume crops was likely to develop throughout the United State. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture about one-third of the human diet is derived directly or indirectly from insect-pollinated plants and about 80 percent of this pollination is accomplished by honeybees. One researcher into the loss of pollinators stressed, “Because our survival depends on healthy pollination, we must do everything in our power to solve the problem.”

Statistics show that Wyoming has about 65 commercial beekeepers with about 32,000 hives that produce two million pounds of honey per year. A bee farm is defined as anyone with five or more hives so in reality, less than a dozen commercial beekeeping families produce all that honey.

The typical beekeeper has more than two thousand hives. In November he migrates to California for almond pollination, then returns in March to make a crop of honey off the hay fields. (Alfalfa honey is light amber to water white in color with a delicate, spicy taste and is a premium grade table honey.)

Patrick has appreciated the good years and weathered the bad years since purchasing his business from Glen Peters.

“Everything pretty much has to be lined out just right; keep the bees alive and healthy and after that it’s up to God to bless the process and make it all work.”