Mountains

Bad year for bees

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

SMALLER CELLS to keep out mites are one local idea for protecting hives.

BY EMERY COWAN
Journal Staff Writer

Bruce Harris is already expecting that at least a third of the 1,000 beehives he is hauling back from the almond groves of California's San Joaquin Valley won't survive until next year.

The Montezuma County beekeeper will soon begin dividing his 400 strongest hives to create enough new bee colonies to account for the losses he anticipates.

Farther east in La Plata County, first-year beekeeper Paula Nelson also has already seen losses when one of her two hives died late last fall.

"They never really flourished," Nelson said.

From commercial operations to hobbyists with only a few hives, beekeepers in southwest Colorado have not been immune to the bee die-offs sweeping the nation. And while losses have held steady at about 30 percent over the past several years, this year is looking worse.

The United States Department of Agriculture has yet to release its annual report about wintertime bee losses, but anecdotal information indicates losses are greater than last year, said Kim Kaplan, spokesperson with the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

"Anecdotally, and couched with all may's and might be's in world, we are seeing reports of very high losses over this past winter, higher than last winter," Kaplan said.

LOSSES DON'T DISCRIMINATE

Tina Sebestyen, founder of the Four Corners Beekeepers Association, said local beekeepers are reporting heavier losses than in years past.

"Losses that hobbyists experienced this winter seem different than usual," she said. "It really hasn't struck our beekeepers like this before."

Brad Milligin, a second generation beekeeper in the Lewis Arriola area and one of the biggest commercial beekeepers in the area, said he also has seen his bee losses climb a little bit this winter.

Harris said this year fell somewhere between poor and mediocre. Colonies within his hives were smaller, they weren't brooding as actively and they seemed less energetic when they were let out of the hives.

In general, losses were "a heck of a lot higher than normal," he said. "It must have something to do with last summer or last fall."

COLONY COLLAPSE

According to the USDA's 2012 report, about a third of winter colony losses are attributed to colony collapse disorder, which causes bees to mysteriously leave the hive, leaving the queen bee and honey inside. The definite cause continues to leave beekeepers stumped, although recent research is turning focus to a relatively new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids as a potential contributor. The insecticides, which are absorbed and incorporated into plants, were first introduced into the market in 1991.

Last month a group of beekeepers, environmental and consumer groups sued the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend the use of two types of neonicotinoids. The chemicals make plants potentially toxic to insects, the groups said.

Factors like poor nutrition, pathogens, mites and cold weather are also a part of the bee die-off picture and could play a role in colony collapse disorder, Kaplan said. It's hard to say for sure though because these factors are known to cause wintertime dwindling - another malady affecting bees that causes more gradual die-offs within the hive rather than the sudden evacuation that defines colony collapse, Kaplan said.

Confusion about what differentiates colony collapse disorder from over-winter die-offs leads to "all sorts of misdiagnosis," said Bob Hammon, an entomology and agronomy extension agent with the Tri-River Area office near Grand Junction.

"People see it so much in the news that they automatically think colony collapse," Hammon said. "But the reality of situation is there are a lot of different things that can happen to beehives."

Milligin and Harris have seen everything from smaller colonies and weaker bees to hives that were completely deserted with honey still inside.

Both said they can only guess that a combination of factors - diseases, parasites, viruses, climate change - is causing bee populations to dwindle.

"We have pushed bees to the edge of what their little immune systems can handle," Milligin said.

Don Arnold, a Montrose beekeeper, is much more confident that pesticide spraying is killing the nation's honeybees. Officials in Emery County, Utah, where Arnold kept his bees, sprayed for mosquitoes in the summer of 2011. Within days, 278 of his 300 bee colonies were dead, Arnold said.

The threat posed by chemical spraying has discouraged him from trying to start anew, he said.

"It's a waste of time in the future to keep bees because the (pesticides and fungicides) are killing them faster than we can make them," he said.

BEE DIE-OFFS RIPPLE OUTWARD

Whatever the cause, the die-off is hurting beekeepers' profit margins, Milligin said. The price for transportation fuel, medicine and extra food, combined with a lower survival rate means the "price per hive has increased dramatically in the last several years," he said.

Honeybees do play a significant role in the nation's food supply, helping pollinate an estimated 25 percent of crops in the American diet. But many of Colorado's crops, and especially those in Southwest Colorado, don't require bees to reproduce.

Alfalfa, dry beans, grass hay and wheat are self-pollinated or are primarily pollinated by bees other than honeybees, Hammon said.

Almonds are a different story, depending entirely on honeybees for pollination. The continued growth of the multi-billion dollar industry guarantees a future for beekeepers nationwide. Whether or not commercial pesticide spraying impacts bee health, it's not likely that commercial beekeepers will soon halt their annual migration west. Revenue from pollination is a crucial, steady source of income as opposed to the variations honey production can bring, Harris said.

He estimated 75 percent of his income comes from renting his bees for pollination.

"As far as I'm concerned, pollinating almonds is only thing keeping the whole bee industry afloat," he said.

In a future with so many changing factors, one thing is for sure, he said.

"It's going to be survival of the fittest."

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