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“A perfect storm” is hurting honeybees

Honeybee keepers vary like their colony hives, but their goals are always similar: To make honey, grow their colonies, and overcome obstacles like fighting parasites and disease.
Lately, the obstacles have become acute — there’s been a sharp decline in honeybee populations nationally — yet this is being caused by multiple factors.
Beekeepers of all levels, amateur to professional, agree that the reasons for the recent epidemic of “colony collapse” is a complicated combination of stress on the bees from frequent movement, growing supply and demand, parasites and from pesticides used on flowers and plants that damage the bees’ immune systems.
One beekeeper called it a “perfect storm” that’s killing bees.
Scientists tracking the issue have no single identifiable cause for what’s decimating honeybee populations, but concur with the beekeeping community that there are many reasons for the disconcerting honeybee die-off in recent years.
Keeping honeybees is more like a science than a simple hobby, because keepers know there is a lot more maintenance involved and more at stake than just a shortage of honey.
Jay Smith, a commercial honeybee keeper based outside Granite Falls, said he lost thousands of bees last year because of disease and pesticides. 
“The decline in honeybees, the colony collapse, is real in both feral bees and kept bees,” Smith said. “I was in logging for 30 years, and I used to see wild honeybees all the time, until the mid-1980s. They just started disappearing. I got into commercial beekeeping about 15 years ago, and each year, more of my hives are lost. People wonder why honey is expensive, but they don’t know what all goes into making the honey and seeing your honeybees disappear.”

Doug Ramsay photo,

Commercial honeybee keeper Jay Smith inspects one of his bee hives at his home near Granite Falls last week.

Smith said when he started, the annual loss of 5 percent of his colonies was normal, but after a few years, that percentage grew. He said he now loses between 50 and 90 percent of his colonies,
and to make up the difference he’s been buying honeybees raised in California.
Last week, he picked up 270 colonies.
Honeybees are disappearing by the thousands, and the method of artificially creating new swarms grown to make up the difference creates bees that aren’t hardy enough, or their queens aren’t. The growing supply and demand for honeybees has seen an increase in prices of queen bees, and honey itself.
“You talk to anybody who’s a knowledgeable scientist who is investigating colony collapse, they’ll tell you it’s multiple causes. It’s a complicated situation,” Jim Tunnell said. He’s the owner and operator of Beez Kneez Apiary Supply store on Maple Avenue in Snohomish. 
“We have these new pathogens and parasites, which are a vector for viruses, exposure to pesticides also makes them more
susceptible to disease, and commercial bee pollinators can stress them out from moving them,” Tunnell said. “People truck bees from
as far as South Dakota and Florida to the crops for pollination. The Pacific Northwest is not a very hospitable place for honeybees, because it’s wet. But they can thrive here with diligent maintenance.”
Last week, Smith was in the process of installing them in new nucs, or premature colonies getting introduced to new queens, and feeding the bees with Honey Bee Healthy, a common medicinal mix of sugar water and natural ingredients used for improving bee immunities. 
Smith used to divide his colonies once they grew, but that’s not the case now. 
“When I started in keeping, I had 75 hives and I try to maintain now about 300, but queens are getting more expensive and that makes everything else expensive,” Smith said. 
“The arrival of the Varroa mite in the Pacific Northwest (in the mid-1980s) is what’s killing them, and pesticides on crops,” he said. “That and climate change – it’s all adding up to a perfect storm. To see them wiped out in a matter of years is stressful, we need to lay off the chemicals and pesticides like RoundUp, and plant
more nectar plants and flowers.”
The mites populate inside a colony by sucking blood, weakening the bees. Too many mites can kill a colony entirely.
If honeybees go extinct, which many fear but few believe can actually happen, the vast majority of the country’s commercial agricultural crops will suffer, too, because the bees are
often used to pollinate the flowering and seeding crops. The price of bee pollination services have escalated for farmers because of the lower supply of bees.
Keepers such as Smith, whose bees pollinate local Snohomish crops, see the problems close-up.
All honeybees want to do is serve their queen, work the hive and be happy, according to hobby beekeepers. A happy bee means good pollination and good honey. If they are stressed, this doesn’t happen.
Some scientists have said bees are worrying themselves to death. 
“They are highly social, they have to have a hive and a queen to serve, or they die. A solitary honeybee is the saddest thing to see, because they desperately need to belong to a colony,” Tunnell said.
There has been an apiary store in Snohomish since
1953. Beez Kneez will soon be sold to a new owner in late
May, as Tunnell plans on retiring from the store. He’s been into beekeeping for more than 40 years. 
A legion of Beez Kneez customers crowded the business to pick up their package bees orders. 
Tunnell and his keeper volunteers were spending the whole of last week bringing in bee boxes or package bees, each containing about 12,000 honeybees each, to customers.  
Tunnell pointed to some of the humming package bees, which had a few “hitchhiker bees” on the exterior of the screens. 
“When we trucked these guys up from California on Tuesday, we always get a few hitchhikers along the way because they want to be part of the hives,” Tunnell explained. “See how they’re all clustered up on one side? That’s where the queen is. They all want to be near the queen. All of these are really good, healthy beehives.”
Once the package bees get installed into a hive, they start really working. 
The science behind how bees work to produce honey and grow new bees is complex.
Every bee has a job, and they all share. There are guard bees that guard the queen, for example. There are also nursing bees for the brood or larvae, and worker and forager bees that pollinate, tend to the honey and excrete the beeswax. The colony makes its hive a living, breathing vessel of life and honey. When it’s time to pollinate, they are happy to do so for their honey and future generations.
Most bees are male (called drones) until the queen intentionally lays eggs that get fertilized and turn female, to make for a potential queen. Queens can live up to five years, producing eggs. When a new virgin queen comes along and the colony is ready to re-queen, it does. Apiarists traditionally will re-queen hives annually. 
“You can feel the energy, can’t you? It’s amazing,” said Lawrence Oberholtzer, a volunteer beekeeper working the Beez Kneez delivery. “I’ve missed them. I didn’t have hives for a few years and I’m just now getting back into it. I have two hives now.”
Oberholtzer said about eight years ago, he lost 30 percent of his colonies to the Varroa mite. Other than that, maintaining his hives was fun and inspiring because of the honeybees’ energy and functional colony duties.  
Other apiarists Terry Johnson and Ian Rice were helping customers. Johnson, who has been keeping bees since 1958, said the changes he has seen is from the increase in the mites that have invaded the region.
“There’s no getting rid of the mites, which kill the bees because they have no defenses. We just try to keep them at a manageable level now,” Johnson said. “But, I think we need more bee advocates, more hobby beekeepers, to educate and to sustain this industry.”


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