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Jul 1, 2014 2:45 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

A 'New Deal' For Bees Pleases Beekeepers

Jul 1, 2014 3:49 PM

A rescue mission of sorts for honey bees has beekeepers and environmentalists buzzing with excitement.The Obama administration is creating a Pollinator Health Task Force to develop a plan to address the decline in population of honey bees and other pollinators like bumblebees and monarch butterflies.

Mary Woltz, who keeps hives across the South Fork, is among those who were pleased to hear this week’s news.

“It’s just brilliant,” she said while working at her hives in Bridgehampton. “I love that it comprehensively addresses the issue. It’s a New Deal for bees.”

According to a memorandum sent out by President Obama, the task force will be led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, which will attempt to understand, prevent and rectify the loss of pollinating insects, as well as educate the public about how they can help them thrive. The task force will also work with state and local municipalities to protect honey bees and their kin, and work to increase the quantity and quality of pollinator habitats on federal lands.

Toward those ends, approximately $50 million will be spent across multiple agencies within the USDA, according to Mr. Obama’s memorandum.

Colony collapse disorder has made headlines warning the public of a rapid and unexpected loss of bees in the United States.

According to the USDA, beekeepers started reporting losses of 30 to 90 percent of their hive populations in 2006, compared to historical loss rates of 10 to 15 percent. In 2013-14, the loss rate over the winter was 23.2 percent, down from the previous year’s 30.5 percent. However, it is still much greater than historical averages and the acceptable winter mortality rate of 18.9 percent.

Hives that have a queen bee but very few or no adult honey bees are said to suffer from colony collapse disorder. Varroa and tracheal mites, virus-transmitting honey bee parasites, have frequently been found in hives hit by colony collapse disorder.

There are other contributing factors to the decline in population: habitat loss, exposure to pesticides and loss of genetic diversity.

According to the USDA, the number of managed bee colonies in the U.S. has plummeted from 6 million beehives in 1947 to 4 million in 1970, and about 2.5 million in 2014.

The federal government is concerned because honey bees and other pollinators contribute more than $24 billion to the country’s economy. Honey bees account for more than $15 billion by pollinating fruits, nuts and vegetables, the USDA says.

New York State is the number two producer of apples in the nation, with about 42,000 acres dedicated to apple production. New York State ranks among the top 10 in blueberry production, with 900 acres, and is a major pumpkin producer, with about 7,000 acres devoted to that crop.

That’s a lot of pollination.

Krysta Harden, deputy secretary at the USDA, said on Tuesday that the agency is eager to help co-chair the Pollinator Health Task Force, which will be “responsible for focusing federal efforts to inform people about ways they can help support bee and other pollinator populations in their own communities.”

“Improving the health of honey bees, as well as all pollinators, is important to ensuring the continued production of local fruits and vegetables which are consumed and enjoyed by New Yorkers every day,” she said.

Ms. Woltz, who manages 15 locations from Southampton to Amagansett for her company, called Bees’ Needs, said she has seen her share of losses over the 12 years she’s been tending to “the girls,” as she calls them.

“I’ve lost a lot of hives,” she said. “I had 100 hives for about seven years.”

She said the loss a few years ago could have been due to pesticides, but that she has also had her hives stolen or destroyed by unknown vandals. She said that in the past they’ve even taken the honey out of the frames.

She now manages 62 hives but hopes to work up to a healthy 70.

Every day, Ms. Woltz checks on her hives to make sure they’re coming along. On Saturday, armed with a device that generates smoke to calm the bees, and a steel scraper to lift open the hive frames, she was brave in her movements and the bees didn’t seem to mind.

Almost in a Zen-like state, Ms. Woltz pulled out a frame as the bees were busy working away on it.

“I work for them,” she said. “I’m making sure they have enough room. Sometimes I’m checking the brood and, if they’ve swarmed, I’m checking to see if they’ve re-queened properly.”

Re-queening is when a hive’s old queen is replaced with a new one. In some cases, the beekeeper introduces a new queen, while in others the old queen bee leaves the colony with a large group of worker bees to set up a new hive, with a new queen bee ascending at the old hive to keep the population going.

Ms. Woltz said her biggest fear right now for bees is neonicotinoids, which are a new class of insecticides that affect the central nervous system of insects. She said these pesticides have a half-life, or stay in soil, from three to four years.

“That’s bad enough—colony collapse disorder just pushed it over the edge,” she said.

The USDA said there has also been loss of natural forage, meaning the bees rely on human-provided foods like sugar water and high-fructose corn syrup, and therefore some bees have inadequate diets.

Some beekeepers also requeen hives with queen bees that stem from the same gene pool as other queens, lessening genetic diversity and thereby weakening the colony. A less diverse brood could be more susceptible to any pest or disease that invades the hive.

But another beekeeper, John Carson of Oystercatcher Farms in Hampton Bays, said he is not sold on the idea of colony collapse disorder and thinks the number of bees dying off has been exaggerated. He said there are cycles that insects go through and that there are weaker hives and stronger hives.

“If you can help keep colonies strong, most of them can fight off most stuff by themselves,” he said. “I’ve never seen it where a hive disappears. It’s not colony collapse. Things change.”

He did say, however, that some of the hives at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge that he tends to have been lost. He said so far he’s had to put 30 new colonies there.

“It’s a combination of things and you can’t know exactly what went wrong,” he said. “The generations are very short and their genetics are so tightly linked, there are unintended consequences.”

Mr. Carson and Ms. Woltz do agree on one thing—humans are at the center of what’s happening to bees.

“We bear our own share of the burden,” Ms. Woltz said. “My take on colony collapse? The bees are going ‘on strike.’ We haven’t proved we’re worthy.”

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I can't believe how few bees I have in my yard compared to 20 years ago when I first began gardening. My lavender and catmint used to be swarming with bees by this time of year. Now, I hardly see any. The more of those little red/orange flags I see on people's yards signifying lawn treatment, the fewer bees I see.

People, do we REALLY need lawns so green and sterilized that all insect life must be exterminated? Plus I see landscaping guys wearing pesticide necklaces and bracelets. Seriously, ...more
By btdt (432), water mill on Jul 10, 14 5:45 PM
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