SALEM, Ohio – Maybe it’s the chilling temperatures. Maybe it’s mites. Maybe it’s even some kind of unidentified disease.
Whatever it is, it’s got honeybee experts shaking their heads and wondering what’s to blame.
Pennsylvania is being hit hard by an inexplicable death of large numbers of honeybees, but the state isn’t alone. Since the beginning of 2007, beekeepers across the U.S. have reported record losses, according to Maryann Frazier, an apiculture expert in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
Local. Robert McMillin, a Wampum, Pa. beekeeper, said the problem, called Colony Collapse Disorder, has shown up among his 250 colonies.
“It was a strange year,” McMillin said. “The colonies were under quite a bit of stress from June on.”
Stress, which contributes to honeybee deaths, includes things like lack of honey, cold weather and mites.
This summer there was a lower-than-normal nectar flow, according to Lee Miller, Penn State extension director in Beaver County. A decreased food supply means queen bees lay fewer eggs, so the honeybee population was down even before the unexpected deaths.
“When you have less food, then you have less bees,” Miller said.
Theories. Experts from Penn State, USDA, the departments of agriculture in Pennsylvania and Florida and the University of Montana haven’t been able to pinpoint what’s causing the deaths, but they do have some suspicions.
Mites and the diseases associated with them, an unknown pathogenic disease and pesticide contamination are some of the possible explanations for Colony Collapse Disorder.
McMillin said mite removal techniques that worked in the past weren’t as effective this year, making it difficult to control the mite population.
But the beekeeper said there’s more to it than that.
“It still seems like maybe there was something else,” McMillin said. “Nobody could really put their finger on it.”
Dennis vanEngelsdorp, Pennsylvania’s state apiarist, said research has shown a large amount of disease organisms in dying colonies, but no particular disease has been proven as the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder. Case studies and surveys found some common management factors among beekeepers experiencing this problem, but no common environmental agents or chemicals have been found.
Pollination. The sudden loss of honeybees has some experts worried about the production of crops that rely on pollination from commercial honeybees.
In Pennsylvania, 90 percent of the pollination for the state’s $45 million apple crop is done by honeybees.
Peaches, soybeans, pears, pumpkins, cucumbers, cherries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries also rely on honeybees for pollination.
Besides pollination concerns, the lack of honeybees could cause another problem.
“Honey production will be down significantly at least the first part of the year,” McMillin said.
No quick fix. Growers can reduce the impact of limited honeybees by planning ahead, according to Penn State’s Frazier. She recommends that growers contact their beekeepers early to make sure honeybees will be available.
Growers who usually rely on nature for pollination should consider contacting a beekeeper this year, Frazier added.
Since the exact cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is unknown, there’s no specific response. But McMillin is hopeful the situation can be reversed.
“It’s going to take beekeeping management decisions to change,” he said.
Miller also said good management is an influential factor in how much the disorder will affect a colony.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)