07/07/08 — Beekeepers struggle to keep hives buzzing for local produce farmers

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Beekeepers struggle to keep hives buzzing for local produce farmers

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on July 7, 2008 1:45 PM

Local produce farmers who used to let nature take its course are now renting bees to help pollinate their crops.

But beekeepers say there are not enough bees to go around in eastern North Carolina.

And today, Field Crop Agent Kevin Johnson of the Cooperative Extension Service said, any farmer who grows produce knows he is going to have to get some bees into the field to pollinate that crop.

"The bee populations are not as high as they used to be," Johnson said. "Natural predators have reduced the populations, so the farmers a lot of times rent the boxes."

Johnson added since the farmer is not into the honey business, he simply rents the bees. The beekeeper comes for the honey when it is ready.

But for local beekeepers William and Elaine Thering renting out their swarms has been a less than profitable business.

"We pollinated last year, but that was not a good idea. (The bees) picked up some diseases," Thering said.

The Therings have 57 bee colonies, including several at their home in northern Wayne County and others at a couple of friends' places in Princeton and Elroy. One is a farm. The other is a garden.

"They had some hives, and we were tending them. We added a few of our own, because we were going over there any way," Thering said.

A beekeeper checks on the boxes at least once a week for the things that bother bees, like parasites or chemicals that might have been sprayed by farmers.

"That really hurts the bees. Bees are as sensitive a creature as there is out there," he said.

But there are just not enough of them to go around, he said.

North Carolina needs about 130,000 colonies each year to do pollination of food crops, and there are only about 80,000 colonies out there, Thering said.

"We're a state that has to import bees that are crucial to our fruit and vegetable crops," he said.

Beekeepers seem to be aging out of the business, Thering said. The vast majority are of the older generation. They are retirees in their mid-60s and up into the late 90s.

The Therings are on the younger side. They are in their 50s.

And beekeeper Chris Rarick is an exception to the trend. He is in his 30s.

Rarick used to make 68-mile round trips checking on bees he rented out to farmers.

He still does rent them, but now, he rents only to the farmer across the road from his house. And the farmer grows cucumbers, which do not require spraying like crops like melons do.

"I lost 40 hives last year -- that's a big chunk -- with the colony collapse disorder," Rarick said.

Nobody knows what causes colony collapse disorder, which happens when a bee colony abruptly disappears. While such disappearances have occurred to some degree throughout history, the term "colony collapse disorder" was first applied to a drastic rise in the number of disappearances in North America in late 2006.

When a colony disappears, Rarick said even other bees will not come into the hive and take out any of the honey.

"And if the bees won't touch it, you can't give it to anybody," he said. "Last year was a bad year for bees. They were hoping for a good year this year. But last year was the worst honey crop ever."

Since he lost the 40 colonies, Rarick has bought more queens and now has 53 colonies.

Watermelons and blueberries need one hive per acre, and strawberries need one hive for every two acres.

But there is a short supply of beekeepers in eastern North Carolina. And the ones Rarick knows of are booked up.

"They have no room to breathe. Some move from strawberries to blueberries and then cucumbers. And then they go to melons. They keep moving," he said.

But Rarick is sticking with just the one field of cucumbers.

"The bugs don't like cucumbers because they're not sweet," Rarick said. "You don't have to worry about the bugs and disease."