08/09/13 — Local bees brought to their knees

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Local bees brought to their knees

By Ethan Smith
Published in News on August 9, 2013 1:46 PM

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Bees are dying across the nation, causing experts to worry -- and fight to build their colonies back up.

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Beekeeper Steve Weeks

The bee was paralyzed.

Bob Kemper watched as it dragged itself out of the bottom of the hive -- its back legs motionless.

Suffering from acute paralysis virus, the insect did what any bee would do -- it got out of the hive to prevent infecting other bees and made its way to the edge of the hive so it could fall to its death.

Across the nation, bees are dying in staggering numbers.

To put the problem into perspective, it now takes 60 percent of the entire U.S. honey bee population to pollinate just one crop -- almonds.

According to Kemper, a beekeeper and member of Beekeepers of the Neuse, Wayne County beekeepers have lost 25 to 30 percent of their bees to a variety of afflictions.

Going into last winter, the Beekeepers of the Neuse had five hives.

By the end of the season, only one remained.

But now, after a concerted recovery effort, they have 13 hives and hundreds of thousands of bees.

Yet honey will still be in short supply this season.

"It's been very wet," Kemper said. "All this excess rain washes nectar from the plants bees pollinate or dilutes it, so bees have to eat the honey they produce to stay alive."

In addition to heavy rains, unpredictable temperatures caused substantial hive losses throughout the county. One of Kemper's friends, he said, lost 32 hives this year. Another lost nearly half of his.

As the rains flooded the county and tumultuous temperatures ran rampant, the crops bees pollinate suffered, producing only pollen and no nectar. This left bees with nothing to eat other than their own honey, and the bees depleted their food supply quicker than they could make it and starved to death.

"When people go to get honey this year, it'll be in short supply and high demand because of the weather we've had," Kemper said.

But luckily for beekeepers in Wayne -- and across the state -- there have been no signs of Colony Collapse Disorder among the species, an infliction that sees beekeepers lose their entire hive at once, for no immediately obvious reason.

Nationwide, CCD has been attributed to a number of different things, all of which are educated guesses.

Most recently, scientists discovered that fungicides, previously thought to be not harmful to bees, actually makes bees three times more susceptible to a deadly parasite named Nosema Ceranae.

The twist?

The fungicides that are infecting bees don't come from crops, but from wildflowers and weeds that bees gather pollen from.

Tyler Whaley, Wayne County crop Extension agent, said pesticides and fungicides in the county are sprayed on crops at anywhere from five to 15 miles per hour, and there is no way to tell for certain if the chemicals are being carried to wild plants. Fungicides, specifically, are used to fight diseases in tobacco, a cash crop for many Wayne farmers.

Steve Weeks, a beekeeper, has hives directly next to acres of cotton and has to close up his hives and move them inside to prevent his bees from dying when the farmers spray their crop.


Beekeepers recover from devastating losses in a variety of ways, Kemper said.

They can take the eggs from an existing hive and create a new one or they can split an existing hive so the bees can multiply quickly to create two.

The final option is to let bees swarm -- a process in which scout bees pick a location for the bees to move to, and then all 30,000 to 40,000 bees migrate at once to the new location.

And while the swarms might look incredibly foreboding and dangerous, Kemper says swarming bees are typically docile.

"They're gentle in the swarm state," he said. "They fill up with honey before they move. So it would be like Thanksgiving dinner for you and I. After you've filled up on food, you don't really go looking for a fight."

When the bees do swarm, there are about 80 to 120 bees that know where the conglomerate thousands are heading. So to guide the swarm, the scout bees shoot through it, darting out in front, and then circling back around to make one continuous forward motion guiding the group.


Wayne beekeepers are also having a bit of trouble with queen bees -- queen bees leave with the swarm, forcing a split hive to produce several new queens.

"But then they turn around and do something very dumb," Kemper said. "The queen that hatches first will go around and kill all the other queen cells before they can hatch. And now there's one queen. So when the queen leaves the hive to mate, if she doesn't store enough sperm or gets killed while out of the hive, the hive has to repeat the process and it increases the risk that the hive will die off."


Those who want more information on the plight of bees across the county and state -- or those who are simply interested in the insects and how they contribute to the ecosystem, are invited to Waynesborough Park Aug. 17 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for the local National Honeybee Day celebration, hosted by the Beekeepers of the Neuse.