2013 — for beekeepers, there's nothing sweet about it
Parasites, weather, pesticides all taking a toll on pollinators
June 11, 2013|By Joan Cary, Special to the Tribune
Commercial beekeeper Tim May has worked 16-hour days, six or seven days a week for the past month to get more than a thousand hives with millions of honeybees settled in the countryside of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.
Spring has not been easy for northern Illinois beekeepers like him who lost anywhere from 40 to more than 80 percent of their hives over the fall and winter. Now they struggle to rebuild.
It was "the perfect storm" that did them in, beekeepers say. And this season, which some call their worst ever, follows what was for many one of their best — 2011-12, when their bees were healthy and the honey abundant.
Problems exist throughout the country, where preliminary figures from the American Beekeeping Federation show that 31 percent of managed bee colonies were lost this season — more than 40 percent higher than a year ago.
"I have yet to talk to anybody who came out of this year (2012-13) and didn't have some losses, notable losses," said Jim Belli, a Wadsworth beekeeper and president of the Illinois State Beekeepers Association.
In northern Illinois, last summer's drought meant less nectar and pollen available for the bees, which left bee colonies weak as autumn arrived. Then came a long winter followed by a cold spring with late blooms. That was topped off with the usual assault of parasitic mites and viruses, exposure to crop pesticides, an increasing number of single-crop farms and the decrease of bee habitat — weeds, flowers and fence rows.
Habitat is important for bees to get the nourishment they need to produce honey and pollinate plants. About one-third of our foods and beverages are made possible through pollination, mainly by honeybees, according to the federal government.
May, a third-generation beekeeper in Marengo, estimates he lost 80 percent of his 1,400 hives in the fall and winter. He found in late fall that his bees were stressed and hurting.
After replenishing, he is working with 1,300 hives this year. He bought many new bees that come in 2- and 3-pound packages, and he split some of his stronger hives into two, moving half the bees and a new queen into a new box to form a colony.
Commercial beekeeper Phil Raines, of Davis, west of Rockford, had 150 of his 500 hives die at Raines Honey Farm. He estimated his financial loss at about $30,000.
And as the bees decline in number, the price for them goes up. Raines and others predict that honey and other food prices will follow.
"There are all these straws on the camel's back, and the poor bees can't take it anymore," Raines said. "It doesn't matter how small or how large your operation is. Your bees are dying. This year is worse than any year we've had."
May agrees. He owns and operates May's Honey Farms with his father, Phil, and son, Colin. They keep 30 to 40 hives at 44 locations, generally on parcels of rural land they call bee yards. In business since 1948, the Mays sell packaged Sunny Hill Honey through independent grocers and farmers markets.
"It's gotten more and more difficult to keep bees," he said. "We had it bad about 15 years ago, but this is the worst."
Not a simple job
Downstate beekeepers like Rich Ramsey in Rochester, east of Springfield, report minimal loss. Ramsey lost just one of his 25 hives and said he does not think beekeepers around him suffered any significant losses, but he points out that losses vary from year to year. It is not unusual, experts said, for a beekeeper to lose 5 to 25 percent of his hives each year.
But, Ramsey said, beekeeping even in the best years is not as simple as it used to be.
"I don't know much, but I do know that 30 years ago you could put bees in a hive, turn them loose and not have to worry about them," said Ramsey, vice president of the state beekeepers association. "It's a management issue now. You have to do things you didn't have to do before. It's more work."
Nationwide, the biggest news among beekeepers since 2006 has been colony collapse disorder, during which bees die and disappear. CCD is most widely recognized among large commercial operations that truck hives into California each spring to pollinate the almond groves, then move them on to orchards and crops around the country.
"We think (CCD) occurs more in large commercial operations," said Gene Robinson, entomologist and director of the Bee Research Facility at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "However, they may be in a position to monitor more carefully and intensively than some hobby beekeepers … and those are the bees most stressed."
According to apiary inspection supervisor Steve Chard of the Illinois Department of Agriculture, there has been only one documented case of CCD in Illinois — last year in Boone County, near Rockford.
There are about 2,000 registered beekeepers statewide, managing 21,000 colonies, Chard said. Eighty-five percent are hobbyists.