Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Bee deaths leave puzzling mystery By Frank Konkel • DAILY PRESS & ARGUS • August 29, 2010
The unsung heroes of Michigan's agricultural industry are dying at unprecedented rates.
The honeybee, known for stinging and producing honey, is also responsible for the pollination of half of Michigan's $2 billion fruits-and-vegetables industry.
It's also entirely responsible for pollinating agricultural crops with an estimated value of nearly $1 billion in Michigan and $15 billion across the country.
In addition, these bees annually churn out $7 million worth of honey in Michigan.
However in recent years, it's the honeybee that's gotten stung.
Michigan's total honey-producing bee colonies decreased from 95,000 to 65,000 from 1988 to 2006, or by almost one-third. Scientists coined the term colony collapse disorder in 2006 in an effort to describe what was happening to honeybees across the country.
Shawn Shubel witnessed it firsthand. In 2008, Shubel, a 40-year veteran beekeeper and owner of Nectar Sweet Apiaries in Genoa Township, lost 95 percent of his 600-plus hives. Between starter hives, which average 10,000 bees to 20,000 bees, and mature hives, which contain more than 50,000 bees, Shubel lost close to 30 million bees. This year, he's lost about 15 percent of his summer hives, which is still five times more bees than he typically loses in the summer.
"I do believe it was caused by many things, not just one factor," Shubel said, regarding the apparent collapse of his bee colonies.
He also suspects some variant of a virus played a role.
"What they're calling colony collapse disorder is, I think, a cumulative effect of all the problems plaguing bees right now," he said.
Since 2006, countless beekeepers across the United States have reported similar occurrences, leading researchers to suggest myriad suspected causes for the colony collapses.
Gretchen Voyle, horticulture educator at Michigan State University Extension — Livingston County, said varroa and tracheal mites, pesticides, hive beetles, and viruses are all suspected to play a role in colony collapses. Speculation abounds, she said. Cell phone towers, malnutrition, feeding habits and bees feeding on singular food sources have all been fingered as possible honeybee killers.
Ultimately, she said, it remains a mystery.
"Nobody knows why, but something is certainly causing bees to disappear," Voyle said. "They don't know what it is."
Shubel and fellow beekeeper Tim Bennett, owner of Turtlebee and Honeytree Farms Inc. in Deerfield Township, believe new, added stresses placed on honeybees over the years have also contributed to their recent plight.
An average bee colony of 50,000 honeybees will bring in 200 pounds of nectar and handle 60 pounds of pollen during the summer. Each hive is a demonstration of teamwork, Bennett said, with a single queen laying 1,200 eggs per day, several male drone bees mating with her, and thousands of worker bees making hundreds of daily trips to bring nectar and pollen back to the nest.
Beekeepers typically harvest about half of the 100 pounds or more of honey each hive produces each year, leaving the bees the rest of their hard-earned food for the winter. Still, most beekeepers lose 30 percent of their hives in the winter.
All of this occurs in a typical stationary beehive.
In other words, Bennett said, typical domestic bees are naturally stressed out.
The emergence of large mobile hives further increases the stress levels of honeybees.
Thousands of beekeepers transport their hives around the country each year, pollinating major U.S. commodities, like California's $1.5 billion almond crop. These bees mix with each other like a honeybee version of 1969's Woodstock music festival, spreading mites and diseases. They're also fed a singular food source — corn syrup — which Bennett said weakens their immune systems.
When the migratory bees' job is done, they're taken back to their native habitat, interacting with and sometimes contaminating a new batch of local honeybees.
"Our ability to move things from one side of the world to the other has got us into trouble," Bennett said.
Beekeepers like Shubel and Bennett are paid to bring their many beehives to various local orchards throughout Michigan for pollination purposes, but the bees only travel short distances and receive a rich diversity of food.
"Moving from the East Coast to the West Coast is not how God designed bees," Bennett said. "To whatever degree (colony collapse disorder) exists, it's definitely attributed to the many facets of the way our agricultural system is now arranged, the way honeybees are now managed. It's to be credited to many different things, not just one."
It's not just honeybees that are being affected.
Rufus Isaacs, a berry-crops entomologist for Michigan State University, said his latest research suggests increased efforts by crop farmers in pest management — like pesticides — have a negative affect on wild-bee populations.
In a three-year study of Michigan's blueberry crop — which is pollinated almost entirely by bees and is a $120 million industry in the state — Isaacs and fellow entomologist Julianna Tuell determined that increased insecticide use translated to a decline in bee abundance and species richness.
"These results indicate that wild bee communities are negatively affected by increasingly intensive chemical pest-management activities in crop fields," Tuell said.
Where does that leave the honeybee? Nobody knows.
Despite his summer hive losses, Shubel said he "can't complain" about this year's bountiful honey production. Bennett said his bees have avoided the chaotic colony collapse disorder for the year and should also cap off another sweet, productive year.
One thing is for sure. Nobody is losing these honeybees without a fight. If they do, the resounding consequences will sting everybody.
"What's going to happen in the long term, I don't know," Isaacs said. "But from everything I know about beekeepers, they've kept bees alive this long. They're a very industrious bunch, and I think they're quite capable of doing what's needed to keep them alive."
Contact Daily Press & Argus reporter Frank Konkel at (517) 552-2835 or at email@example.com.