Trouble for SC honey bees: Hives collapsing, bees dying

akelley@thesunnews.comJune 23, 2013 

— Ron Weaver, an Horry County beekeeper, is worried about his bees.

Over the winter Weaver said he lost about 30 percent of his honey bees, some inexplicably.

“I’ve had a few boxes of bees, a few of the 30 percent that died, just up and disappear,” he said. “That’s the question. What’s happening? You’ve got food, you’ve got groceries, you’ve got a good foundation. Everything’s in there. Why did the bees up and leave? Where did they go, nobody knows.”

Weaver, who is the director for education of the Blackwater Beekeepers Association, isn’t alone.

The problem of the disappearing honey bees – called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD – has been felt throughout the country for years and is threatening both the health of honey bees and the economic stability of commercial beekeeping and pollination operations, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The threat from the loss of bees is a concern to beekeepers – South Carolina has more than 2,000 – and farmers because honey bees are responsible for pollinating a majority of flowers and produce.

Beekeepers across the nation have reported a 30 percent or greater loss each winter between 2006 and 2011, according to a report released in May by the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency. The 2011-2012 winter showed average loss of 22 percent, but the report said the single year while encouraging, is not enough to suggest the trend is changing.

While no one cause has been identified, the report points to a combination of factors including a parasitic mite, multiple viruses, bacteria, poor nutrition, genetics, habitat loss and pesticides.

Weaver was able to explain why he lost some of his hives. They had been invaded by hive beetles and wax moths, which both leave evidence behind.

When moths are the culprit, he said the box the hive is kept in looks like it’s been filled with cobwebs from the moths’ cocoons. Dry pollen in the box is an indicator of a hive beetle infestation. But, the reasons behind the other lost bees remains a mystery.

“There shouldn’t have been a reason for the bees to leave,” Weaver said. “That’s the big question that countries world round are spending lots of money trying to answer.”

The shrinking bee population affects the agriculture industry, according to researchers Jeff Pettis, with the USDA, and Dennis vanEngelsdorp with the University of Maryland.

According to research by Pettis and vanEngelsdorp, survival of honey bees is necessary to meet the demands of agriculture pollination and food security. The annual 30 percent decline has left “virtually no cushion of bees for pollination,” the report said.

Sonny Ramaswamy, a USDA official, said about $30 billion a year in agriculture depends on the health of honey bees which pollinate more than 90 flowering crops including most fruits and vegetables. About one third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, and the honey bee is responsible for 80 percent of that pollination.

“We are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster,” said Jeff Pettis, a USDA bee researcher, in the report.

Scott Thompson, with Thompson Farms in Conway, said he hasn’t noticed any crop issues related to honey bees. The farm has a couple hives, but Thompson said he doesn’t do any work directly with the bees which he said are kept by his cousin.

“The bees look plentiful and we had a great strawberry crop,” he said. “So far, so good. We haven’t really had any problems. The bees have to pollinate pretty much every strawberry and the strawberries turned out fantastic this year.”

Weaver, who was surprised by how many hives he lost this year, is doing everything he can to protect his bees. He shares his trials with his fellow beekeepers in the Blackwater Beekeepers Association which covers Horry, Georgetown and Marion counties, according to the association’s website.

“I thought I was doing the right thing, early enough in the summer to get rid of the hive beetles. Apparently I didn’t do it well enough or didn’t realize I had that many baby beetles because I lost 30 percent like everybody else,” Weaver said.

He’s hoping a cookie sheet filled with vegetable oil placed underneath the box will fight against the hive beetle. When the beetle drops into the oil it drowns, Weaver explained.

He also recently ordered Russian queens to combat a thorax mite which is similar to a tick that attaches to the back of newborn bees and alters the growth of their, wings rendering them useless for food contribution in the hive.

“It will wipe out the hive because you have bees that aren’t able to bring back groceries,” Weaver said.

The goal with the Russian queens is to combat the mite with genetics and avoid using chemicals in his boxes.

Finally, he said, he’s not cutting the grass around his hives as frequently and letting fields of clovers grow.

“So many yards are manicured, cut nice and pretty with green grass,” he said. “When it comes to bees, there’s nothing there for them to feed on.”

The vegetation provides wildflowers and other things to pollinate throughout the summer so the bees don’t have to dip into reserve food sources before the winter.

He hopes the experts can find solutions.

“They’re looking for the answers that I don’t know,” Weaver said. “They’re working hard on figuring out how to get rid of those pests. They’ll never be able to get rid of them all, but we need to figure out how to control them and we haven’t figured out how to do that yet.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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