HOPE VALLEY — Diseases and parasites have devastated honey bee colonies from coast to coast in recent decades, but so far this summer, in Rhode Island anyway, things might be looking up.
Lori and Dan Hill of Hope Valley took the Rhode Island Beekeepers’ Association’s beekeeping course three years ago and have 12 hives. They lost some bees last winter, but this year, Lori said, “Our hives look very healthy. We’re not seeing any mites. We do treat our hives in August. We’re going to take every precaution we can to keep the bees healthy.”
The Hills are treating their hives for a virulent parasite called varroa mite, which has wiped out thousands of honey bee colonies.
Betty Mencucci, a beekeeper and the director of the Rhode Island Beekeepers’ bee school, agreed that the bees seem to be faring better this summer.
“This seems to be a pretty decent season for the bees here,” she said. “The problem here is the varroa mites, and keeping your bees alive through the winter.”
Not everyone believes in treating hives for varroa mite, but Mencucci said that those beekeepers who insist on leaving their bees to fend for themselves usually end up having to buy new ones to replace them anyway.
“Some people just figure, ‘Well, let nature take its course, and if the bees die from it, then they shouldn’t live to reproduce.’ But what happens is, if they want bees, what do they do? They order a package from the South and they just start all over again. And the supplier from the South is treating,” she said.
Opinions also differ on which varroa mite treatments to use. Hobbyists and small commercial operators prefer treatments based on substances like formic acid or thyme oil, which are less toxic than more widely used pesticides.
Hill, who uses formic acid, said the timing of the treatment is important.
“When you treat them, the queen stops laying for a period of time. It can also kill some larvae. A few weeks later, the queen will start laying again and the hive will rebound, so you’ll go into winter with a good, strong population,” she said.
University of Rhode Island entomologist Howard Ginsberg said varroa mite is also thought to be a contributing factor to colony collapse disorder, or CCD, a syndrome that affects large commercial operators, and leaves hives with no worker bees, effectively killing the colonies.
“I think varroa mite was responsible for a lot of problems before CCD showed up. The problem is, people tend to look for a single cause for colony collapse disorder, and none of the causes that anyone has found has panned out as the single cause,” he said. “Before CCD, the average winter loss of colonies was about 17 percent. Now, it’s about 30 percent.”
Large-scale producers usually turn to nicotine-based pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which, some research suggests, might actually contribute to CCD.
“There’s a lot in the literature about the neonicotinoid pesticides. That’s a real hot button issue,” Ginsberg said. “There are things that argue in favor of that contributing and things that argue against that contributing. There may be a role with some of the organisms that attack bees, and varroa mite is one, and it’s a high mortality factor. But there are a lot of others. I think there’s no smoking gun as to which single one might be responsible, and whether these effects might be exacerbated by these pesticides.”
Of the more than 400 species of bees in Rhode Island, only the European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is susceptible to the varroa mite. Frank Drummond, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Maine and a recognized authority on the diseases of honey bees, explained that the mites, which are endemic to Asia, adapted to the European honey bees that American foreign aid workers brought with them to Southeast Asia in the 1960s as part of a food-production project.
“The original species that varroa mite evolved with is the Asian honeybee, and that jumped onto the European honeybee that we raise. It adapted to the European honey bee, which we raise commercially, and it was accidentally introduced to the U.S., and the rest is history,” he said.
Varroa mites may be getting most of the attention these days, but honey bees are threatened by a host of diseases and parasites, which include tracheal mites, a fungal disease called nosema ceranae, deformed wing virus and a new virus, transmitted by the varroa mite, called Acute Israeli paralysis,
When the price of sugar goes up and there are no plants in bloom, large-scale producers often feed their bees high-fructose corn syrup, which stresses them even further.
“That’s like us eating Twinkies,” Drummond said. “It’s just not a natural food for the bees, and that’s thought to really stress them.”
Large commercial beekeepers transport hives thousands of miles to pollinate crops throughout the country.
“Moving bees across the country from California all the way to the East Coast for pollination, when they sit on tractor-trailer trucks for five days straight and are confined in hives — really stressful,” Drummond said.
When the early colonists traveled to America from Europe in the early 1600s, honey bees were of such importance to their daily lives that they would not think of coming without them. Honey was the only sweetener, and candles were made of beeswax.
Drummond said the bees were so valuable to the colonists that they imported dandelions just to feed them.
“In the cold New England Northeast during spring buildup of honey bee colonies, in late April and early May, there weren’t that many native plants that flowered and produced huge amounts of nectar that would support honey bee colonies. They brought the dandelion over, because the dandelion has superabundant pollen, superabundant nectar, it blooms really early in the spring, and it was brought over to save this fledgling honey bee industry,” he said.
Even in 2014, the economic consequences of losing honey bees are ominous. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that “about one mouthful in three in our diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination.”
Lower honey bee populations will mean higher pollination costs, which in turn will result in higher prices for some produce, like blueberries.
“In Maine, we bring in 80,000 colonies of honeybees from outside the state every year to pollinate the crop, and on average, the cost is $120 to rent a hive for a blueberry grower,” Drummond said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw that double in the next 10 years to $250 a hive, and they put about four hives per acre. So there will be changes, for sure, and some of those changes will hurt people.”
Local beekeepers are hoping that varroa mite treatments can keep the parasite at bay, but bee populations — both European and wild — still have a long way to go to recover.
Betty Mencucci, now 60, remembers a time when bees were everywhere.
“I remember when I was little, at my mother’s house, she had a bush that was just full of every bee imaginable. The thing was alive with every type of bee and it was almost frightening to be near. Now, that same bush has very few bees,” she said.