OHIO KEEPERS LOSE ROUGHLY HALF THEIR COLONIES

Tough winter exacts deadly toll on area’s honeybee population

5/11/2013
BY VANESSA McCRAY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Dan Bollett, a beekeeper from Waterville, inspects the progress of a hive at the 577 Foundation in Perrysburg.
Dan Bollett, a beekeeper from Waterville, inspects the progress of a hive at the 577 Foundation in Perrysburg.

Winter wasn’t so sweet for the honeybee.

Several area beekeepers reported a wide range of losses — between 15 and 75 percent of colonies — over the winter, while a national beekeeper survey showed a 31.1 percent winter loss of colonies across the United States.

Over the more mild 2011-2012 winter, beekeepers reported a 22 percent loss, according to a survey funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Losses for beekeepers in the region fluctuated greatly, but many experts and beekeepers agreed it was a difficult winter as the winged pollinators faced myriad problems.

Dan Bollett, a Waterville beekeeper who maintains about 80 colonies, estimated he lost 75 percent over the winter.

“It was a rough year,” the Waterville Bee Works honey producer said.

“There’s so many things after the bees.”

He barely paused as he launched from one foe to the next, rattling off a list of dangerous enemies: mites, the “toxic soup of chemicals” including pesticides bees work in, dysentery, and other problems.

“Last winter was such a mild winter that it wasn’t that bad on the honeybees,” he said, adding that the chief concern used to be keeping bees fed in wintertime.

“Now you’ve got that, plus you’ve got the mites, which are vectors for other diseases, and there’s just so many things against them. That’s why you have such a die-off.”

The “winter kill rate” typically hovered at about 15 percent back in the 1970s, before the onset of new problems, said Reed Johnson, a Wooster-based assistant professor in the Ohio State University entomology department. Back then, starvation caused most winter losses, he said.

Based on what he’s heard anecdotally so far, Mr. Johnson guessed that Ohio beekeepers lost roughly half their colonies over the winter.

“Honeybees face a variety of problems, and it’s likely that the loss we are experiencing is kind of these different problems working together,” he said.

One factor could be last year’s weather. Spring bloomed early followed by a dry period, and some bees “couldn’t build up the honey storages to make it through the winter,” he said.

Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a University of Maryland bee researcher who led the nationwide winter loss survey of nearly 6,300 beekeepers, said researchers have yet to analyze data for individual states. Over the last six years, the average winter loss was 30.5 percent.

Besides the challenges of winter, bees face other foes, including  mites and chemicals.
Besides the challenges of winter, bees face other foes, including mites and chemicals.

The national survey didn’t show evidence of colony collapse disorder, the mysterious, sudden loss of bees.

Edwin “Fritz” Gehring, a bee inspector for five area counties including Lucas, is still doing inspections, but so far he estimated that 30 to 40 percent of colonies were lost over the winter.

Regional beekeepers reported a wide range in losses.

Paul Marks, who lives near Ida in Monroe County, said he lost three of his four colonies. Two colonies ran out of food, he said, but he can’t explain why the other one didn’t survive.

Feeding his bees helped protect Dwight Wilson of Findlay; he lost about 15 percent of his colonies over the winter. The beekeeper usually has 150 to 200 colonies of honeybees.

Paulding County beekeeper Kevin Atkins of Cecil has a little more than 500 colonies. He’s built his bees back up after losing roughly 70 percent over the winter. The beekeeper blames himself for mite problems that contributed to his loss. Dealing with storm damage to his house delayed the application of a treatment he uses to deter mites. The drought also could have stressed the bees, he said.

Mr. Atkins said his small family business was able to provide honeybees to an apple grower whom he works with every year.

Winter bee losses haven’t had a significant impact so far on Ohio farmers and fruit growers, according to Brad Bergefurd, an OSU Extension horticulturist based in Piketon in southern Ohio.

Bees move in and out of a hive at the 577 Foundation in Perrysburg. Upcoming crops requiring bees include pumpkins and pickles.
Bees move in and out of a hive at the 577 Foundation in Perrysburg. Upcoming crops requiring bees include pumpkins and pickles.

He said farmers always scramble to gather hives for pollination season, but he hasn’t heard of any significant shortages or increases in the cost of renting hives to pollinate crops.

Upcoming crops requiring bees include pumpkins and pickles, which “take a lot of bees,” he said. “If there’s going to be any shortages,” he said, it could show up then.

At Johnston Fruit Farms in Swanton, finding a beekeeper willing to move hives into orchards at this time of year can be tough, said Martha Mora, whose parents started the farm more than 50 years ago.

The farm began purchasing bumblebees last year to help with pollination duties, she said.

“There used to be enough local bees and people willing to bring them over, but I think ... everybody knows that being a beekeeper and keeping bees is becoming more and more difficult,” she said.

Contact Vanessa McCray at: vmccray@theblade.com or 419-724-6065.