Local beekeeper Karen Pruiett discusses the issues affecting bee populations
Karen Pruiett zipped up the front of her white beekeeper’s jacket, snapped on a pair of latex gloves to save her hands from getting sticky, and shoved another handful of dried pine needles into the already smoldering smoker, a contraption that looks like the tin man’s head from The Wizard of Oz, sitting on the back of her red pick-up truck.
Moments later, the top of the hive has been removed and she has puffed several clouds of smoke over the box of frames that will eventually be filled with honey, called a super, to calm the bees and get them to head deeper into the box. She pries each frame out individually with a hive tool because they are stuck together and examines them. The first one is covered with hundreds of bees, but no honey. It is still too cold out.
Beekeeping runs in Pruiett’s family. Her brother, Larry, has been keeping bees commercially for almost 40 years. He keeps around 600 migratory beehives, which means the bees are moved from Wisconsin in the summer to Florida orange groves in the winter.
Pruiett’s own career in beekeeping began 38 years ago when she and her husband started growing a market garden at their Penfield, Ill., home.
“To have fruits and vegetables, you really need to have bees,” she said. “So I went and helped my brother with his bees in Florida for a couple weeks one spring and he paid me in packages of bees, and I started my own four colonies. Pretty soon, the bees got to be more important to me than anything else, and I went and helped him again the following spring when he was harvesting his orange blossom honey.”
Now, Pruiett tends between 20 and 30 colonies and collects her own honey.
“I have about five or six different bee yards around the area, and the beauty of honey is, if you have a hive of bees sitting in your yard or outback, those bees will fly up to a three mile radius. Your honey will be distinctive compared to your neighbor who is sitting in a different location 10 miles from you. Your honey will be unique to that spot. It’s a really cool thing.”
In every year since 2006, one-third of the bee colonies in the U.S. have died, Pruiett said. The increase of corn and soybean agriculture, widespread use of pesticides, and bee diseases and viruses have decimated bee populations around the country, making it more difficult than ever to maintain healthy bees. Without them, much of the food we consume would not be pollinated and bear fruit. Although bee populations are consistently getting smaller, researchers have not been able to pinpoint the exact causes of colony collapse, where the worker bees in a hive disappear, causing the hive to essentially shut down. Parasites and viruses, such as tracheal mites, which manifest themselves in the airways of honeybees, have also affected dwindling bee populations.
“About 20 years ago, in the mid 1980s, a new parasite came into the country,” Pruiett said of the tracheal mite. “My brother’s migratory operation in Florida was one of the first colonies where it was found. It’s small, almost microscopic, and infests the tracheal tubes and causes earlier mortality and difficulty in keeping healthy bees. It spreads like wildfire; goes from one bee to the next.”
Shortly after the initial outbreak of tracheal mites, which ended up wiping out nearly all of the feral bee colonies in the wild, another pest called the Varroa mite made beekeeping even more difficult. The mites live on the surface of the bee bodies and suck their blood, similar to ticks. Proportionally, however, on a bee, a Varroa mite would be about the size of a baseball cap on a human, Pruiett said.
“As you can imagine, these Varroa mites really took their toll, and it took a while for beekeepers to react with different methods and pesticides to stop them. Of course, there’s no stopping them, and those survivors have become wholly resistant to those methods.”
A beekeeper who chooses not to do anything about Varroa mites will lose their entire colony, Pruiett said.
“It’s been an uphill battle ever since,” she said.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) experimented with several possible treatments before they created something that would reduce the amount of mites without killing the bees: miticide.
“You’re using a miticide, which is an insecticide, on an insect and it’s a very tricky situation,” Pruiett said. “It was effective for about 90 to 95 percent of mites, but over time and with repeated use, the mites developed a resistance to these pesticides and you have to go a step higher with something a little more potent, and it just escalates. It was a really difficult situation, especially for large-scale beekeepers, and it’s become known in the last 7 to 10 years that the mites carry viruses that are almost more lethal than the mites themselves.”
Diseases and viruses spread very quickly throughout bee populations because of their widespread use of pollination. Many beekeepers — up to 60 percent, Pruiett said — transport their colonies to California in January to pollinate almond trees. Once they are finished, the bees are moved up and down the California coast to help pollinate other fruits, such as apples, pumpkins and peaches.
The bees are under stress because they are put on a truck and transported 50 miles to a new spot every three weeks, Pruiett said.
“It makes it much more difficult for the bees to deal with all these viruses when you have the majority of the colonies in the country … all in the almond growth,” she said. “Then masses of them moved — we’re talking thousands of colonies — so all of these diseases … It’s a perfect storm for diseases and beekeeping problems because after, the beekeeper will bring their colonies back to their home state.”
The use of pesticides in farming has also led to the possible decrease in honey bee populations.
“In the last three or four years, chemical companies have been advertising to farmers … a special kind of fungicide that will produce higher yields,” Pruiett said. “We have some of the highest prices of corn and soybeans ever seen in the history of the American farmer. They figure it out financially that it pays to use this fungicide. It’s not the fungicide itself — it’s that in combination with some of the seed treatments and the miticide strips having a synergistic reaction, it’s very harmful to the honey bee.”
When Pruiett first started keeping bees, pesticides were the last thing she thought about affecting her hives.
“We never even had to think about that 30 years ago, and now every time I hear an airplane flying over, I think, ‘Oh, what are they spraying now?’” she said.
Because of the increasing price of corn and soybeans, farmers are removing fencerows, old railroad beds, pastures and hedgerows to maximize land use — all pesticide-free places where bees used to be able to forage for pollen and nectar. These places are being removed at an incredible rate, especially around this part of the country, Pruiett said.
Bees require a large variety of forage — such as crops, weeds, flowers and trees — to produce honey, much like humans require a varied diet, Pruiett said. A colony has to visit about two million blossoms to collect enough nutrients to make one pound of honey. The pollen serves as their protein source and the nectar as their carbohydrates.
“There was so much forage, so many different crops, weeds, trees, shrubs, roadside dandelions and clover for them to work with,” she said. “They need a wide variety of pollen in their diet to get their necessary proteins and minerals and vitamins to stay healthy. It was never a problem in the past, but it’s becoming that way.”
When Pruiett first started keeping bees, it was common for her to average 125 to 150 pounds of surplus honey per year on top of what the bees needed to survive. For the past 10 years, she has considered herself lucky to get 50 to 75 pounds because of the decreasing forage.
“Farmers used to have fencerows around fields and hedges and just a wide variety of things for the bees to work, and it’s getting very difficult to find a good location for a beehive,” Pruiett said. “They are tearing out spots where a lot of wild things used to grow and turning it into monoculture, and the bees just can’t do anything with corn. All of those flowers are so important for the bees to have available to them, but you don’t see, even in the city, as many dandelions — they keep it green like a carpet. That’s useless for honey bees; it might as well be a desert.”
There are still many unknown factors affecting bee populations around the country.
“Everything is just combining to make a wonderful bee culture more difficult,” Pruiett said.
All photographs by Samantha Bakall
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