Several years ago, I decided I wanted to become a beekeeper, but I cannot for the life of me remember why. I say this because had I known the frustration involved, I probably never would have started. I am happy that I did, but the road has been difficult. My good friend and long-time beekeeper, Brad, told me, “Go to bee school, keeping bees is not easy.” So off to bee school I went for about five weeks, took and passed the test, then bought two colonies of bees.
Everything was fine for about eight months. Then one of my colonies died. Yep! Generally, bees only live approximately 65 days. Once the queen leaves or dies, no new bees are born to replace the aging population, so you get an empty hive. Somehow I managed to keep the other colony around for a year before it too died. I ordered more bees.
I repeated this cycle a couple of times. Now, happily, I can actually produce a new colony from any strong existing colony I have, so hopefully, no need to buy more bees. This spring my bees produced a lot of honey, several gallons, and I had three colonies, two strong colonies and one with potential. So in May I decided that I had finally learned enough about bees to take care of them. But, I still don’t think of myself as a beekeeper. An experienced beekeeper told me that I probably should be classified as a “bee-haver,” not a beekeeper. In other words, I have bees, but I am not very good at keeping them alive.
Five hundred years ago before this continent was populated by Europeans, there were no bees, they came with the Europeans. The bees adapted well and when a few bees swarmed and left their colonies, feral bee colonies soon were thriving in our vast forest. Ironically, those many feral bee colonies that existed in great numbers a few decades ago are nearly non-existent today. Bees every where are in decline.
Have you ever eaten an almond? Most of us have eaten many, and all of them were touched by a bee. There are beekeepers here in our area that have hundreds of bee colonies, but they are not in the honey business. Their bees are for commercial pollination. These bees will travel by tractor and trailer as far away as California where they will sit in almond groves for a few weeks to create those tasty nuts most of us enjoy. And it’s not just nuts; bees are estimated as being the primary pollinator for over 30 percent of our food supply, in addition to producing all the honey we eat. Nearly all wildflowers would cease to exist without pollinators, such as bees and other insects.
As I’ve said, I am not a good beekeeper, but my heavy losses over the past few years were not always a result of my ineptness. Today there are many diseases stressing bees that were not around 50 years ago. Things like vorrah mites, Noseema, wax moths, small hive beetles, to name just a few pests that can wipe out a colony.
Since I’ve been keeping bees a new nemesis has made its appearance. Bee Colony Collapse Disorder is the name we’ve hung on an unknowable enemy of the honey bee. For reasons not yet determined, most of a colony will just disappear. It has happened only once to my bees, at least that I am aware of, one day the bees seem OK, then they just disappear. It could be some microscopic organism we haven’t yet identified. Or, as some learned people think, life is just too difficult for the bees, and a combination of several factors is causing this disappearance; insecticide spraying, monocropping, habitat loss, may stress the bees making them more susceptible to new microscopic diseases not yet detected.
Whatever it is, it appears to be the biggest threat to bees we’ve seen yet. This die-off of bees is threatening their survival, and 30 percent of our food supply.
Of course I am not against growing more food; we have an exploding world population that must be fed. And the new agricultural procedures are very successful, and that’s a good thing. But considering that 30 percent of the food comes from pollinators, there needs to be balance between efficiency of agricultural practices, and protecting the creatures that are responsible for so much of our food, a world that bees can live in. In early September to eradicate the threat of the Zika virus in South Carolina, insecticide spray was used without notice to local beekeepers. Two million bees died in a single day just in that area.
According to the National Resource Defense Council, about $15 billion a year in U.S. crops are pollinated by bees, including apples, berries, cantaloupes, cucumbers, alfalfa and almonds. And this does not include the honey estimated to be well over $150 million.
Worldwide the loss of food because of the declining number of bees is approaching $6 billion. Obviously keeping bees safe and healthy is the same as keeping people safe and healthy.
So, what can we do to help save bees, and about 30 percent of our food supply? Inform ourselves as much as possible, read about bees, talk to local beekeepers. We are unarmed in any fight in which we are uninformed. If nothing else, listen/watch broadcasts about bees, read articles, stay aware of the state of bees. If you enjoy a challenge and have a little time and space, become a beekeeper, or like me a bee-haver. It is an extremely educating and interesting experience, and it helps keep food on the table.
But, as I said earlier, it can be frustrating. The three colonies I had in May have shrunk to just one as we enter winter. I lost two colonies in the fall, their queens just disappeared. A colony without a queen dies in a few weeks, so my bee guru Brad helped me combine all three colonies into one. Hopefully I can make a second colony from this surviving colony next spring. It seems I’m cursed, destined to spend life as a bee-haver.
Rod Hunter lives in East Bend and is an avid hiker, biker, photographer and nature lover. He is the past state chairman of the Sierra Club of NC. He volunteers as a court-appointed children’s advocate for children in foster care and with Cancer Services Inc. He is a two-time cancer survivor. He has backpacked in Alaska, Arizona, California, Utah, Oregon, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Georgia, Virginia, and of course North Carolina.