Nov 14, 2005

Ohio Beekeepers Struggle With Deadly Parasites

Left: Honeybees in a Monroe County hive; photos by historymike

(Lambertville, MI) The droning sound of thousands of agitated honeybees flying around your head is difficult to describe; it has an almost electric quality to it, as the bees synchronize slight variations their collective pitch.

State bee inspector Fritz Gehring explained the sound as he directed a small stream of smoke toward a colony.

“When the hive is disturbed, they send out an alarm warning,” he said. “They are responding to their perception of imminent danger.”

Gehring used the smoke to help calm the bees. This reduces their ability to smell a compound released by the colony's guards in times of danger, sort of like a chemical bugle call.

While many people find bees annoying, they play an important role in the pollination of Ohio crops such as melons, squashes, and cherries, and also produce millions of dollars worth of honey each year.

I accompanied Gehring to a collection of his personal honeybee hives just across the border in Monroe County. We were in search of Varroa mites and small hive beetles, two pests that – untreated – can be deadly to a colony of honeybees.

Luckily for Gehring, neither pest was to be found in his hives.

“The Varroa mites – nicknamed ‘vampire mites’ – gradually drain the life out of bees,” he said. “By the time winter arrives, there are few bees left in the hive, and the colony will not survive.”

The parasitic mites were first detected in the US in 1987, and have virtually wiped out all feral (wild) honeybees in North America. Untreated hives commercial hives face a similar fate, and part of Gehring’s job is to educate beekeepers about current treatments.

Even more worrisome to state agricultural officials like Gehring is the possibility of an invasion of small hive beetles, a pest that was first detected in Florida in 1998, arriving from South Africa. The beetles have wreaked havoc in the South, causing millions of dollars in damage to hives and a reduction in the yield of crops that depend on honeybees.

John Grafton, an apiarist who works for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said that Ohio’s cold winters may save the state from a fate similar to that of southern states.

“After destroying the hive’s comb, the small hive beetle larvae goes into soil,” he said, adding that the beetles also cause the honey to spoil. “The winter months in Ohio disrupt their life cycle, which seems to have slowed the advance.”

Grafton said that bee inspectors help ensure the vitality of Ohio’s agricultural output.

“Without inspectors, infestations like Varroa mites and small hive beetles would destroy Ohio’s honeybees,” he said. “This would lead to poor crop yields and low-quality crops.”

Grafton said that it is too early to tell just how destructive the Varroa mites will be this year in Ohio.

“Right now the infestations seem to be down a little bit due to a concerted effort by beekeepers to use integrated control techniques,” he said. “We will not know for sure until later in the summer.”

Researchers in Ohio, according to Grafton, are conducting some of the world’s most advanced studies on techniques to combat the pests.

“Ohio State’s labs are developing queens that are more resistant to pests,” he said, adding that a commercial firm called Ohio Queen Breeders has also experienced success in breeding a Varroa-resistant line of honeybees.

An enthusiastic apiarist, Gehring would love to covert more people to the hobby, but cautions neophytes to get trained before they take up beekeeping.

“It is very easy to waste your money getting into this unprepared,” he said as he opened another hive. “I have seen amateurs allow entire colonies to be destroyed because they didn’t know what they were doing.”

As we talked, numerous honey bees landed on my arm; my choice in shirts had sparked the interest of the bees.

“That light blue color is very attractive to bees,” he said. “As long as you don’t flinch you will be fine.”

I managed to stifle the urge to bash them, but it was several minutes before I got used to the idea of bees on me. I avoided any stings during our hours together.

“I was once stung 30 times,” he said of his worst encounter, “and that was because I did not do the right things. Since they die upon losing their stingers, honeybees would rather avoid stinging people.”

Gehring and I sampled the honey from a hive before we left. The idea of sticking my hand into a buzzing hive seemed insane, but summoning courage, I poked my finger in a pool of fresh honey.

Gehring said that each hive could produce different flavor variations.

“It depends what types of plants the bees visit,” he said. “The honey of a hive near an alfalfa field will taste much different from one near, say, a melon field.”

The bees never paid any attention to the human hands in their lair.

“They have better things to do than notice us,” said Gehring.

This is an extended version of an article of mine that first appeared in the Toledo Free Press, an excellent local weekly paper.


Hooda Thunkit said...

With the breeding of more pest resistant queen bees, I wonder what desirable characteristics will be lost.

Any signs in Ohio of the dreaded African killer bees cross-breeding with our tamer local bee strains yet?

historymike said...

The "Africanized" killer bees are pimarily a southwest US phenomenon at the moment, although I suspect it's just a matter of time until they start cross-breeding in the Midwest as they get transported by human commercial operations.

Anonymous said...

There's a bad joke here about getting buzzed, but I can't quite spit it out.

Lisa Renee said...

I'm allergic to bees. However it was a very interesting article and I don't wish for all of their demise.