“We have no idea where they went,” Bailey said. “There are no dead bodies — they’ve left and not returned.”
In many instances, the caretakers visited their hives to feed the bees or perform routine maintenance only to find the nests abandoned.
Moreover, after beekeeping for five years, Bailey said he has learned a bit about how to keep bees happy in their hives. He said his bees left behind perfectly good food intended to nourish them throughout the winter months.
The story was the same among Bailey’s Jonathan Creek neighbors. In a six-mile radius, 26 hives were lost in a similar manner, abandoned by their bees for a reason, or reasons, unbeknownst to the beekeepers. The numbers are staggering, considering each colony consists of 10,000 or so bees during the winter season.
“It is eerie,” Bailey said, “And it’s not new, and it’s definitely not unique to me.”
In fact, it’s not unique to that part of Haywood County, the region, or the rest of the state. The phenomenon described by Bailey has been deemed colony collapse disorder — a blanket term used to explain the turn of events in which droves of bees go missing, seemingly without a trace.
Beekeepers across the country and in other parts of the world have struggled with their colonies collapsing for years now. Incidences of the disappearing colonies seemed to have trailed off during the past few years. However, last year, the problem came back in force and it is proving to be an uncommonly bad season for domesticated bees.
In Haywood County, during the past winter, it is estimated that about half of bee colonies were lost under the inexplicable circumstances. Bill Skelton, the county’s cooperative extension director, said he has been traveling from bee farm to bee farm in recent weeks surveying the wreckage. The diagnosis is plain and simple.
“It has not been a good winter for the honeybee industry,” Skelton said.
What is not so straightforward is why it is happening. Skelton and other scientists are shying away from using the overly general term “colony collapse disorder.” Rather, they have been working to identify commonalities among the bee farms that suffered the greatest losses, as well as among the beekeepers who retained more of their colonies.
So far, Skelton said a few leads have surfaced, linking the disappearances to several practices, such as pesticide use and a large parasite that attaches itself to bees, called the Varroa mite. Other people have pointed the finger at murkier causes such as cell phone signals or climate change.
Yet, even the correlative links Skelton has identified are tenuous. For example, beekeepers that treated for the mite or are who are not located in areas where pesticides are used have still had their hives fall victim to colony collapse. A conclusive answer has not been found.
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Skelton said. “That’s the $64,000 question.”
Nevertheless, Skelton is encouraging local beekeepers to repopulate their hives because honeybees are a crucial part of the pollination process for everything from cucumbers and squash to apples and peaches, and the hive’s old inhabitants are not coming back.
“They’re dead,” Skelton said of the bees that disappeared during the winter. “They can’t survive outside the hive.”
Along with the drop in local bee populations will come a drop in local honey production. Each hive can yield anywhere from two to six gallons of liquid gold in a given season. While most beekeepers in Western North Carolina are hobbyist with anywhere from one to a dozen or so hives, the managers of larger operations are biting their nails with the news of widespread colony failures.
Tim Burrell has a side business in which he raises queen bees to sell. He has about 230 colonies located Macon County, but he is not the largest operation in the county, by far. Appalachian Apiaries keeps nearly 2,000 beehives for commercial honey production.
If either operation were to lose half of their hives, as some beekeepers in Macon County did this year, it would be a serious blow to business.
“If you had a herd of cattle, and 40 percent of your cattle disappeared, that’s a big loss,” said Burrell. “Makes it hard to stay in business.”
Burrell is also vice president of the Macon County Beekeepers Association. He said the 50 or so members of the association have been swapping horror stories of losing bee colonies this year.
Although Burrell lost about 15 percent of his hives over the winter — a normal attrition rate, which he attributed to starvation — a nearby beekeeper lost the only two hives he had.
“He went to feed them, and there were no bees to feed,” Burrell said. “And he had bees in the hives two weeks prior.”
But as reports filter in from beekeepers, state agricultural officials believe they are zeroing in on the culprit. The Varroa mite that Skelton linked to many Haywood County cases is also appearing as a common denominator statewide, said Don Hopkins, apiary inspection supervisor for the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
The mite is large when compared to the bee’s body; relatively speaking, it would appear the size of a softball on a human. The parasite attaches itself to the bees and feeds on them. Its presence can cause entire colonies to fail, not only due to its behavior but also because of the bacteria, fungus and other threats it can introduce into a colony.
“It’s pretty devastating,” Hopkins said.
Out of every 10 cases of failed bee colonies inspected by state apiary officials during the last two months, about eight implicate the mite, Hopkins said. Nevertheless, many determinations of cause come down to an educated guess, one that is even harder to make when beekeepers clean out their abandoned hive before having it inspected by bee experts.
Hopkins likened the abandoned beehives to the scene of a crime.
“In a lot of these cases, when the bees simply leave, it doesn’t leave much evidence to go on,” Hopkins said. “And if the equipment is all cleaned up, we usually can find enough evidence to make a reasonably educated guess.”
As for the lack of bee bodies at the scene, Hopkins said bees have been known to abandon hives in the presence of a certain invasive beetle. So, it is not that much of a leap to say they may take flight when faced with other intruders.
However, Hopkins admits he is unsure about his own hypothesis. And he still can’t explain many of the cases he and his staff have come across. But he believes the circumstances may not be as strange as some people may believe, particularly when one considers the evidence.
“There is something mysterious going on — but a lot of the mystery isn’t that mysterious,” Hopkins said. “The worst thing about this year is the fact that there’s not a single smoking gun.”