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Keeping of the bees: The changing face of apiculture

Hugh Gibby knows a little something about honeybees. He’s kept them for 63 of his 78 years, following in the footsteps of his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.


“It’s part of my heritage,” the Swain County native said. “It’s a family tradition.”

Lately, though, Gibby has felt uneasy about what the future holds for a new generation of beekeepers.

Honeybees, already under attack from pests such as mites and a variety of diseases, are now facing another threat. Mature bees are abandoning hives nationwide for no apparent reason despite having adequate food stores.

“I fear that the bees are going to go the way of the old native chestnuts,” said Gibby, who lost seven hives of bees this winter in a similar mysterious manner. “I’m afraid something will finally take them all out.”

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If Gibby’s fears materialize, the results could be catastrophic for the agricultural industry and the nation’s food chain. About three-quarters of all flowering plants rely on pollinators to set fruit, and an estimated $14 billion worth of crops use honeybees as their primary pollinator.


‘White Man’s Flies’

Honeybees are not native to North America. European colonists introduced the honeybee to the New World so they could use honey for sweetener and beeswax for candlelight.

The battle to keep them alive in a strange land started almost immediately.

New diseases like American foulbrood, a highly contagious bacterial infection, and the greater wax moth, whose larvae will destroy the bees’ comb as it feeds, challenged this continent’s earliest beekeepers.

Honeybees not only survived, however, they thrived. Bees increase naturally through swarming, and they advanced northward in front of the colonists. Native Americans soon dubbed the bees “white man’s flies.”

Until the mid 1800s few changes took place for beekeepers. They continued to keep bees in crude hives such as straw skeps and, in this area, sections of hollow logs called bee gums. But in 1851 a hive was developed with movable frames that allowed beekeepers to more easily manipulate bee colonies and remove honey. This hive, called the Langstroth hive, helped set the stage for modern beekeeping.


Changing with the times

Edd Buchanan of Black Mountain has been a beekeeper for 30 years. When he got started, it was relatively easy to maintain colonies of bees, thanks to the moveable frames that allowed beekeepers easy access into hives.

And, back then, if Buchanan wanted more bees for free, he could simply collect swarms thrown off by large feral populations. Those same wild bees also helped pollinate the nation’s gardens and farm crops.

“To be a beekeeper now, you’ve got to change with the times,” said Buchanan, regional representative for the N.C. Beekeepers Association. “You can’t keep bees like your daddy or granddaddy did. We’ve got so many more obstacles than they had.”

The obstacles facing today’s beekeepers were tough even before the emergence of Colony Collapse Disorder. Tracheal mites, which get into the bees’ airways and weaken colonies, were discovered in the United States in 1984. Then, three years later, Varroa mites were found.

“We thought it was just a pest, but now we understand it is both pest and vector,” said Dewey Caron, a professor in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at Delaware University.

Varroa mites are an external parasite. Like ticks, they suck bees’ body fluids, called hemolymph. Varroa mites also transmit several viruses to colonies.

The mites have virtually wiped out the feral bee population. They also forced beekeepers to choose between treating bee colonies with chemicals or using time-consuming non-chemical methods and purchasing expensive stock bred for their genetic ability to withstand Varroa mites.


A mystery

Earlier this month in Union County, Caron and other leading honeybee experts spoke to 430 beekeepers from North Carolina and South Carolina. The Delaware entomologist warned the gathering that the beekeeping industry remains “dynamic” and that losses of bee colonies are increasing.

These days, because of disease, mites and Colony Collapse Disorder, Caron said beekeepers can expect to lose 30 to 40 percent of their colonies each year. The benchmark just a few years ago was 10 to 20 percent.

“Can we sustain repeated years of (these type) losses? Is this a healthy industry?” Caron queried the crowd.

The news is even bleaker for some commercial beekeepers, who often manage thousands of colonies. They transport them by trucks long distances to pollinate crops such as almonds in California and cranberries in Maine.

Some commercial beekeepers have lost 50 to 90 percent of their colonies to Colony Collapse Disorder. They also report that many of those surviving are too weak to produce much honey or be useful for pollinating.

“It’s a fast-moving mystery,” said David Tarpy, an apiculturist for the cooperative extension and an assistant professor at North Carolina State University.

Researchers are exploring whether Colony Collapse Disorder could be the result of chemical contamination, lack of genetic diversity, parasites, or something not yet identified. Or, Tarpy noted, the disorder could be a combination of stresses.

“We still don’t have any answers to explain what’s going on,” he said.


What’s being done

With an estimated $154 million in annual crop productivity at stake, the state has acted aggressively to stimulate interest in beekeeping.

The number of colonies in North Carolina has declined from a high of 180,000 in the early 1980s to about 120,000, according to 2001 figures released by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

In 2005, North Carolina gave away two hives each to 250 aspiring beekeepers statewide. More than 2,800 people applied.

No one in Jackson or Swain counties received one of those hives, but Sarah McClellan-Welch, extension agent for the Cherokee Indian Reservation, said the interest generated helped her and a fellow extension agent become aware of the need to support aspiring and current beekeepers.

The result was Smoky Mountain Beekeepers, one of the newest chapters of the N.C. State Beekeepers Association, which at 2,000 members and more than 50 chapters is one of the largest of its kind in the nation. Macon County also has a chapter; Haywood County does not.

McClellan-Welch, herself a beekeeper, said the club consistently attracts 20 to 30 people to meetings.

“I think people are aware of the value of local honey,” she said.

McClellan-Welch also cited increasing awareness about the importance of honeybees for pollination and nostalgia — a family tradition of keeping bees — as reasons why the club has proven so popular.


Learning about bees

For years, the challenges of beekeeping seemed daunting to Cashiers resident Lynn Jones. Recently, however, the avid gardener decided she must act. With the wild population gone and fewer beekeepers in the area, there were no bees visiting her flowers and vegetables.

“I know I’m going to face a bear problem and diseases,” Jones said. “But if I’m going to invest in a garden I need them to pollinate.”

Jones ordered two packages of bees that will arrive in May. She’s prepared herself by attending club meetings of the Smoky Mountain Beekeepers and by participating in the Buncombe County Beekeepers’ school.

Buchanan helped organize the school, which included sessions on bee biology, bee management and disease identification and prevention. He said interest in beekeeping is keen despite the problems facing beekeepers.

“We had over 200 people from Western North Carolina show up for the school, and many of them were young people,” he said. “It is encouraging to see so many of them getting into it.”

(Quintin Ellison, a freelance writer and beekeeper living in Bryson City, is secretary of the Smoky Mountain Beekeepers club.)


Bees by the numbers

Types in a colony: 3 – the queen, workers (females) and drones (males)

Total population in colony: 20,000 to 80,000 bees, mainly workers

Fertile female bees in a colony: 1, the queen. Workers are infertile females.

Length of a queen’s life: 3-5 years unless she’s replaced by the beekeeper

Length of a worker’s life: 6 weeks during the summer, longer in winter

Length of a drones life: Depends. They are kicked out of the hive to die by the female workers during the fall.

Number of eggs laid by queen: 2,000 per day is the high

Wing strokes per minute: 11,400

How fast: 15 miles per hour

Amount of honey a worker bee makes in a lifetime: 1/12th of a teaspoon

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