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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Idaho Mountain Express: Bees may arrive in valley - April 1, 2005

Idaho Mountain Express: Bees may arrive in valley - April 1, 2005: "Bees may arrive in valley"

1 comment:

buzzmeg said...

This story is taken from Sacbee / Business / Agriculture.


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Believe the buzz -- or not?
Despite tales of billions of bees dying and crops at risk, experts disagree how serious the problem is.
By Jim Downing - Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:00 am PDT Sunday, March 11, 2007
Bees are dying by the billions. Nobody knows why. And the crops they pollinate -- California almonds especially -- are at risk.

Or at least that's been the buzz.

In the past month, the new and mysterious honeybee ailment known as "colony collapse disorder," which seems to cause entire hives of bees to leave home and never return, has made the front page of newspapers from Sacramento to New York. Fox News and National Public Radio aired reports. A "CBS Evening News" crew spent weeks following a bee-disease investigator around the nation. Even Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert took up the issue, urging investors to hoard bees.

"The fewer there are, the more they're worth," Colbert said.

Yet despite all the attention, there's little solid data on the severity of the problem.

"I'm not convinced that it's so much worse than what we saw in 2004 and 2005," said Eric Mussen, a bee specialist with the University of California, Davis.

While bees are undoubtedly in trouble this year, Mussen said, there's little evidence so far that it's anything other than the continuation of their long struggle with disease, environmental stress and the hardship of being hauled cross-country in midwinter to pollinate crops in California.

"This time the media just became much more involved in it," he said.

News accounts have cited dramatic losses of 70 percent or more reported by some commercial beekeepers from coast to coast. But because no comprehensive survey of the industry exists, it's hard to say just how many hives have been hit.

"About all we've got is anecdotes," said, Troy Fore, executive director of the American Beekeeping Federation.

A clearer picture should emerge in June. That's when the U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys the developing almond crop. If the billions of bees now laboring in the almond orchards in the Central Valley are sufficiently strong and numerous to do their work -- and the weather is favorable -- the trees will be laden with nuts this summer.

Bees have become big business in recent years. Each hive rents for $140 or so, and California's almond growers alone will spend roughly $200 million hiring beekeepers to let their bees loose in the orchards this year. A good chunk of the bees also are essential to the production of about $12 billion in other crops nationwide, according to a Cornell University study.

But while bees have been growing in importance as pollinators, no state or federal agency monitors them. The agencies do track honey production, but that's tied only loosely to the size of the bee labor pool, since many beehives are now managed mainly as pollinators rather than honey-makers.

What information there is on bee vigor comes mostly word-of-mouth and, lately, through the media. With the spotlight on both beekeepers and almond growers -- and millions of dollars at stake -- rumors have been flying.

Some beekeepers accuse others of playing down the crisis out of pride, or in hopes that their clients, the almond farmers, won't start to question the health or the value of their rented bees. Other beekeepers trumpet the die-off, calling for government relief and higher rental fees from almond growers.

The California Almond Board, on the other hand, surveyed almond farmers and issued a statement last month. While bee supplies may be fairly tight, the board said, there are enough to go around.

Years ago, Mussen said, many Central Valley counties employed a bee inspector to check the health of rented hives. That person helped resolve disputes between beekeepers and farmers and served as an informal census-taker.

Today, those inspectors are scarce. One of the few remaining is Clifton Piper, who has checked hives for the Merced County Department of Agriculture since 1973. He isn't sure about the big picture, either.

"It's difficult to see just how short the shortage is," he said. Beekeepers often bolster weak hives with imported packages of bees from Australia, he said. And in cold and rainy weather, it's hard to tell whether sluggish bees in a hive are sick or simply chilly.

Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a Pennsylvania bee expert participating in a nationwide research effort that hopes to better characterize colony collapse disorder, said the investigation has been somewhat hampered by beekeepers unwilling to admit that their bees are dying.

"Sometimes beekeepers are ashamed that they have a problem, so they may not be as transparent as they might be," he said.

That's not the case for Placerville beekeeper Rich Starets. He's lost 225 of his 300 hives since November. But he places the blame squarely on his own beekeeping missteps, such as poor timing of feeding and medication. And, based on conversations with fellow beekeepers, he's convinced that the much-discussed colony collapse disorder is chiefly the result of imperfect beekeeping.

"There's plenty of guys that didn't lose two-thirds of their hives this year," he said.

While the price that a hive commands in an almond orchard has nearly tripled in just the past four years, beekeepers' costs have risen, as well. Much of the money goes to treat bees against an ever-growing variety of pests and pathogens, to feed them corn syrup and protein supplements and to pay breeders for replacement bees when hives die off.

That's a lot to keep track of, especially for a part-time beekeeper like Starets, 40, who makes most of his living fixing cell-phone towers for AT&T.

But, he said, "It's up to me ... to learn how to keep bees in a changing world."

Dozens of his now-barren hive boxes are stacked in a meadow along Green Valley Road near Shingle Springs. On a recent morning, Starets cracked one lid open, revealing a cluster of a few dozen dead bees huddled together as if for comfort. They had started to mold. A healthy hive would have 20,000 or more bees at this time of year.

Online bee discussions on sites like beesource.com and honeybeeworld.com have been brimming with speculation on the cause and extent of the die-off. There are rumors of desperate almond growers offering $300 a hive for healthy bees, and theories blaming the die-off on everything from cell-phone signals to genetically modified crops.

Researchers like vanEngelsdorp are hoping to put the speculation to rest by finding a cause or a collection of causes -- aside from beekeeper error -- for the reported die-off. They're currently analyzing samples from healthy and sick colonies around the country.

For his role in the race to solve the mystery of colony collapse, vanEngelsdorp has become a minor media star. He's lately been spending 70 percent of his time talking to reporters and giving radio and television interviews, he said.

"You realize that this is an opportunity to help explain how important bees are," he said.

He knew the story had reached critical mass, he said, after what he overheard during lunch at an International House of Pancakes in Florida last week.

"Across the way there were these two old ladies," he said. "And one was saying, 'Did you hear all the bees are dying?'

"And I'm thinking, Wow. It made IHOP conversation."


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