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Dwindling buzz

Tennessee beekeepers are losing pollinators at an alarming rate
Story and photos by Chris Villines 5/1/2018


Normally, honeybees would be completely covering this frame at Barry Richards’ beekeeping operation in Cross Plains. But like other beekeepers across Tennessee and the South, Barry experienced a higher-than-usual percentage of bee loss this past winter. Tennessee State Apiarist Mike Studer reports that statewide, colony losses averaged in the 80-percent range. These pollinators are invaluable to American agriculture, contributing more than $15 billion to the economy.
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In more than 50 years of beekeeping, Howard Kerr says he’s never seen anything even remotely resembling what took place in his operation over this past winter.

The longtime Maryville resident had 81 colonies of honeybees on October 1. By March 1, that number had shrunk to 18 — a loss of some 78 percent.

“It was a disaster,” laments Howard, a retired senior research engineer at Oak Ridge National Labs. “I’ve got a warehouse where I keep my bee supplies, and it’s stacked to the front door with empty boxes that should be sitting out in the field with bees in them. Back 20 or 30 years ago, if you had 100 hives of bees in September, you had 99 or 100 in March. But that’s not the case now.”

Howard’s friend and fellow Blount County beekeeper Charlie Parton of Parton Apiaries was also deeply affected by bee loss.

“I used to sell 40 or 50 [nucleus colonies] in the springtime, no problem,” says Charlie, who’s kept bees for 39 years. “I don’t even have that many colonies left after this winter. It’s going to hurt the local honey crop.”

Charlie and Howard are by no means alone. Beekeepers across Tennessee felt the sting of a dramatically declining number of honeybees in their hives after winter.

“Even the best beekeepers are losing bees,” says Tennessee Beekeepers Association President Barry Richards of Cross Plains. “In some cases, substantial operations are being wiped out. The further east in the state you go, the greater the losses are.”

It’s a problem that in past years has garnered attention, but now the situation has reached a “crisis” stage, according to Mike Studer, Tennessee’s state apiarist.

“Bee losses in Tennessee are averaging around 80 percent this year,” says Mike. “It’s as bad as it has ever been, especially when you consider the 10-year average loss before that was 35-percent. And we thought 35 percent loss was really high.”

This downward cycle has the potential to be devastating agriculturally. In the U.S., one-third of all ag output depends on honeybees and other native pollinators. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, pollinators contribute more than $24 billion to the U.S. economy, of which honeybees account for more than $15 billion. In California, where 85 percent of the world’s almonds are grown, each of the 1.1 million acres in almond production is dependent on bee pollination.

“If you’re a big vegetable producer needing pollination, it makes sense to hire that pollination out so you’re not dividing your time with it,” Barry says. “If we keep losing bees, the cost to secure them for pollination is going to go up. The worst-case scenario is you can’t get pollination and lose the ability to mass produce crops. We don’t expect that to happen, but we want to try and head it off now so it’s not something we’ll have to deal with later.”

To emphasize the impact of these flying workers, Charlie breaks it down further: one in three bites of the food we eat every day relies on honey bee pollination to some degree.

“Bees play such an important pollination role for cucumbers, cantaloupe, squash, watermelons, pumpkins, apples, pears, and cherries grown in Tennessee,” says Charlie. “We need them. But when 98 percent of the beekeepers I talk to have lost half or more of their bees, it’s an issue everyone — because we all eat — needs to be concerned about.

“Imagine if a cattle producer lost 70 percent of a calf crop or if a row crop farmer lost 70 percent of corn or soybeans. I understand our slice of the pie isn’t as big, but it’s still a vital part of agriculture.”

The reasons behind the destruction of honeybee colonies center on the following factors:

• Parasites, particularly Varroa mites. Introduced into Florida in the mid-1980s, these external parasitic mites attack honeybees and their brood, sucking blood from both, and spread killing viruses.

“Varroa mites are bringing viruses and other pathogens with them into these colonies and the bees are being infected,” says Barry. “Even if you are effective at eliminating a large percentage of Varroa mites through some treatment, you’re still left with the payload of viruses they brought with them when they came into your hive. And the bigger this payload becomes, the more bees are going to fail and you’re going to find yourself with very high-percentage losses.”

In March, the Honey Bee Health Coalition, which brings together beekeepers, growers, researchers, government agencies, agribusinesses, conservation groups, manufacturers, and consumer brands to improve the health of honeybees in general and specifically around production agriculture, secured more than $1 million in research funding to treat Varroa mite infestation.

Charlie believes a solution to lessening the impact of Varroa mites could be a game changer.

“There are other issues, but if we could control [Varroa mites] better, it definitely would change the whole atmosphere,” he says. “They’re the worst problem — most beekeepers would tell you that, most university entomologists who specialize in honeybees would tell you that. We need help.”

Mike recommends that beekeepers keep a vigilant watch on the Varroa mite numbers in their colonies and apply treatments before these numbers “get up too high.”

“Someone sent samples to me of their dead bees that had been treated for Varroa, and this person was wondering why these bees died,” he says. “This person was treating when there were 50 to 80 mites per 100 bees when the treatment threshold was 6 mites per 100 bees. Either the mites were resistant to the treatment material being used, which is a possibility, or the wrong treatment was being used at the wrong time.”

The return of tracheal mites, Mike adds, was also an unwelcome contributor to bee loss. These microscopic parasites live, feed, and breed inside the tracheae or breathing tubes of the adult bee.

“We hadn’t had any problems with tracheal mites in about 10 years,” he says. “Their return increased losses by about 20 percent.”

• Unintentional pesticide exposure. Proactive communication between growers, applicators, and beekeepers is essential to protect honeybees from incidental pesticide exposure. Beekeeper and landowner cooperation is based on mutual interest and is important to mitigate risks of pesticide exposure to pollinators.

“It’s very important that farmers growing crops have success, and if they need to wipe out a pest hindering that success then they certainly need to be spraying,” says Howard. “What needs to be happening more is open communication between sprayers and beekeepers to give us a chance to put a bee tarp or something else over our bees so we don’t lose them.”

To help with this process, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture is encouraging Tennesseans with apiaries and commercially grown crops sensitive to pesticides to register their locations using the online program FieldWatch, Inc., developed by Purdue University and available at The FieldWatch registry offers two platforms: DriftWatch, for crop producers, includes the ability to map boundaries around production fields; BeeCheck is a registry site for beekeepers that designates one-mile radius boundaries around apiaries. Producers of commercially grown sensitive crops who also manage apiaries may enter hive locations using either DriftWatch or BeeCheck.

There is no cost to use the registry, which went live at the end of March.   

“Following the label instructions on pesticides is the most important thing for applicators,” Mike stresses. “If it says the product is harmful to pollinators, then applicators need to spray during the first half hour or last half hour of daylight when the bees aren’t active. If farmers must spray in the middle of the day, they should notify the beekeepers in the area the day before so colonies can be closed up to where the bees aren’t exposed to the pesticides. Because if it’s above 40 degrees and the sun is shining, the bees are going to be in that field.”

• Poor nutrition. Honeybees collect pollen and nectar for the entire colony. They convert the nectar to honey and use both nectar and pollen to make “brood food” to feed bee larvae. Several nutrients are essential in the honeybee’s diet and these nutrients are obtained from pollens collected from a variety of plants during the foraging months of the year. When there are less natural sources of pollen and nectar for the bees to pull from, colonies as a whole become less healthy, Charlie says.

“We’ve changed the environment for pollinators,” he explains. “When I was a kid, you’d drive through the country and fields would be full of wildflowers and weeds – that’s food for butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. Now, there are houses built where these fields used to be. The fencerows are pushed out. There’s no habitat for the bees to pollinate.

“That’s not going to change anytime soon, so we have to manage our bees differently. And we need to encourage the entire community to help maintain ‘bee healthy plants.’”

Charlie adds that these nutritional deficiencies lead to bees being in a “weakened” state heading into the crucial winter months.

“When bees go into the winter not so healthy, they’re more susceptible to the cold,” he says. “Honeybees have to try and maintain heat to keep that cluster going all through the winter. If they’re in a weakened state going in, they’re not going to live as long, so they’re dying, and the ones that are left freeze because they can’t maintain heat or starve because they can’t move.”

• Colony collapse disorder (CCD). Though its impact has lessened somewhat in recent years, CCD is still one of the most mysterious maladies to strike honeybee colonies in the modern era. CCD is characterized by the sudden disappearance of worker bees in a colony, almost all at the same time.

Howard explains the typical CCD scenario:

“At the first of October, sort of the wrap-up of the season, you raise the lid on the hive, and there will be so many bees that you can’t even see the frames. There’s plenty of honey to take them through the winter, so you’re feeling pretty good about things.

“Then, when there’s a warm day in December, you go check on the bees to see how they’re doing. You raise the lid up expecting to see gobs of bees, but you don’t see any. Zero. But there’s still 50 to 60 pounds of honey. And the scary part is all the bees that are still alive aren’t trying to rob the honey and take it to their hive; they’re ignoring it.”

Mike says there was an extra incident last year, queen bee failure, that when combined with the other factors created “a perfect storm” that spiked the losses even further.

“We had a lot of queen bee loss in the fall, and when it occurs during that time of year you can’t replace her because there’s nowhere to buy them and there are no drones [for mating],” he explained.

As the toll has continued to climb over the past decade, so too has interest among those wanting to become beekeeping hobbyists and save these critical insects. Howard reports that 100 of the 140 people who came to a beekeeping course in Blount County earlier this year were first-timers.

“We need hundreds of beekeepers with bees scattered across the countryside,” Howard says. “That’s the unique nature of the beekeeping operation. Honeybees forage within a two-mile radius of their home to collect the foods they need and pollinate the plants they visit. Concentrating all the colonies in a few locations will not work.”

Charlie advises anyone entering the profession to “buy into” the process.

“One of the biggest problems is people going to YouTube to get all their information about beekeeping,” he says. “If you rely on that, you’re going to make mistakes that are going to cost you a lot of bees. The No. 1 thing to do is join a local association and get plugged in with a mentor. Plus, read all you can, and listen to as many lectures as you can.”

Beekeepers in Tennessee and across the country are hopeful the troubling trend of vanishing pollinators will reverse course soon. But Howard contends the concern should stretch beyond those keeping bees.

“This is a community crisis, not just a beekeeper crisis,” he says. “If it only affected beekeepers, it would be a ‘so what’ thing. This affects everybody who eats food. This is about pollination and keeping beekeepers in bees, and we’ve got to do that for the benefit of the community as a whole.”

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