Bee deaths pose agricultural buzzkill

Photos by Matthew Busch/The Herald
Jerry Apple checked on one of his bee colonies outside of his Jasper home Wednesday. Apple maintains a total of 63 colonies at 11 locations throughout Dubois County. Each colony has an average of 50,000 bees that produce honey and pollinate local plants. Last year, 20 of Apple’s colonies failed, a trend that has developed since at least 2006. “I didn’t used to lose any,” said Apple, who has been keeping bees as a hobby for the 56 years.

Herald Staff Writer

Bee colonies across the United States continue to die off at dangerous rates, a new report shows. Beekeeper Jerry Apple of Jasper has seen the results firsthand.

At one time, Apple had 98 colonies. He has 63 now, and lost about 20 just in the past year. He also gets fewer calls now about swarms, or newly forming bee colonies, which he can transfer to wooden boxes and then use to fertilize area crops and produce honey.

Apple, 77, has been beekeeping in the county for 56 years. He is familiar to many residents, who know to give him a call if a swarm shows up on their property. Years ago, he averaged 30 calls a month. Now, he gets just a few.

Purdue entomologist Greg Hunt said that Indiana’s beekeepers are reporting a 30 percent decline of bees in their colonies. This is roughly the same decline as has been reported nationwide.

A survey conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership, in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, indicates that 31.1 percent of managed honeybee colonies were lost over the winter. This is not much more than the six-year average loss, of 30.5 percent.

The phenomenon behind the decline is “colony collapse disorder,” which causes worker adult bees to leave hives in droves only to be found dead elsewhere. Since 2006, an estimated 10 million beehives worth about $2 billion have been lost, The Associated Press reported.

A major reason for the decline, Hunt said, was parasitic mites. The Varroa destructor mite reproduces in a colony, attaches to a bee’s body and weakens it. It also transmits viruses like the deformed wing virus to the bee.

Bees swarmed around the queen bee on a honey tray that beekeeper Jerry Apple checked on in one of the colonies outside of his Jasper home Wednesday.

Apple also attributes the collapse to “poison on the seed,” pesticides in corn and soybean crops not intended for human consumption. He said bees don’t harvest pollen from feed corn, but that the insecticide-laden pollen from feed corn is windblown into the human-grade sweet corn and fields that the bees forage.

It affects their nervous systems, he said.

The colony collapse represents a threat not just to the bees, but to people and the food they eat. Bees are responsible for pollinating many crops of fruits, vegetables and nuts, and are often an essential component of a good harvest. The acceptable colony loss, from which bees can safely recover, is 15 percent, half of what it has been.

On Wednesday afternoon, Apple checked on the hives next to his house, six boxes of colonies lined in a row. He donned his cotton coveralls, helmet and veil, and dropped brown pine needles and a lit match into a handheld smoker. After applying a few quick puffs to the entrance of the hive — not too much, he said, or it will burn the bees’ tongues and kill their sense of smell, crucial for survival — he peeled off the wooden cover. Its edges were sticky with propolis, which the bees use to seal gaps in the hive to keep out ants and the rain.

He checked each colony to see if they were active enough that he could add another level of supers, frames to support the creation of comb and honey, to any of them. On the lowest level is the brood box, for laying eggs, and above that is a box of honeycomb that the bees will use to survive the winter. Everything above that, Apple says, is his. The top level of supers is what he can harvest and sell.

The first five colonies had not progressed enough to warrant a new level of supers. He opened the last box.

“OK, here’s what you would want to see,” he said.

The bees were buzzing away and had created a dense layer of comb on each of the supers.

He added a box of supers to the colony, slowly, so as not to anger the bees.

“OK, guys, nighty-night,” he said as he replaced the lid.

Apple tries to recover as many swarms as he can from the area, and “every inch counts,” he said. The colony collapse has decreased the number of swarms and weakened colonies, but his response is to “bite the bullet.”

“There ain’t much I can do. I just hope it don’t overcome me,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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