Bee health remains fragile

Winter decline was down in Virginia, but still above U.S. average

Honey bees are dying at an alarming rate throughout Virginia, according to a Bee Informed Partnership (BIP) survey that found between last October and this April nearly 33 percent of managed honey bee colonies perished.

That’s higher than the national bee loss rate (23.2 percent), but less than Virginia’s 44.6 percent loss rate last winter. It seems Rappahannock isn’t immune to this alarming decrease either; two Rappahannock County beekeepers — one a veteran, one a relative newcomer —reported significant losses in their own colonies.

Kelly Atlas-Bauche of Castleton is a second-year beekeeper who said she’s long been fascinated by the creatures and started beekeeping in early 2013. Last year, she said, she had a surprisingly good harvest — extracting 30 pounds of honey and not experiencing a single colony loss.

This year has been a different story, she said. Despite an increase in production — Atlas-Bauche’s Italian bee colonies produced about 150 pounds of honey this year — she said she lost four of her original 11 colonies. “Two of them just up and left,” she said.

Some of that could be attributed to beekeeper error, she explained. “I’m still relatively new to this,” she admitted, “but hives seem to be much more fragile and difficult to manage these days.”

But Atlas-Bauche suspects — as does BIP — that a number of outside factors contributed to the decline, including exposure to a number of harmful pesticides.

“The stuff that the wineries are spraying now — it’s not good,” Atlas-Bauche said. “I completely understand that you can’t keep wineries from spraying [their grape crops], but I would just encourage responsible spraying, taking into account the time of day, etc.”

Robert Wellemeyer said he’s also seen a precipitous drop in the number of colonies he’s able to keep at his Castleton-based Windsong Apiaries. Back in 2006, Wellemeyer, a Virginia state apiary inspector from whom Atlas-Bauche said she regularly solicits advice, kept about 1,200 colonies in his apiary; this year, he said he’s down to 400.

Wellemeyer also blames, at least in part, pesticide exposure for the colonies’ decline. “It’s a struggle,” Wellemeyer admitted. “It’s a fight just to keep them alive. I keep building them back up — or trying to build them up, rather.”

The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) reports that a single hive of 40,000 to 60,000 bees can, on average, pollinate two acres of crops. Their continued decrease could lead to inadequately pollinated crops for all farmers.

“These pollinators are essential for the development of our crops and crucial to the state’s $52 billion agriculture industry,” said VDACS state apiarist Keith Tignor. “In fact, insect-pollinated plants are the direct or indirect source of approximately one-third of our human diet.”

In fact, the need for bees — and apiarists willing to care for them — has gotten dire enough that the Obama administration created a special task force to address the issue. According to CNN, the task force was launched in June and is composed of Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture representatives. The group is attempting to determine why honey bees, monarch butterflies and other pollinators are dwindling and to find ways to ensure their conservation.

Additionally, next year’s federal budget recommends about $50 million for multiple agencies to help boost research, increase the number of acres dedicated to pollinators’ conservation programs and increase funding for research on pollinator losses.

VDACS is also joining in the effort to preserve the nation’s honey bee population, and offers frequent beekeeping classes and workshops. Two years ago, the Virginia General Assembly created the Beehive Grant Fund for the purpose of promoting the establishment of new beehives in the Commonwealth.

According to the group’s website, more than 275 grants have been awarded to Virginia beekeepers. In addition, beekeepers who purchase new hives (or the materials for a new hive) could receive between $200 and $2,400 from the BGF to put toward their efforts.

VDACS is also encouraging all Virginians to select plants known for attracting pollinators, to read the labels on all pesticides and follow instructions for their use. For more information on attracting pollinators, visit pollinator.org/guides.htm.

“I cried the first time I lost a hive,” Atlas-Bauche said. “I don’t deny it. You put so much work into it . . . . It’s heartbreaking.”

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