What Happened to Honey Bees?

honey bees

honey bees

If your plum tree gave fewer plums than expected these last few years and if your zucchini squash have not been as abundant in recent summers as they should have been, it’s probably not your fault. Lack of produce in your backyard is, in all likelihood, due to the fact that there are significantly fewer honeybees in the United States to pollinate the flowers of the plum and of the squash, to say nothing of the grapefruit, apple, avocado, almond, cranberry, pumpkin, strawberry and many other crops.
The reason for the reduction in the honeybee population is the appearance and proliferation of parasitic mites during the last three years. These mites suck the protein from the blood of honeybees, weakening or killing them. Two kinds of mites are involved: tracheal mites, which live in the bees’ breathing passages, and Verroa mites, which live in the bees’ bodies. Both kinds of mites are minuscule; the Verroa mite, however, is visible to the naked eye as a pinhead-sized red dot (not to be confused with spider mites, which are also red, that inhabit landscape ornamentals).
These mites have decimated the population of feral or wild honeybees across the country. In Minnesota, for example, backyard bees, most of which come from wild colonies, have vanished. Mike Agnew, a beekeeper with colonies in Monterey Park and in the San Gabriel Mountains, said that, in all of 1996, he received only three calls reporting discoveries of wild swarms in the Los Angeles area, whereas, previously, he would receive 50 to 60 such calls each year.
The disappearance of backyard bees is troubling, but not nearly the disaster that the demise of commercial beekeeping would be. In Agnew’s words, “One-third of what you touch and one-third of what you eat depends on bees.” Beeswax, from which honeycombs are made, is found in the circuit boards of computers, in the gelatin capsules of medicines, in makeup and other cosmetics. The American menu is made possible, in large part, by the honeybee. Not only are fruits and vegetables honeybee dependent, so are all meat and milk products as well. Alfalfa hay is used as fodder for beef cattle and dairy cows, and it could not be grown but for the honeybee that is required in alfalfa pollination and seed production.
And also, of course, bees are needed for making honey. Due to the ravages of parasitic mites in bee colonies worldwide, wholesale honey prices have doubled in the last year. According to Rosen, California sage honey – made from the nectar of sage flowers – is especially prized because it is light in color and never crystallizes (turns to sugar). California is one of the major honey-producing states, along with Florida and the Dakotas. Rosen also informed me that honey should be kept at room temperature and never refrigerated.
Our vanishing honeybee is an import. It originated in Asia, but established itself in Europe and later was brought to North America, probably during the colonization of Jamestown, Va., in the 1620s. It spread across this continent with western expansion, during the next 250 years. In the 1920s, tracheal mites were observed in honeybees on the Isle of Wight, off the coast of England. From that time, the import of honeybees to this country was banned. In 1984, the tracheal mite finally appeared in the United States, in Florida and in California, having come from Latin America. This mite now is present in most states, resulting in colony losses of 50 percent in many areas. The Verroa mite, which arrived in 1987, has compounded the problem.
Fortunately, commercial beekeepers have found ways of controlling mites in their colonies. Menthol crystals are placed in colonies; fumes from the crystals are taken into the honeybees’ breathing tubes and kill the tracheal mites, which nest there. Grease patties, made of vegetable shortening and sugar, are put under colonies and ingested by bees, giving younger and older bees a similar odor – which confuses the tracheal mites who are used to invading younger bees. Verroa mites are deterred by plastic strips containing fluvalonate, a synthetic pyrethrin. Rosen says that she must use the strips to prevent a dramatic drop in the population of her colonies.
Eric Mussen, an entomologist from the University of California, Davis, says more backyard beekeepers are needed if gardeners want to assure themselves of home-grown produce. In fact, there are quite a few local beekeepers; they generally keep a low profile because nuisance ordinances may not allow beekeeping in some neighborhoods. Such ordinances clearly deserve re-evaluation in view of the current honeybee crisis.
It seems ironic that just a short time ago, everyone was worried about the Africanized, so-called killer bees, which had reached Arizona and even crossed into California. So far, these bees have not been able to secure a foothold in our state. Their colonies also have been depleted by parasitic mites.
General Mills has been instrumental in spreading the word about the honeybee problem. Its interest is personal, since it manufactures Honey Nut Cheerios. To receive a free information package about what’s happening with the bees, call (800) 362-2006. If you wish to contribute to honeybee research, which General Mills is helping to fund, you can learn how to do so by calling this number.
The possibility of creating a genetically engineered honeybee that would be unaffected by mites is being pursued. At the same time, researchers in Europe and Asia are being encouraged to find a natural parasite – be it fungus or a virus – of the mites that live off of honeybees.

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