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Local bee population continues to decline as problems with mites mount

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During April, the Bee Informed Partnership, of which the University of Maryland is a major participant, conducts a national survey on the state of the bee population and the number of bee colonies lost during the prior year.

In the 2014-2015 survey, about 44 percent of bee colonies were lost, and once again the data showed that the bees died in the summer as well as the winter. While it’s normal to lose bees in the colder months, it should not be happening during the summer, said University of Maryland Assistant Professor Dennis van Engelsdorp.

Results of the current survey are expected to be released mid-May.

“Locally, here in Montgomery County and the D.C. area, bee hive losses are pretty high, 40 to 50 percent,” said Jim Frazier, owner of the Maryland Honey Company in Gaithersburg.

He blamed several factors, including poor beekeeping, harsh chemical pesticides, the loss of flowers for nutrition and the dreaded varroa mite, the biggest problem by far.

The varroa mite is a parasite that attacks honeybees. This mite can reproduce only in a honeybee colony. These mites suck the blood from both adult honeybees and their developing young.

When mites go undetected, they can destroy a whole colony, and a backyard beekeeper may not even know what happened. And, because these mites can travel up to 2 miles, beekeepers may eradicate the mite from their yards, only to find them right back there again, van Engelsdorp said.

After someone treats a hive, “a month later, they are through the roof,” he said of the number of mites.

While beekeepers may be reluctant to spray pesticides at these mites for fear of damaging their bees, Frazier said, it’s extremely important to kill them. There are ways to do so without using harsh chemicals that can cause damage to the area.

However, Frazier, stressed, if pesticides are used exactly as the directions spell out, there shouldn’t be a problem. He uses MiteAway Quick Strips, a natural product, he said.

Harsh pesticides do the worst damage at major beekeeping sites in this country’s farmland, where chemicals are sprayed over a wide area, Frazier said. “It has to be a pretty direct hit” for the chemical to harm the bees, and since many beekeepers in this area only have between two and 10 hives in their backyards, it’s not a serious problem, he said.

The worse type of insecticide for bees is the neonicotinoid. Bees that feed on neonicotinoid-contaminated pollen and nectar tend to produce fewer offspring.

The Environmental Protection Agency last month refused to ban the chemical chlorpyrifos, which was on a list to be outlawed by the Obama administration. Farmers use this to kill pests on their crops, but van Engelsdorp said that chlorpyrifos doesn’t affect bee colonies.

When the EPA bans a chemical, he said, others are soon created that “tend to be a little more toxic to bees,” he said.

He strongly urged all homeowners, whether they are beekeepers or not, to “ask themselves why they are using pesticides in my backyard.” He said pesticides should only be used “when needed, and make sure they are needed.”

Use organic acids instead, he said.

George Meyer, president of the Montgomery County Beekeepers Association, has 200 hives in Silver Spring, Takoma Park and along the Eastern shore.

“It’s the greatest hobby every,” he said. When he is with his bees, he is not thinking about work. “You are totally in the moment,” he said. “It’s endlessly interesting.”

The varroa mite came to this country in the late 1980s, he said. “That mite has caused havoc and pandemonium, and wherever it has gone, it continues to cause pandemonium.”

Before that mite, beekeepers in this area tended to lose between 8 and 10 percent of their bees each year. Now, it’s more like 60 percent, Meyer said.

“Beekeeping is a lot harder and more expensive,” he said, especially when a beekeeper must keep replenishing the supply.

While pesticides aren’t good, “it’s the mites” that cause all the problems, he said.

Generally, one hive can produce 40 to 60 pounds of honey, he said.

@SuzannePollak

 

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