Local bees -- safely hived-up for the winter?

Special to the S-E

Summer of 2015 was an eye-opener for locals who enjoy flowers. Dead bees were showing up around petunias, for example. Those who follow Friends of the Earth (FOE) were quick to draw the connection: neonicotinoids (a.k.a. neonics), sprayed on the plants before arrival in local stores, were likely at fault.

Neonics, an insecticide found in over 40 agricultural treatments, are widely used on 140 crops. Some seeds are coated with it, with the end result being nectar and pollen that are poisoned.

In 2013, the European Union banned most of the widely-used neonics. Germany followed suit. In Italy, the restriction of neonics resulted in a significant reduction of beehive losses: from 37.5 percent losses prior to the restrictions, then down to 15 percent after.

But in the U.S., where 40 percent of hives now die annually, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has so far not pursued meaningful neonic restrictions, other than to put a moratorium on new uses, says Ed Begley, Jr., actor and Friends of the Earth’s (FOE) chair of their Global Stewardship Council.

There are two primary concerns that prompt FOE to ask the EPA to take neonics seriously: the European Food Safety Authority says neonics “may affect the developing nervous system” of children. And the bees themselves, even when not killed outright by neonic applications, suffer weakened immune systems and “impaired critical brain functions,” Begley says. That impairment makes it difficult for bees to find their food sources, and makes them vulnerable to disease and pests.

As is common in life, there is not always just one culprit behind a problem. Wolohan, a recently retired Northport area beekeeper, points to a number of other challenges that also face beekeepers. Wolohan and his wife, Diane Hall, were in business for 35 years as Rainbow Honey. Their bees gathered nectar both locally and from as far away as Fresno, CA. Before shipping their bees to far-off destinations, they would be assessed for health, in particular bacterial disease and presence of mites.

Mites began showing up in the early 1980’s and Wolohan says they likely came from southeast Asia and the U.K. Bee die-offs accelerated from at most 15% before mite arrival to up to 65% after the mites’ arrival. “In some cases it was a complete wipe-out,” Wolohan recalls. In Rainbow Honey’s worst year, they lost two-thirds of their bees and considered quitting.

There are medications intended to remedy the mite issue, but Wolohan says that in their first year they are 97% effective, and then over a few years become ineffective. “The trick was to hope a new treatment came out by the time it was needed…but that didn’t always happen,” he says.

If a beekeeper sees a 25 to 35% loss, Wolohan says the hives can be split up and formed into new hives. But when the losses go beyond that, the costs “start piling up.” Money goes for new queens and more feed, and it all takes more time to get back on track.

One of the reasons Wolohan and Hall decided to settle in Northport was because it was a relatively safe environment for bees: it lacked large-scale commercial farming.

Read the full story in the Nov. 29, 2016 edition of the Statesman-Examiner.