- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2001

DUNKIRK, Md. — With bare hands, Bob Cory reaches into the swirl of bees around the hives he keeps in a corner of his backyard.

Wearing a protective white suit covered with dark brown honey stains, he pulls out a white board and scans it closely, unscathed by the buzzing cloud that jumps when he disturbs the bee colony.

Mr. Cory, 75, is hunting for the tiny red dots that are varroa mites, a voracious pest that latches onto honeybees and sucks their blood like a tick. They can destroy an entire colony in less than a year.

"Imagine you had a tick on you the size of a softball," he said. "That's what it's like for the honeybee."

Mr. Cory was lucky this year. Varroa and other mites destroyed only seven of the 15 hives he tends in Southern Maryland. But that's more than the usual two he loses over a winter.

A combination of pesticide-resistant mites and wet weather devastated bee populations, wiping out more than half of Maryland's bees this winter and devastating hives in many regions of the country.

Beekeepers are now struggling to rebuild their colonies, while farmers who rely on the insects to pollinate their crops have had difficulty finding available hives to place in their fields.

Bee colonies from Massachusetts to Illinois were socked by varroa and mites that infest the bees' breathing tubes. Vermont, the largest honey producer in New England, lost 20 percent of its hives.

"Some keepers along the East Coast have had significant losses this winter, approaching 80 to 90 percent of their colonies in some cases," said Jeff Pettis, an entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bee Research Lab in Beltsville and president of the American Association of Professional Apiculturists.

The losses have been especially tough on Maryland's 898 recreational and commercial beekeepers, who rent their hives to farmers and tap them for honey.

"It was one of the worst seasons we've experienced in the past 30 years and the worst I've seen in my 20 years of beekeeping," said Dean Burroughs, president of the Maryland State Beekeepers Association.

Mr. Burroughs and other commercial beekeepers have been scrambling to meet the demand from farmers who depend on bees to pollinate their watermelons, apples, strawberries and other crops that flower each spring and summer.

Mr. Burroughs lost roughly 60 percent of his 110 hives last winter, and he has been busy spreading the remaining colonies on fields around Maryland's Eastern Shore. He was fully booked by April this year.

Even with modern farming equipment, bees are the most efficient pollinators of crops, producing healthier and larger fruits and vegetables. They can average 20,000 per hive.

A recent Cornell University study estimated that regular honeybee pollination adds between $5 billion to $20 billion of value to crop production each year nationally, Mr. Pettis said. Maryland agricultural officials estimate state crops benefit by roughly $40 million.

"Bees are critical to agriculture," said I. Barton Smith, the Maryland Department of Agriculture's apiary inspector. "But it's like any other field of agriculture. You have good years and not-so-good years."

This year is shaping up to be a bad one. The bee shortage started last summer, when heavy rains washed away much of the flower nectar that bees collect to make honey, the food they depend on during winter months.

Many colonies weren't able to store up the roughly 60 pounds they need to survive the winter, leading to starvation. Beekeepers like Mr. Cory fed sugar to their hives but couldn't make up for the honey shortage.

Bees heading into the winter already were weakened by infestations of mites. Imported to the United States from Asia in the mid-1980s, varroa had been kept in check by chemically treated strips placed in the hives. This year, though, many farmers found the mites had developed a resistance to the pesticide.

Varroa especially are destructive because they also attack bee larvae, either killing developing bees outright or causing serious deformities when they hatch.

Keepers like Mr. Burroughs have tried to replenish their hives by buying new queen bees through the mail. They then split their surviving hives among the new queens.

"Most beekeepers have built up their strength this spring, but they're not going to make much of a crop of honey this year," Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Cory has been busy harvesting his honeycombs in his basement "bee room." The glassed-in chamber is filled with vats and tools for extracting the rich amber-colored honey, all in a temperature-controlled environment to ensure the product doesn't spoil.

He sells the honey to a farm stand down the road for about $2 per pound. But he says this summer's production should be only about 900 pounds, compared with his 2,000-pound harvest two years ago.

Although Mr. Cory doesn't need the honey for money, he takes pride in his beekeeping skills. And he's a bit disappointed in himself this year for sticking with the pesticide that the mites now tolerate.

"I've been at this 36 years," he said with a chuckle, "and I'm still making mistakes."

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