- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

NATCHEZ, Miss. (AP) - Ken Ensminger is going into this spring with 8.4 million fewer friends.

Since January, the Concordia Parish, Louisiana, beekeeper has seen 42 of his 144 hives die, losing 200,000 bees with each failed hive.

“Pesticides are my thinking on what caused it,” Ensminger said. “One theory is they get out there and get into some kind of chemical, bring it in and put it in our hives where they live with it, and when you look up, they are dead.”

The deaths highlight increasing challenges for beekeepers, whose industry not only includes cottage operations but often loaning bees to other parts of the country during slow months of the year at home.

For example, Ensminger ships some of his hives to California every year to help pollinate in the almond groves because of a shortage of bees there.

“Every bee from the U.S. - everybody - ships to California and it requires two hives per acre,” Ensminger said. “Without bees, they would make about $600 per acre, whereas with two hives of bees they can make $1,200 to $1,400 per acre.”

The almond farmers will pay $160 a hive, and it costs approximately $40 to ship it there and back, Ensminger said.

While there’s money to be made in renting out bees, there’s also risk, Adams County beekeeper Mac Metcalfe said.

“When you go out to California, you are bringing your diseases, and they are bringing their diseases, and you are getting everybody’s diseases from across the United States all flying around in those orchards,” he said.

The key is getting bees in to do the work and then getting them out, Ensminger said.

“The ones that don’t get out of there fast, the almond producers go out and spray a fungicide that makes them sick,” he said.

The value of the bees work in pollination at home - not including their cross-country contributions - can hardly be exaggerated.

According to the Mississippi State University Extension Service, honeybees contribute a value to pollination of fruits, berries, vegetables, sunflowers, cotton, soybeans and other plants of more than $200 million annually.

The bees are likewise important to the pollination of noncommercial plants, making them a key component of the overall ecosystem.

They’re also facing population challenges. According to the MSU extension service, tracheal and varroa mites have killed thousands of colonies in the last 30 years, and feral bee colonies have seen reductions as well.

While pesticides can help keep the mites in check, the fight is getting more difficult as the mite has adapted to overuse of the chemicals, Metcalfe said.

“Most all commercial bee keepers fight these mites with different pesticides, but we have developed and bred and created this super mite that most pesticides won’t kill anymore,” he said.

“This mite vectors at least 28 viruses, and the one it is most famous for is called deformed wing virus, where when the bees hatch out they have twisted, deformed, gnarly wings that are a third smaller than they should be, and in some occasions the bee will be born with no wings at all, and so what you have is all this effort and resources that have gone into producing and making this bee that can’t perform, so it makes your worker force diminish rather than improve.”

Ensminger and Metcalfe both said commercial corn production likewise presents a challenge for bees.

“Corn and soybeans don’t require bees, but corn is our biggest enemy because they put a pesticide on the seed of the corn, and when it tassels out it has that insecticide on top of the tassel,” Ensminger said. “They feed it to the larvae in the hive and they die.”

Concordia and Tensas Parishes in Louisiana have a million acres of corn, which self-pollinates, Metcalfe said.

But - in addition to carrying traces of pesticides - the corn pollen doesn’t provide what the bees need even though they like it, he said.

“Corn pollen can travel for miles and miles and miles,” Metcalfe said, “These honeybees, their body and the hair follicles on their bodies are static electrically charged like a magnet, so them just flying through the air while the corn pollen is there pick a lot of it up.

“They take it back to the hive and feed it to the larvae, and as these bees hatch out they basically don’t have the vigor that my bees have right now.”

Nationwide, bee losses in recent years have been at 30 percent, Metcalfe said.

“That’s not sustainable,” he said.

Good management can help stem losses.

Ensminger said he should be able to split his remaining hives and end the year with 245 hives.

Metcalfe said he’s started the year strong with sustainable hives - and that’s a good thing, not only for the bees but for production.

“You want your hives strong as they can be around the first of April,” he said. “The major honey flow runs to about the end of July, and under ideal circumstances you can start pulling honey at the end of April, again at the end of May, the end of June and one last time at the end of September if your bees are strong.”

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Information from: The Natchez Democrat, https://www.natchezdemocrat.com/

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