- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

U.S. growers

seek extra hives

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — More than $15 billion in U.S. crops rides each year on the tiny legs of an insect.

The honeybee is the major carrier of pollen for seeded fruits and just about anything that grows on a vine — in other words, everything from apples to zucchini.

“If honeybees ceased to exist, two-thirds of the citrus, all of the watermelons, the blueberries, strawberries, pecans and beans would disappear,” said Jerry Hayes, chief of apiary inspection with the state’s Division of Plant Industry.

But now it’s the bee that is disappearing.

Under attack from a Southeast Asian parasite, vast numbers of the creatures are dying off, worried industry experts say. More than 50 percent of the bees in California, critical to the success of the state’s almond crop, have died in the past six months. Frantic growers there have sent out the call around the world, including to Florida, for hives.

It’s not only California that’s suffering the ravages of the determined pest. Researchers say as many as 40 percent to 60 percent of the bees nationwide have perished during the same six-month period.

“It’s the biggest crisis that has ever faced the U.S. beekeeping industry,” said Laurence Cutts, president of the Florida State Beekeepers Association and a retired apiary inspector with the state Department of Agriculture.

Mr. Cutts lost two-thirds of his own beehives to the predator, an eight-legged animal no bigger than a grain of salt that attaches itself to a bee and sucks its internal fluids out — slowly.

It’s called the varroa mite, and it’s been in the United States since 1986, when it first showed up in Florida. But only in the past year has the pace of devastation increased. An entire hive can be wiped out within less than a year as the parasites — colloquially known as “vampire mites” — lodge in a hive and begin to reproduce.

“The varroa mites have become resistant to the chemicals we use to kill them,” said beekeeper Mark McCoy. “They need to come up with something that is going to work.”

Beekeepers from across the country and as far away as Australia have responded to California’s need for an additional 400,000 hives.

Apple growers in Virginia normally call on their own state’s beekeepers for pollination help, but not this year, said Troy Fore, executive director of the 1,200-member American Beekeeping Federation Inc., based in Jesup, Ga.

“Now those apple growers have also turned to Florida beekeepers to provide pollination because they have lost bees in Virginia to the mite,” Mr. Fore said.

But Florida needs its bees, and some industry observers suggest that it might already have given away too many.

“I really think you will see a crunch here in Florida in a couple of months,” said David Hackenberg, who operates hives in Dade City, Fla., and Lewisburg, Pa. “A lot of guys have lost a lot of bees. The watermelon guys are just starting, and they are already scrambling for bees.”

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