- The Washington Times - Monday, November 10, 2008

Ned Wall started beekeeping last fall after reading about colony collapse disorder, the mysterious affliction that has led to staggering losses in the industry. After doing a little more research, Mr. Wall decided to take about $30 worth of classes, buy some bees and try the business for himself.

It cost about $400 to get set up. “That’s my entire investment,” Mr. Wall said. “Next, I am going to buy some medicine. … It helps offset nosema, which is basically bee dysentery. That will be about $20, and that will get them over through winter.”

Mr. Wall said he has also been preparing his bees for the winter by feeding them sugar water. Although he said he didn’t find any honey this past year, he is expecting the honey next summer. Through the first year, the bees are busy building up wax before they can start producing honey.

“It’s a great hobby to have,” he said. “Whenever somebody finds out you’re a beekeeper, they want to talk to you about it because it’s kind of unusual.”

Mr. Wall said he found a group of beekeepers who met about three miles from his Maryland residence. His knowledge of colony collapse disorder did not deter him.

The phenomenon has killed 46 percent of the honeybee population throughout the United States since 2006. Jerry Fischer, an apiary inspector for the Maryland State Department of Agriculture, said the population has started to rise again. However, the issue still looms, and stress could be one of its leading causes.

Richard Fell, a professor of entomology at Virginia Tech, said, “We’ve got stress, poor nutrition, a complex of diseases and we’ve got problems with things such as pesticides that can all relate back to colony collapse disorder.”

Mr. Fell said local beekeepers have not been as affected by colony collapse disorder as commercial beekeepers. Commercial beekeepers move hives around to different farms so bees can pollinate crops. The bees’ stress levels are increased every time a hive is moved into a different area. The variety of crops to which the bees are exposed also can affect their health.

The numbers have been on the decrease since 1985, when scientists discovered diseases were hitting the bees. By 1995, the population decreased by 50 percent. Mr. Fell said the bee population did not fully recover. Between 10 percent and 30 percent of bees also die off throughout the winter.

Mr. Fell said he did not know whether the winter period was linked to the disorder. There is not a simple answer as to why the disorder may occur, he said, but it could be attributed to being underfed in the winter or disease-ridden.

The problem is nothing new to beekeepers. Mr. Fischer said other names for the phenomenon have been the “fall dwindling act” and the “disappearing syndrome.”

“I’ll be the first to admit that this is a phenomenon that has affected our industry,” Mr. Fischer said. “One-third of everything you eat is contributed to bee pollination. My coined phrase is if it were not for the honeybee, there would not be enough food on planet Earth to support life as we know it.”

Mr. Wall pursued his new hobby after he woke up one morning and decided to become a beekeeper. After taking proper classes, Mr. Wall was certified in the state of Maryland. Although he was nervous about pests killing his population, Mr. Wall learned an important lesson.

“Ultimately, the hive will let you know if there are problems with their hive,” Mr. Wall said. “You can tell that if you have a lot of bees or not. Sometimes you can tell by the temperament of the bees. For me, an important lesson was to intervene less in the hive.”

Mr. Wall wants to expand his bee colony in the spring because it has done so well this year. Mr. Wall is one out of the several new Maryland beekeepers to take their chances against colony collapse disorder.

Mr. Fischer explained that the Maryland bee population has not been affected by the disorder. Mr. Fischer has not seen a spike in honey costs, but he said costs of maintaining and buying new hives have increased because of the sluggish economy.

Mr. Fischer said the 10,000 registered bee colonies throughout Maryland have raised the crop value to $40 million.

Ann Harman, the president of the Virginia State Beekeepers’ Association, said the phenomenon has been more of a nuisance toward the west. Crops that could be affected by colony collapse disorder are almonds, cantaloupe, apples and cucumbers.

“We still grow apples in the U.S.,” Mrs. Harman said. “Without bee pollination, your apples would not be prolific or marketable.”

Mrs. Harman said the environment should be protected if the United States does not want to become a country that imports everyday food. She explained that if the bees died off, then the workers could go through a process of brushing flowers with chicken feathers. However, she said, the work is not cost effective for companies.

Mr. Wall understands the importance of honeybees’ work and that is a reason why many beekeepers, like him, started their colonies. His bees are able to fly around various plants to pollinate and bring honey back to the colony. The bees give Mr. Wall honey and help the environment.

Although many crops are pollinated by honeybees, Mr. Fell said, these pollinated crops affect only 35 percent of a human’s diet.

“When you look at where our food comes from, you will find it comes from grains,” Mr. Fell said. “They are wind-pollinated.”

The biggest concern beyond that, Mr. Fell said, is what will happen to wildlife.

“I think we all need to start protecting the habitat for bees,” Mrs. Harman said. “We do not have wild bees anymore.”

In fact, Mr. Wall had to import honeybees to start his hive. Mr. Wall’s hive consists of four boxes of various sizes that can weigh up to 80 pounds with honey in them. He said he has kept up with beekeeping books, but his experiences have overshadowed the literature.

“Ultimately, the bees haven’t read the books,” he said. “The bees do what the bees do. Sometimes the books will give you a clue as to what’s going on, but not always.”

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