- Associated Press - Monday, February 9, 2015

HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. (AP) - When it comes to Henderson County’s $38.5 million fruit and vegetable economy, local extension agents say you can largely thank a winged insect from Europe.

Western honeybees, introduced to America by settlers in 1622, are responsible for pollinating about $15 billion worth of crops nationwide, said Cooperative Extension Director Marvin Owings Jr.

“They’re extremely important to our apple growers, particularly our fresh fruit growers - anyone growing small fruits such as blackberries - and vegetable farmers,” he said. “One out of every three mouthfuls of food you eat every day is thanks to a honeybee.”

But honeybee populations have been in severe decline for more than a decade, apiarists say, thanks to a combination of pesticide use, loss of foraging habitat, climate change, parasites, viruses and predatory insects.

“Billions of dollars have been spent on pest control without the consideration of consequences on the honeybees and other useful pollinators,” said David Stallings, vice president of the Henderson County Beekeepers Association.

Part of the problem, Stallings says, is that most of the estimated 2 million honeybee colonies left in the U.S. are part of a commercial pollination industry that trucks hives all across the country, spreading crippling diseases and parasites.

So just as agricultural groups have begun promoting locally grown foods, the Henderson County Beekeepers are pushing homegrown bees. Hobbyists can help meet local pollination needs with bee colonies acclimated to this area, they say, using fewer chemical drugs than large commercial apiaries need.

The association recently kicked off its annual six-week Beekeeping School at Mountain Horticultural Crops Research station in Mills River to help foster a new generation of apiarists trained to provide the pollinators, honey and beeswax of the future.

Co-sponsored by the local Extension Service office, the school meets every Monday from 7-9 p.m. through March 2. Topics covered include the biology and life cycle of honeybees; getting started with small, nucleus hives; swarm control methods; nectar plants; hive products; and dealing with brood diseases, parasites and nest scavengers.

Once the school is over, association leaders say their group continues to provide support and guidance to newbie beekeepers, a necessity in today’s complex apiary environment. Weather permitting, the group holds workshops at Historic Johnson Farm on Saturday mornings.

“Over the last 25-plus years, beekeeping has changed dramatically,” Stallings said. “The introduction of new parasites, viruses, predators and chemicals has complicated the simple management practices of the past.”

NCBA President Stuart Van Meter, who manages about 60 colonies between Mills River and Hendersonville, said honeybees are susceptible to a wide range of issues: tracheal and Varroa mites, small hive beetles, deformed wing virus, foulbrood and other maladies.

“Tracheal mites were a major concern in Europe and it was scary when they reached America,” he said. “Then we got Africanized bees and Varroa mites. Everybody looked for a quick fix, and the quick fix was pesticides. We’ve got drugs now that will kill 98 percent of the mites.”

But the very chemicals designed to protect honeybees were taking their own toll, Van Meter said. The side effects of mite pesticides and other hive drugs weakened the bees’ immune systems, altered their nervous systems and endangered reproduction.

“They leave the hive and they can’t figure out how to get back,” he said. “Their foraging abilities are sacrificed. And if the queen is exposed (to mite pesticides), it kills half the sperm that she’s carrying around. That’s not even addressing what happens to the drones’ reproductive systems, so we’re ending up with queens who aren’t mated well.”

To address the issue, the beekeepers association has been managing three or four colonies of honeybees at Johnson Farm with no chemicals over the last five or six years. They learned that Varroa mites can be managed organically by interrupting the parasites’ life cycle.

“Varroa mites can only reproduce in a (honeycomb) cell that’s been capped,” Van Meter explained. “They go in the day before the cell is capped and live off the pupa in there. So if we remove the queen (bee) at certain times of the year when the Varroa tends to expand their populations, there’s no place for the pregnant mite to reproduce.”

The chemical-free approach has been a success, Van Meter said. The three hives at Johnson Farm are healthy, he said, despite being peered into and regularly bumped by beginning beekeepers.

Every spring, the association sells about 400 to 500 new colonies to beekeepers. The effort has helped bridge the gaps created by massive honeybee die-offs and colony collapses locally and afar.

“We had people who drove down here from Michigan and Indiana to get whatever colonies we had because they lost their first plantings of cucumbers and squash up there because they didn’t have the pollinators,” Van Meter said. “There have been apple farmers around here desperate for bees. It’s hard to get them.”

The cost of the Henderson County Beekeeping School is $35 for a new individual or $40 for a family. The price includes six sessions, a textbook by Keith Delaplane, Historic Johnson Farm workshops and membership for 2015 in the HCBA. To register, visit hcbeepers.org.

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Information from: Times-News, https://www.blueridgenow.com


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