Beekeepers stung by disease

Congress has yet to recognize that a bee illness may injure crop production

Beekeeper Thomas Muncey is keeping a close eye on his hives, wondering what their diminished population means.

Beekeeper Thomas Muncey is keeping a close eye on his hives, wondering what their diminished population means.

Photo By David Robert

National Pollinator Week is June 24-30, coinciding with a congressional hearing. Northern Nevadans can write to their three congressmembers (below) to speak up for, or against, honey bees.

Sen. John Ensign
U.S. Senate
Washington D.C. 20510

Sen. Harry Reid
U.S. Senate
Washington D.C. 20510

Rep. Dean Heller
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington D.C. 20515

Nevada beekeepers are deeply concerned, but they aren’t describing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) as an apiculture apocalypse. Not yet, anyway.

More than producers of the sweet elixir, honey bees are an integral part of our ecosystem. No insect works harder pollinating flowers, fruits and vegetables. Dairy cows and the beef industry rely on honey bees to pollinate alfalfa and clover.

CCD, which has cut populations in some areas by 30-60 percent, is puzzling because the workers fly out to pollinate but never return. Eventually, only the queen, a few drones and her brood (bee babies) remain, along with a hive full of honey. Another puzzle is that no other animals rob the honey.

Honey bees flit from mint to strawberry in Thomas Muncey’s lush Fernley front yard. He’s a certified master beekeeper, working with honey bees for 38 years. He keeps his white hair in a pony tail, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, returning from his fourth swarm removal call of the day. On his last call, he collected 20,000 feral bees. When collecting a swarm, he places the queen into the box. Drones and workers follow, loaded with honey and looking for a new home. Muncey provides a home, putting the bees to work.

Thirty states report CCD losses. California is one. With the Golden State meeting 40 percent of our nation’s agricultural demands, the stakes are clear there, but are Nevada beekeepers suffering from CCD?

“We don’t really know,” Muncey says. “The bees are gone.” He says a hard winter took five of his 25 colonies in Fernley. But that’s not unusual. He’s met with apiarists from coast to coast. Beekeepers have battled disappearing condition since 1915, but never as profound as the losses some reported this year.

One Fallon beekeeper lost half of his 400 colonies after taking them to California for almond pollination a few months ago. These bees may have contracted CCD. Devastating losses make beekeepers less inclined to pack up their bees and rent them for pollination.

Not all bees are plagued by CCD. Africanized honey bees, called “killer bees” due to their aggressiveness, aren’t declining. Instead, these bees are pressing northward, mating with European honey bees.

Feral honey bees are swarming in Northern Nevada, seemingly increasing in numbers. Muncey says, “That’s a good omen.”

Still, CCD has beekeepers stumped. They have a long list of suspects—fungi, parasitic mites, bacterium, genetically modified food crops, weather changes, pollution, urban sprawl, poor diet, stress, in breeding, mobile phones radiation, thinning ozone, herbicides, pesticides, and overuse of antibiotics.

Despite pleas this year, Congress hasn’t allocated research funds to combat CCD. One-third of the food each citizen eats is linked with honey bees, but still no research dollars. With so little reliable research, myths and misinformation have plagued news coverage. In addition, the scale and urgency—and even the existence—of CCD remains a matter of dispute.

With no remedy in sight, Muncey foresees honey prices soaring, consumers paying much more for agriculture, and fewer beekeepers in business next year, perpetuating pollination perils. He says, “Beekeeping is always a gamble.” He’s betting on funding research for CCD and against end times for honey bees.