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Beekeepers face a complex future

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Articles - October 2010
Monday, September 27, 2010
The beekeepers at Foothills Honey Company in Colton manage 5,000 hives. Says owner George Hansen: “We ask a lot of hard work of bee
The honeybee is without a doubt the irresistible part of this story. A winsome insect, with six legs, two compound eyes, three simple eyes, two sets of wings, a nectar pouch and a stomach, it is famously industrious, clean and organized, not to mention an exceptional team player, good construction engineer and loyal guard. The honeybee even does a cute hokey-pokey — the so-called waggle dance — that tells co-workers where to find food. It generously provides the only insect-produced food eaten by humans.

Over the millennia, honeybees also have become critical soldiers for the agriculture industrial complex. Pulled out of deep hibernation, bundled up and shipped all over the place, they are subjected to much stress and disease. But they get the job done. On their hairy little backs rest the worldwide responsibility for 80% of all insect pollination. The annual value of the 90 crops in the U.S. that require pollination by honeybees is estimated at $24 billion; in Oregon it’s almost half a billion dollars.

When their numbers began to plummet in the winter of 2006, the modest and generally unsung honeybee was in the spotlight. Headlines shouting “Honeybee disaster!” were followed by many stories of the mysterious CCD, colony collapse disorder, which were followed by much worry about the fate of the bee and the complete and total collapse of the food supply if the mysterious bee losses continued. The state re-funded the vacant bee researcher position at Oregon State University and Oregon’s small and politically insignificant commercial beekeepers — only about two dozen own and manage 90% of the 50,000 colonies in the state — gained new support.

Web only content: More about honeybees

pdfPacific Northwest Honey Bee Pollination Economics Survey 2009, by Michael Burgett

pdfHoney Bee Mortality in the Pacific Northwest: Winter 2008/2009, by Michael Burgett, Dewey Caron, et al

pdfU.S. Pollination Markets: Recent Changes and Historical Perspective, Michael Burgett, et al

Keeping honeybees healthy has been a longtime battle. When the Varroa mite came to North America in 1987, it decimated the population (which is native to Europe), and recovery over the decades has been hard-won. In Oregon, this is the fourth year of bee losses of 25% or higher. Researchers agree there is not just one reason, but many possible ones: bad weather, poor nutrition, stress, pesticides, weak queens, loss of habitat, and mites that have become resistant to treatment and are transmitting viruses, which is new.

“The beekeepers have been having a problem for a long time,” says W. Steve Sheppard, an entomologist with Washington State University. “So the reaction that we’ll lose our bees and they’ll cease to exist was a little over the top. But we’re doing some things differently. Beekeepers are much more aware of colony health. They’ve become better beekeepers, the more successful ones.”

It comes down to the better beekeepers. While honeybee losses are serious, there is no longer panic. Better now to worry about their human handlers because the irrefutable part of this story is that it rests on the backs of that small cadre of dedicated commercial beekeepers to keep the honeybee thriving. Without them, the honeybee most certainly would be in deeper Bandini.



Portland Bizzy Bee
0 #1 Native PollinatorsPortland Bizzy Bee 2010-09-30 15:55:49
Nicely written article Robin. Please consider writing a postscript in the future that provides some ink to the growing domestication and use of native pollinators (e.g. orchard mason bees, horn faced bees, and leaf cutter bees).

For the past several years, some entomologists have been working with almond growers in California on the use of orchard mason bees. I know this, because that's where the bulk of my surplus bees have gone over the past few years.

Successful native bee management requires a fundamentally different approach to agriculture. Monoculture crops don't co-exist well with native pollinators. However, there are cases of growers who are creating insectaries and planting diverse crops that make their farms more hospitable to native pollinators.

A couple of entreprenueurs in Washington are working on plans to develop large scale orchard mason bee businesses. Xerces Society, which is based in Portland, is the national leader in native pollinator research
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