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Texas beekeeper sheds light on colony loss

Busy Bee
Bee colony loss has jumped significantly, but local operators note reasons and solutions

Scientists who study the worldwide decline in bee colony collapse disorder, are quick to point out many contributing factors to the phenomenon, including varroa mite invasions and agricultural pesticides.

According to researchers at Auburn University, who conducted a comprehensive nationwide study and survey among professional and part time beekeepers, a 40 percent loss of managed honeybee colonies between April 1, 2017, and March 31, 2018 occurred, an increase of almost seven percent from the previous year’s total loss rate.

Also, according to the survey, greater colony mortality during the 2017-2018 winter months pushed the overall loss rate higher, with survey respondents reporting a 30.7 percent rate-of-loss from October to April. That is up from 2016-2017’s record low of 21.1 percent and is 2.8 percent higher than the 10-year average winter loss rate.

The 2017-2018 data set the acceptable loss rate at 20.6 percent, up from 18.7 percent in 2016-2017 and the highest percentage since the survey began in 2006-2007.

As of May 14, some 4,794 beekeepers who collectively manage 175,923 colonies, or 6.6 percent of the nation’s 2.67 million managed honeybee colonies, had responded to the survey, representing all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.

Texas Beekeepers add local insight

While the loss of hives and colonies remains a conundrum for apiarists and entomologists, beekeepers in the Texas Crossroads (near Victoria) are offering their thoughts based upon their experiences and observations.

Joe Swaney of Yoakum has been a beekeeper for 12 years and grew up in a family of beekeepers. His mother and father abandoned their apiaries when their son was 13 years old after he was seriously stung by multiple bees.

“My dad taught us to watch where they were going, and we would chase after them and catch them,” Swaney told the Victoria Advocate earlier this month. “Instead of them going somewhere new, they started attacking me. They stopped counting after they pulled 100 stingers out of my head.”

The event didn’t keep Swaney from getting into the business later in life though.

“It’s more of an art than a science to me. Bees change their habits,” Swaney said, pointing out that drought can greatly affect bee survival. “When flowers dry up, the bees will swarm in search of a new location.”

He says he believes part of the problem to falling bee numbers is more and more property owners are turning pastures into Coastal Bermuda fields to produce hay for livestock. Hew says he understands their reasoning behind it, but said he believes Coastal Bermuda tends to “sterilize the land” compared with other types of grasses. In the very least, he wishes there was a way ranchers could wait until after flowers bloom before planting their fields for hay.

He noted that one year there were flowers growing in large numbers across the road from his hives. But after the summer heat dried up the flowers, his bees abandoned their hives and moved to 'greener pastures’ where they could find flowering plants that were still growing.

“Bees have two stomachs, one for storing pollen where enzymes are added, and the other to eat food to sustain them,” he says, adding that both are equally important for the successful production of honey.

Swaney says this past winter temperatures were colder around Victoria and the Crossroads region, and that created problems that affected bee survival. Swaney, the president of the Golden Crescent Beekeeper Association, says during long periods of cold, bees lose their food supply.

He says scientists are not completely sure what causes a colony collapse, but says there are, without question, many contributing factors. Swaney lost 15 hives over the winter months this year and says starvation and varroa mites are two of the biggest culprits. Another problem that will cause bees to abandon their established hive are ants. When ants arrive in large numbers, the bees will simply move to another area.

Swaney says he creates winter food for his bees using a sugar and water mixture combined with a little honey and pollen mixture that has helped to get them through the winter months.

Paul Hamilton, an amateur beekeeper in Victoria, says he moves his hives from his backyard to a friend’s property about 25 miles away. But he says the move did result in one of the hives contracting a disease, chronic paralysis. He was able to save the hive (so far) by purchasing a new Queen over the Internet and introducing her to the hive, which has been showing signs of recovery.

Yet another Victoria beekeeper, Michael Olson, says he moves his wild bees each year to a new location as well, but says he deals only with wild bees and makes no effort to cross Africanized varieties with the more popular Western variety.

“Bees tend to take care of themselves if left unchanged by human activity,” he said.

Olson says none of his hives have suffered from disease and collapse in recent years, and attributes it to maintaining only feral bees.

For the past several years he has operated a bee removal service in the Crossroads area. He believes it the better choice over exterminating hives for convenience.

TAGS: Conservation
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