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Bee colony disorder to last

Colony collapse disorder (CCD), the mysterious phenomenon characterized by adult bees abandoning the hive, “is going to be with us for awhile." Declining bee populations are not new. Beginning in the late 1800s, bee journals reported major colony losses every 10 to 15 years. The spring of 2011 could be a challenge for California’s almond growers due to pollination problems.

Colony collapse disorder (CCD), the mysterious phenomenon characterized by adult bees abandoning the hive, may be due in part to an undiscovered microbe, but the malady “is going to be with us for awhile,” Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen predicted at the recent “Bee Informed” reception at the Citizen Hotel Historic Ballroom, Sacramento.

The event, a benefit for the Häagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California, Davis, raised $600 for the bee garden, a half-acre bee-friendly garden planted next to the facility.

Featuring desserts and drinks made with honey, along with honey tasting, the Bee Informed event “buzzed with happy guests,” said coordinator Elaine Baker, pastry chef at the Citizen Hotel/Grange Restaurant. “It was gratifying to see so many people interested in honey bees and how we can help and protect them,” Baker said.

Area beekeepers offered the guests a taste of honey, and also honey for sale.

Mussen, a noted honey bee authority and member of the UC Davis Department of Entomology faculty since 1976, updated the crowd about colony collapse disorder and talked about the health of honey bees.

“The news media wrongfully reports that 33 percent to 35 percent of our nation’s honey bees are dying of CCD,” he said.

“Thirty-three to 35 percent is the average; only 25 percent of beekeepers have reported CCD in their colonies. Some lost 40, 80 or 100 percent of their hives due to CCD. So CCD is not killing 33 percent of our bees.”

Mussen said that declining bee populations are not new. Beginning in the late 1800s, bee journals reported major colony losses every 10 to 15 years, he said. “The worst years were 1963, 1964 and 1965.”

“And,” Mussen said, “we’ve actually have had CCD since 2004. It  was brought to the attention of the news media in the winter of 2006-2007). “And we’re going to have CCD for awhile, too.”

CCD may be due to a multitude of factors that weaken the colony, he said. These include diseases, parasites, pesticides, malnutrition and stress. “There may be a new virus we haven’t found yet.”

Mussen also talked about what bees do.

“Bees must regulate the temperature and humidity of the hives, keeping the hive around 94 degrees for the brood,” Mussen said. In hot weather, the bees suspend their collection of nectar, pollen and propolis and just collect water, needed to cool the hive.

“Bees can use up to one gallon of water a day during the hot weather and use this for evaporative cooling,” he said. If it’s too hot in the hive, the wax will melt and the brood will die.

Mussen said baby bees grow rapidly. “In six days, a baby bee will weigh 1,000 times as much as it did when it hatched. That’s like an 8-pound baby weighing 4 tons in six days.”

During the spring and the rapid build-up period in the hive, a queen bee can lay 2,000 eggs a day, but later, this drops to about 1,000 a day, Mussen said. “Workers live only six weeks, so they have to be replaced to keep the colony from dying out. About 1,000 foragers die each day — mostly in the field. They just wear out.”

With CCD, “the brood is not being fed and, the hive is not being kept at the proper temperature. What we have are adult bees gone, but usually the queen bee left with dying brood but plenty of food storage.”

Pollination challenges for growers?

Next spring, Mussen said, could be a challenge for California’s almond growers. “Several years ago we had 700,000 acres of almonds in the state but now we have about 740,000 acres and growing. We need two hives to pollinate each acre. That’s way over a million colonies of bees we need.”

Mussen told the attendees that they can do their part in helping the bees stay healthy by planting bee-friendly plants, especially plants that bees can forage on in the late summer and fall when food is scarce. It’s important to provide water, such as in a birdbath. “Otherwise, bees will go for water in the dog dish or wet laundry hanging on the line,” he said.

He cautioned them against using pesticides in the garden.

Another way to help the bees “is to become a beekeeper,” he said. “If you start keeping bees for a year or two, you’re probably going to enjoy it and stay at it.”

Many beekeeping organizations sponsor beekeeping courses, and the veterans will take you under their wing, Mussen said.

Mussen teaches intermediate courses to the Sacramento Area Beekeepers’ Association and does research.

Turning to honey—which pastry chef Elaine Baker called “magical”—Mussen said this year’s honey crop is better than normal, and he said he is “optimistic” that honey bee health may be better this winter than the winter before.

When asked about Africanized bees, he said beekeepers in southern California must be careful that they don’t collect Africanized bee swarms. The bees may look fine at first, but can get very defensive, he said.

The farthest county north where they’ve been found is Madera County. “Beekeepers believe they’re in Fresno County, but officially only Tulare County is considered ‘colonized’.”

Mussen pointed out that Africanized drones can mate with European queens and the colonies may become aggressive. A microchrondial (DNA) test is used to classify honey bees in California as Africanized.

Speaker Stephen "Steve" Covey of the Covey Family Apiary keeps bees in Lake County and the San Francisco Bay Area. "I have honey running through my veins; we have four generations of beekeepers in our family," he said. He kept bees in his youth, and beekeeping — including collecting swarms — helped pay his way through college.

Beekeeping is timeless,” he said. “It’s a mind set, a frame of mind. It’s connecting with the earth and helping the overall cause of protecting pollinators. It’s learning about the science of bees and the natural mystery of bees.”

To keep bees, you need space, time, money and understanding of bees, he said. Covey, a full-time landscape architect who considers beekeeping a personal passion rather than a money-making venture, said that most years he doesn’t break even but “it’s a great hobby.”

“How do you start?” he asked. He advocated purchasing a beginning beekeeping book, planting a bee garden, joining a beekeeping organization and attending bee conferences. “I’m still asking questions,” he said. “You learn things like not opening the hives in the middle of winter. It’s like learning to drive.”

If you want to set up beekeeping in your backyard, it’s important to know the city, county and state regulations, Covey said. “And talk to your neighbors before you do it.”

“Honey is an excellent bribe, especially if you can do it regularly,” quipped a fellow beekeeper.

For the “Bee Informed” event, pastry chef Baker prepared mini-desserts made with honey, obtained from area beekeepers. Also served were drinks laced with honey.

“It was a great success,” Baker said. “Fantastic speakers, terrific vendors, delicious cocktails and desserts, not to mention all the beautiful honey.”

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