EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 6, 2013

Secrets of the hive

Beekeepers and farmers worried about mysterious bee deaths

By Alex Lippa
alippa@eagletribune.com

---- — It is routine for Alden Marshall to lose bees during the cold winter months, but this year was something different.

“I usually lose around 20 to 30 percent of my bees,” the Hudson resident said. “But this year it was close to 50 or 60 percent.”

Marshall, a beekeeper who maintains hives at farms throughout Southern New Hampshire, is just one of many to experience a loss of bees.

"It's a huge concern for the future," said Michael Smolak of Smolak Farms in North Andover. "They pollinate our plants. This isn't an easy business and we rely on them to help grow our crops."

But the cause of their deaths remains a mystery.

Alan Eaton, an entomologist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, said the cause could be anything from the stress the bees are under to produce to pathogens in the air causing viruses.

“Various studies point to different factors of things causing problems with the way we handle domestic honeybee colonies," Eaton said.

In May, the Environmental Protection Agency released a report looking at Colony Collapse Disorder, which they say is the reason 10 million beehives have been lost in the last five years. The report concluded that varroa, a parasitic mite, is the most detrimental pest to the colonies.

But Marshall said the disorder hasn’t really affected his bees or those of other beekeepers he has spoken to throughout the state.

“I don’t think it is (Colony Collapse Disorder),” he said. “The true symptoms include absconding of live bees leaving behind young unemerged bees. That isn’t what’s happening here.”

Instead, Marshall said, it is primarily because of nosema, a fungus which affects bees’ digestion of pollen.

But, he said, it’s hard to tell if that’s the main cause.

“There is just so many viruses that aren’t even diagnosed,” Marshall said. “There could be diseases we don’t even know about.”

Rick Reault, the president of the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association, said the heavy usage of pesticides has killed off the bees.

“When you look at pesticides, herbicides and fungicides,” he said, "it’s basically like a toxic cocktail for bees. It’s a major reason why we see the population dwindle.”

Reault, who runs about 300 colonies, said last year he lost less than 5 percent of his bees. This year, he lost 30 percent.

“It’s a big concern and it puts a lot of pressure on maintaining them through the winter months,” he said. “If you don’t manage them properly, they will be gone.”

The massive loss of bees also has farmers concerned.

Smolak said he hasn’t seen his crops affected, but he is being careful when using pesticides to ensure his bees stay alive.

“I totally stopped using neonictinoids at the beginning of last year,” Smolak said. “I learned it was ineffective and doing more harm than good."

Neonictinoids were banned throughout Europe in April, which Eaton believes may be a worthy option in the United States.

“They've been proven to be dangerous,” Eaton said.

John Peters of Peters Farm in Salem said only two of his 10 hives survived this past winter.

“We’ve seen this for the last five to six years,” he said. “We’re very conscious of where we spray. It’s costing us a lot more money to bring in more hives.”

Reault said 10 years ago, Massachusetts released two species of beetles with the purpose of eliminating purple loosestrife, which was killing other native plants. Purple loosestrife is now near extinction, but the bees are bearing the brunt of that decision.

“It’s eliminated the late summer foraging crop for bees,” he said. “It makes it harder for them to survive the winter.”

Eaton said the more research is done, the easier it can be to pinpoint exactly what is causing the problem.

“It’s just been a perfect storm of problems,” he said. “It has become more significant in recent years.”