April 10, 2008

U.S. losing bees and beekeepers - USATODAY.com

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U.S. losing bees and beekeepers - USATODAY.com

"The number of bees is on the decline across the USA, and there's also a shortage of beekeepers.

The number of commercial beekeepers is dwindling because the business of keeping bees is not as profitable as it once was, according to Jeff Pettis, research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bee Research Laboratory in Maryland.

That decline in profitability is due in large part, Pettis said, to lower honey prices — the average U.S. price per pound dropped four-tenths of a cent over the past year. Keepers also face difficulty in keeping healthy bees resistant to Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which colonies experience a rapid loss of worker honeybees.

According to Troy Fore, executive director of the American Beekeeping Federation (ABF), the number of keepers who produce more than 6,000 pounds of honey annually has declined from 2,054 in 2005, the year before keepers started experiencing colony collapse, to 1,820 last year. Fore said ABF membership this year is down to about 1,100.

Rick Smith, a commercial beekeeper in Arizona, said he once had 8,500 hives. He bottomed out this year at 1,280 because of colony collapse.

"Bees die all the time," Pettis said. "But what we're seeing is an increase in the whole colony dying off or being very weak. And the symptoms don't match what we've seen in the past."

Researchers say Colony Collapse Disorder is caused by a combination of factors, including parasitic mites, low-level pesticide exposure, viruses or other pathogens, Pettis said.

Because beekeepers are so independent, he said, it is hard to know how widespread this problem is.

The decline in bees because of the disorder affects the crops Americans rely on for much of their food. About one-third of the food Americans eat — fruits, vegetables and grains — is pollinated by honeybees, Pettis said.

Beekeepers are experimenting with other pollinators, such as the blue orchard bee, Pettis said, and are waiting for a congressional farm bill that includes several passages that would affect beekeepers.

The bill would promote more research into Colony Collapse Disorder and beekeeping by making grants available to those studying CCD. It would also beef up pollinator habitat conservation programs, said Jamie McInerney, communication director for Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Calif., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture. A House-Senate committee is working to combine two separate versions of the bill, McInerney said.

State agriculture departments are looking to increase the number of amateur hobbyist keepers.

Many states, including Missouri, Illinois, Colorado and South Carolina, offer beginner's courses.

Others, such as New Jersey, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Connecticut, offer a mix of equipment and colony stipends, raffles or door prizes to help beginners get started.

David Blocher, president of the Back Yard Beekeepers Association, a non-profit organization for beekeeping hobbyists, said that although he welcomes all approaches, he doesn't think encouraging hobbyists will have much effect on commercial beekeeping where the brunt of the shortage is being felt.

David Tarpy, an assistant professor of entomology at North Carolina State University, disagrees. He organized a program in 2005 in North Carolina that distributed bee hives to 250 people and offered courses through local beekeeping association chapters."

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