Beekeepers disappearing along with bees


SHELBURNE FALLS — No one knows exactly why honeybees have been disappearing in such large numbers, but beekeeper Dan Conlon of South Deerfield believes the phenomena, now called “Colony Collapse Disorder,” started in the 1980s, when the bloodsucking “verolla destructor” mite and a trachial mite began infesting bee colonies. Also, says Conlon, attempts to limit swarming have resulted in a more limited gene pool among commercial honey bees.

Swarming is a natural means of bee reproduction, in which an older queen bee leaves the hive, with roughly half the worker bees, to establish another colony. Along the way, the queen may mate with up to a dozen wild drones, yielding “more and better bee stock,” according to Conlon.

But by 1994, he said, there were fewer wild colonies left. And the habitat for bee foraging — wildflower meadows and tracks of undeveloped land — have been disappearing. “Monoculture” farming, in which hundreds of acres are planted with one kind of soy, corn or rice, have created “food deserts” for honeybees.

“The trachial mites are gone — no one knows why,” said Conlon. “But the verolla mites are still a problem. In the last three to four years, we’ve dropped from six million managed bee colonies to about two million. It’s changed everything about beekeeping,” he said.

Conlon, a beekeeper since 1966, is president of the Massachusetts Beekeepers Association and runs Warm Colors Apiary. He spoke to a group of at least 30 people at the Arms Library, who came to see a documentary called “Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us.” The film and talk were sponsored by the Buckland Energy Committee.

In the old days, said Conlon, beekeeping was a solitary occupation, in which competitive beekeepers didn’t share their knowledge or methods with each other. But Colony Collapse Disorder has bankrupted about two-thirds of the commercial beekeepers, he said.

“Beekeeping is not an individual sport anymore,” he said. “The hard times have brought beekeepers to a different plane.”

Besides managing his own hives, Conlon sells bees to other beekeepers and runs beekeeping workshops. Beekeeper Daniel Berry, who also spoke at this event, credits Conlon with getting him started. Berry has given beekeeping workshops through Natural Roots, a CSA farm in Conway, and his goal is to eventually make a living with beekeeping.

“Forage is particularly important, says Berry. “Not only are areas of natural wildflowers and forests declining, … but what bees have access to is more and more a monoculture” of pesticide-sprayed crops. “What they’re bringing back to feed themselves —and us — is more and more of these chemicals.”

“They’re getting secondary sources of nutrition,” which Berry said makes them less disease-resistant.

“Owning a beehive opens up this whole new curiosity in the world around you,” he said. “They make you look at the world differently.” For instance, he said, the common dandelion — regarded as a weed in many lawns — is often the first source of nectar for honeybees in spring.

“Some fields that are suitable to bees are getting mowed in peak bloom — all but eliminating them for bees and other pollinators,” said Berry.

Neoncotinoid pesticides, which are believed to be harmless to mammals, affect the nervous systems of the bees, said Conlon. “It affects the bee’s nervous system and their memory: They never come back to the hive. Corn is really suspect in the die-off of colonies in Canada.” Conlon said seed-sellers now sell a different kind of corn to Canada farms, stemming from research on this pesticide.

Conlon said honeybees are not native to the United States but were brought here by European settlers. He said there are 22 bumble bee species in New England about 3,000 species of other kinds of bees nationwide.

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