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Local beekeepers scramble to restock hives hurt by harsh winter

Local beekeepers scramble to restock hives

Carolyn Huden knew she was going to find around 2 million dead honeybees when she opened the hives at her Genoa farm this year.

She hadn't noticed any activity among her 36 colonies – or bee families – by the middle of February and she couldn't get to them until the middle of March because of snow.

“You just know,” Huden said. “You see it. You feel it. And there's nothing you can do. Silence is dead.”

DeKalb County honeybee keepers lost upwards of 70 percent of their bees during the winter, more than three times greater than what the USDA reports the average beekeeper in the United States lost.

The high bee mortality rate left local beekeepers scrambling to replenish their hives with new bees in hopes the devastating losses won't affect speciality crops such as apple trees, pumpkins and raspberries or cut local honey production by thousands of gallons.

Although some beekeepers say it's business as usual outside of the added expense for the new bees, others are anxiously waiting for their bees to get up to pollinating and honey-producing strength.

Bee loss 

The USDA reports that nationally, beekeepers lost about 23 percent of their honeybees during the winter, an improvement compared to the 30 percent loss during the 2012-2013 winter. The annual beekeeper survey measures losses on managed honeybee colonies from October to April.

Large winter honeybee losses are part of a phenomenon plaguing honeybees known as colony collapse disorder, or the spontaneous abandonment of hives by bees. Scientists have yet to pinpoint a cause for the disorder.

Beekeepers this year tied the causes of death over the winter to varroa mite infestation, queen failure and poor winter conditions, the latter being to blame for DeKalb County's steep losses, local beekeepers said.

DeKalb County beekeepers said they lose around 40 percent in a typical year, with last winter's frigid temperatures and snowfall making it a particularly devastating exception.

Huden lost 30 colonies that each had more than 75,000 bees, meaning she lost more than 2.25 million bees. Although she purchased new bees, which came from California by way of Wisconsin, they won't be up to strength until the middle of summer. She fears her honey crop will drop from 500 to 250 gallons.

“Right now I should be making honey by the gallon, but I'm not,” Huden said. “I'll be lucky if I have any honey to harvest by July 1.”

Huden also typically provides Jonamac Orchard in Malta with bees to pollinate the farm's trees. This year, she was able to provide 10 hives, which meant orchard manager Jenna Spychal had to purchase 12 more hives from a beekeeper in southern Illinois.

Winter also claimed the handful of hives Jonamac had, all of which were weak, Spychal said.

“It's part of being a beekeeper,” Spychal said. “But so far the pollination looks pretty good, so we shouldn't be affected.”

At Honey Hill Orchard in Waterman, owner Steve Bock hopes his nearly 70 percent loss won't hurt his apple trees, pumpkins or raspberry bushes or cut too deeply into his honey production. The main reason he keeps the bees is to pollinate the roughly 3,000 apple trees on his orchard, but he also produces about 30 pounds of honey from each hive.

“The bees just starved because they wouldn't move an inch to save their lives,” Bock said. “The ones that survived, I have no clue why.”

Bock, like Huden, purchased new bees to replenish his hives. Each of the 10 hives he bought cost $80, weighed around three pounds and contained about 10,000 bees. The new bees have yet to mature, leaving Bock's backyard unusually quiet and calm.

“Normally this time of year you would be able to hear the buzz from the driveway and it would be a solid sheet of brown from the bees,” Bock said, standing in his backyard.

Instead, the bee population is light enough that bee flight patterns – like bee highways – are easily distinguished.

Pollination workhorses

Bock's concerns extend beyond his property lines because honeybees will travel around two miles for food.

“I sometimes joke with my friends about sending pollination bills because I know the bees are pollinating their gardens,” Bock said.

Pollination might not be necessary for DeKalb County's largest crops – corn, soybeans and winter wheat – but the buzzing insects are far from useless, said University of Illinois Extension educator Russ Higgins.

“None of the three really require pollination from insects, but that being said, we're very aware of the importance of honeybees and other pollinating insects,” Higgins said. “About 30 percent of the foods that humans consume come from bee-pollinated plants such as carrots and broccoli.”

Higgins said commercial agriculture operators in the area are conscious of what insecticides they're placing on their crops because some have been tied to colony collapse.

Even with those efforts, if winters continue to be as harsh and losses as devastating, local speciality farmers might have to look elsewhere for their pollination needs, said Andy Larson, an education with the U of I extension specializing in local food systems and small farms.

“If we're going to be losing large amounts of honeybees, we're going to have to think about creating habitats for native pollinators,” Larson said.

Native pollinators include butterflies, bumble bees and beetles.

For now, Bock will wait for "his girls" to gain strength and for nature to do its work.

"In another month from now if conditions are perfect, we're getting enough rain, enough flowers and blossoms out there from whatever source there is, these girls will find it and they'll bring it back," Bock said. "This could end up being a great year. You never know."

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