Beekeeper Lynn Osborn remembers a time when honey bees were as abundant and healthy in this part of the Sunshine State as the sun’s rays.
“I used to open hives up and when I would lift the inner corner, the bees would flow out like a waterfall. They’d overflow the edges of the box and fall in clumps on the ground. You’d have a 2-inch thick layer of bees,’’ said Osborn.
He doesn’t see honey bee waterfalls these days. And like other beekeepers in the United States, Canada and Europe, he would like to know why.
Osborn has been keeping bees for 39 years and is vice president of the Suncoast Beekeepers Association, which has members in Manatee and Sarasota counties, including some on Anna Maria Island. The association’s purpose is to support and promote beekeeping, and keep it from becoming a dying hobby.
There are some island beekeepers, but they were reluctant to talk about their passion like Osborn. They worry there’s an inherent fear of bees and neighbors may be touchy about hives in their midst.
But Osborn says there are island beekeepers with strong hives “because of the diversity of plants out there and there isn’t a lot of competition’’ from other bees.
But, like all bees, “they have to bring in literally hundreds of pounds of pollen just to support the hive, let alone produce honey,” Osborn adds.
“Today, honey bees and beekeepers are locked in an unprecedented battle with pests, parasites, insecticides, Africanized bees and Colony-Collapse Disorder,’’ the association states on its website at www.suncoastbeekeepers.com.
“These problems affect all beekeepers, causing unsustainable losses of 30 to 50 percent of the hives per year. Considering that one-third of all food production in the U.S. is dependent on honey bees, the funding of research is paramount for local beekeeping associations,” according to the website.
Colony-Collapse Disorder, or CCD, is the name given to a phenomena first noticed in the fall of 2006. Beekeepers would visit previously healthy colonies and, surprisingly, find them practically empty.
According to Suncoast Beekeepers, what they would find on examination was, “there would be honey, pollen, capped larvae and even a queen bee, but little else.
“Beekeepers report that colonies with CCD do not contain any dead bees, neither are there dead bees on the ground outside of the colonies. The adult bees simply vanish,’’ according to Jamie Ellis, associate professor of Entomology at the Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory at the University of Florida.
“In a country where honey bees contribute billions of dollars in added revenue to the agriculture industry, these bee losses cannot be taken lightly,” Ellis said in an bulletin sent out by the university’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
For seven years, researchers and scientists at universities, federal and state agencies, private agriculture-related companies and beekeepers in the field have been looking for the cause of CCD. No clear answer has emerged and bees continue to die or disappear.
Imagining a life without some of the foods dependent on honey bees for pollination is one reason the public has begun to take notice of the bee crisis. Apples, asparagus, avocados, broccoli, blueberries and onions are 90 percent reliant on bees, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Cherries, cucumbers, celery, watermelon and plums also are highly dependent.
Just this spring, the almond crop in California — which relies 100 percent on honey-bee pollination — faced a shortage of healthy bee hives. Commercial beekeepers from all over the nation, including Florida, used tractor-trailers to annually move their hives — about 1.5 million of them — to that state’s Central Valley. But this year, growers reported trouble finding beekeepers with enough bees to do the job. Eventually, the almonds were pollinated, but growers wonder what future years will be like if the bee population continues to decline. And both groups ask: How will they sustain any growth in almond production?
“We are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster,” Jeff Pettis, the research leader at the USDA’s Bee Research Laboratory told bee experts gathered at a conference in October 2012. Following the conference, the USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a joint report stating there are multiple factors causing the honey bee population decline.
Some factors exist within the colonies — including parasites and diseases and not enough genetic diversity among the bees themselves, the report said. And some are outside the hive, including poor nutrition caused by less natural habitat for bees and land management practices that have increased crops, such as corn and soybean, which are undesirable to bees; plus the pesticides used on crops.
The report cited one parasite in particular, the Varroa destructor mite, calling it a “major factor’’ in colony loss. The mite acts like a vampire, sucking the blood of baby and adult bees while also spreading disease.
Many bee experts, like Osborn and Ellis, agree the mite is a major contributor to bee population decline and that most likely CCD is caused by a combination of factors.
But some beekeepers and researchers are placing stronger blame on a new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which are nicotine-related and were banned in some European countries after CCD was linked to their use.
In the United States, a coalition of beekeepers, conservation and sustainable agriculture advocates sued the EPA in March to suspend use of some of the neonicotinoids and perform more evaluations on their effects. Sierra Clubs in both Canada and the United States have been questioning their use for several years.
“The EPA needs to suspend use of neonicotinoids or Congress needs to pass a bill prohibiting use of neonics on bee-attractive plants as some legislators have already proposed,’’ said Linda Jones, chair of the Sarasota-Manatee Sierra Club. “While a ban doesn’t address all of the factors that may be contributing to the bee die-off, it is something we can do something about.’’
Jones and other environmental activists also see loss of habitat as a major blow to honey bees. “Bees need forage, flowers and wild spaces to survive,’’ Jones said, but the country’s industrialized agriculture system is taking away those spaces by encouraging monoculture — the growing of a single crop over a wide area.
“The same thing happens with development that occurs in previously wild places,’’ said Jones. One reason the Sierra Club and other environmental groups are opposing Long Bar Pointe, a proposed 500-plus acre development along Sarasota Bay, is the loss of natural coastline habitat.
In many places— including Anna Maria Island and Sarasota Bay — mangroves have been trimmed and natural shorelines are hardened by seawalls. The coastline no longer proivdes the vast areas of mangroves needed for nesting birds and the foraging areas sought after by bees, according to Jones.
“When you look at the Long Bar Pointe mangroves from the bay they are high, when you look toward Tidy Island, they’re trimmed so low there’s nothing flying around there,’’ said Jones.
“Mangroves along Long Bar Pointe are 30-40 feet tall and have not been cut. Trimming mangroves can hurt their growth and the wildlife, birds and bees that need them. We have called for protection of our natural coastal resources and to move development away from the coastline. Much of the Long Bar Pointe area is in the state-designated coastal high hazard area and should not be developed,’’ Jones said.
According to Osborn, commercial beekeepers moved hundreds of hives into the area around Long Bar Pointe so bees can feed on the mangroves. “Without that forage, those beekeepers couldn’t provide bees for pollinating local farms,’’ Osborn and his wife, Karen, wrote in a letter to the Manatee County Commission.
They sent the letter so it would be considered during an Aug. 6 meeting on proposed changes to the county’s comprehensive plan requested by Long Bar developers. “People don’t think about it, but if they let this area develop, there is going to be impact on the cost, quality and availability of food they now take for granted.’’ the letter said.
Already, as development grows in Manatee County, beekeepers have lost vast areas of opportunity for hives to survive, including on Perico Island.
Whether Long Bar Pointe is developed or not, Osborn said after the meeting, he wants to spread the word that there are environmental impacts that may seem small — bee-sized even — that can have huge repercussions.
He hopes in the future, whenever large-scale projects are considered, people remember to ask: “Will this hurt the bees?’”
Cheryl Nordby Schmidt is a freelance writer based in Holmes Beach.
If you suspect you have a bee nest and want it removed, call Karen Osborn at 941-792-2112 or email email@example.com. Someone from Suncoast Beekeepers Association will respond, usually within about 48 hours.
How to be a friend to honey bees
• Support bee research.
• Reduce pesticide use in the lawn and garden.
• Plant bee-friendly flowers.
• Allow weeds to flower before pulling.
• Help communities protect bee habitat.
• Volunteer to plant wildflowers and other native vegetation along roadways.
• Become a beekeeper.
Sources: Jamie Ellis, University of Florida bee expert, and The Daily Green consumer guide.
Bee-friendly flowers and trees
Bee-friendly flowers and trees include: aster, avocado, black mangrove, cabbage palm, citrus, goldenrod, holly, lychee, saw palmetto, seagrape, star fruit, viburnum, white tupelo.
Sources: University of Florida Entomology and Nematology Deptartment and Lynn Osborn.