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updated: 2/25/2014 9:51 AM

Beekeepers battle colony collapse

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  • Sangamon Valley Beekeepers Association member Dave Pangrac shows an empty bee colony frame from one of his hives in his backyard in Decatur.

      Sangamon Valley Beekeepers Association member Dave Pangrac shows an empty bee colony frame from one of his hives in his backyard in Decatur.
    Associated Press

 
Associated Press

DECATUR -- When beekeeper Dave Pangrac discovered that the thousands of honeybees from all five of his hives had disappeared in November, he experienced a mystery plaguing beekeepers and affecting $15 billion worth of crops in the nation.

When he harvested honey in October, each of his hives housed between 20,000 and 30,000 bees. Three weeks later, about 30 bee carcasses were all that remained of his hives.

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Colony collapse disorder is a phenomenon involving the mass exodus of honeybees and became a global concern in 2006, when beekeepers were reporting colony losses by the millions.

"If you have tremendous hive death like we're seeing, then it tells you something about the state of our ecosystem," said Pangrac, who has raised bees at his Decatur residence for six years.

Although it is common for beekeepers to lose about 30 percent of their bees in the winter, members of the Sangamon Valley Beekeepers Association like Pangrac are seeing fewer hives make it past fall.

"Around 30 hives failed in the fall among 18 members," he said. "I've never seen that before."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has allocated $20 million over five years toward research into the disorder, and even though a number of factors have been associated with it, no inherent cause has been found.

The No. 1 suspected cause for the disappearances is pesticides, but several other aspects are affecting honeybee health.

"Though I'm not saying all the blame should be put on pesticides, it's leaving the bees open to other maladies, and a weak colony is what eventually leads to collapse," Pangrac said.

Honeybee health can commonly be threatened by Varroa mites, external parasites that suck the "blood," or hemolymph, of bees, leaving open wounds. They are also susceptible to many diseases, including nosema, caused by a single-celled parasite that infects its host's digestive system with dysentery.

For 90-year-old Lynn Oxendale, beekeeping is essential for quality of life.

"The value of bees is not honey; the value of bees is pollination," he said. "More than 30 percent of the food you eat has been pollinated by bees."

Bees pollinate about $15 billion worth of crops in the U.S. alone each year, including soy beans, almonds, strawberries, carrots, apples, cucumbers, pumpkins and more.

Oxendale began beekeeping in 1952 while living on a farm in Michigan. Food was in scarce supply, and he has had an appreciation for bees ever since. With cases of the disorder becoming more frequent, the demand for beekeepers has increased now more than ever, he added.

Each year, the Sangamon Valley Beekeepers Association hosts a six-week workshop on the basics of beekeeping. The class will meet at 6 p.m. on Thursdays at the fire department training center, 2707 E. William St.

Each class lasts about two hours, and topics include honeybee life cycle and behavior, starting a colony, hive construction and installing honeybees, harvesting honey, seasonal management, diseases and other maladies, and more.

Preregistration is required with the fee of $75. The fee includes course materials, one-year membership to the association and admittance into the first-year mentoring program.

Jennifer Hahn,40, attended the workshop last year and is currently caring for one hive, which so far has survived the wintry conditions and threat of illness. She plans to add two more hives in the spring.

"The association is an excellent resource with there being so much knowledge within the organization," Hahn said. "It's not just about having a neat hobby; it's about conserving the bee population."

When faced with challenges, such as overfeeding one of her colonies or experiencing a wax moth infestation, Hahn was able to reach solutions through the guidance of other members.

"After completing the class, I felt like I was well-equipped for beekeeping," she said. "With the mentorship program, every one was willing to help out and give advice, and they really helped to get me started."

Honeybee survival in the winter is dependent on hive management throughout the year and going into the cold months with a healthy and well-populated hive, Pangrac said, adding that it is very important that beekeepers do not open their hives in the winter, Doing so would chill the bees.

Honeybees do not hibernate. Instead, they cluster and vibrate their wing muscles to maintain a temperature of 93 degrees to keep the queen warm.

"It's like when we get cold, our muscles contract and our bodies shiver to keep warm," he said.

Starvation serves as the most common threat for colonies during the winter, whether the bees have exhausted their stored honey supply or if they are too cold to reach the honey along the walls of the hive.

To prepare for the winter, beekeepers should combine weak hives to increase population, rearrange frames of honey and pollen so they are accessible for the cluster, feed bees with sugar water if supplies run low and provide adequate top ventilation to prevent condensation from dripping and chilling the bees.

It may also be necessary to replace one's older queen as their productivity wavers after two to four years. Beekeepers in more northern regions of the country usually wrap their hives with insulation, which is something Illinois beekeepers may have to do in the near future, Pangrac said.

"It's not the cold that kills the bees--it's starvation, moisture, parasites and a number of other factors," he said. "It's a scary situation with bees' systems being so weakened before they reach winter, and we may need to take more extreme measures for them to survive."

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