Raising Honeybees in Southeast Virginia Mr. Jean-Lorre Smith As a honeybee keeper for about 2 ½ years in Gloucester County, VA I learned a lot about working with these little wonders of nature. These little ladies pollinate and help produce fully 1/3 of the food we eat. Unfortunately, there is so much to learn that I felt overwhelmed. One becomes close to the honeybees, and they in turn get to know you. I know my bees recognized me and my scent because they never bothered me when I approached their hives. It’s a lot like having a pet cat or dog. You feed them, care for them, medicate them when needed, guard them from harm, and visit with them on a regular basis. In return, they pollinate your garden and boost your production, and they provide you with a lot of glorious honey. Then one day you discover one of your colonies has died. It is devastating. And the pain lingers for a very long time. You question yourself and wonder what else you could have done to prevent their demise. That happened to me four times. And I got out of the business of beekeeping. I gave away my equipment and two surviving colonies and began to research the problem in some depth. I finally came to the conclusion that it wasn’t my fault, and nobody has a clue as to what is happening all across America to our bee hives. I have some ideas about it, and will share them with you. We gardeners have a responsibility to know that fully one-third of all our food is grown as a result of honeybee pollination. One clear example came from Hurricane (Henry) Thompson during the GMG meeting when he noted that his newly installed honeybee hives this year here in Gloucester County apparently resulted in a 300 to 400 percent increase in a neighbor’s blueberry production over previous years. The neighbor noted the increased activity of the honeybees on his blueberry bushes this year. That is a great way to get the honeybee message out to our gardener brethren. There are many good examples of this valuable assist from the honeybees. There are also many stories of a reduction or failure in crops due to a lack of pollination. This drives up the cost to the producer, and the consumer has to bear the burden of those increased prices. There is a huge concern in America about the effect of Colony Collapse Disorder where entire colonies of honeybees die off. Let’s take a look at the problem. I lost several of my producing colonies – and could not ascertain why. I just noticed a lack of activity at the hive when there should have been plenty going on. I opened the hive and found it deserted or with some dead bees left behind. In one case I found the cause to be the wax moth. In three or four others I could not determine the cause of death. One problem may be that I live in an area with many people who grow flowers. Perhaps the honeybees found these flowers during a honey flow and absorbed an herbicide – pesticide – or other …cide and brought the poison back to the hive killing the others. Or it could have been a virus, a bacteria, or another insect attacking the honeybees. I just don’t know. My suspicion is the use of Sevin insecticide powder by my neighbors. Since bees forage for nectar over a 3 to 5 mile radius, it would be impossible to single out the culprits. What can we do collectively? First is to become aware of the problem. Then we have to recognize that we have a responsibility to read the label on the various garden/ag chemicals and remember that the “label is the law”. And, I believe, we have a responsibility to share this vital information with our non-beekeeping gardener brethren. Also we can inform gardeners trying to control Japanese beetles about planting things like “angel’s trumpets” instead of using chemicals. Not much was done by the research community because there just was not enough money to really get started. We tried going to Congress for help, but they just weren’t interested in funding research for “hobby” farming. It wasn’t until wholesale shortages developed in some crops (such as almonds in California) and the dollar losses mounted into the millions that Congress and the various Universities took notice and started action. Now we have many theories, but precious few answers. Stay tuned. The work has begun. Let us take a look at the honeybee and the hive. The symbol for Gloucester County is the old fashioned beehive. The only way to harvest honey from that type of hive is to do very serious damage to the bee colony. These types of hive are no longer legal us use. You can get the honey, but you will probably kill the colony. As a consequence a beekeeper in New England named Langstreth in about 1870 developed the modern hive. This is a very clever design which is now in use around the world. The hive can be accessed easily to check on the welfare of the colony, to harvest honey, or to take whatever action is necessary to maintain it. One fellow asked me in all seriousness how many honeybees do I have to kill to harvest the honey. When I told him “none” he was quite taken aback. Another question I get a lot is about bee stings. Honeybees do not sting unless they or the hive is in mortal danger. When a honeybee stings, it dies. If you are stung, check out the critter doing the stinging. My guess is that 95% of bee stings come from yellow jackets, hornets, or wasps. Honeybee stings are very rare – except in the case of the Africanized bee, but that is the topic for another time. Right now they can’t tolerate our “cold” winters and die out each year. But watch out for eventual cross breeding. If you have questions about raising honeybees, please do not hesitate to contact me. I’ll do my best to get the answer to you.
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