STORY BY BRIAN FRESKOS & DESIGN BY DALE KOONTZ
Shannon Baxter pulls a honeycomb slab out of a hive that she and her husband, Steve, keep in their backyard apiary. It is an overcast afternoon in March, one of the first warm days since the last snowfall. Peering down through her black veil, Baxter runs a metal tool through the lifeless bee bodies clumped on one edge of the comb. “Yup, we might have lost one,” she says. “They were probably fine until the last weather snap.”
Baxter’s passivity speaks to how common colony losses are becoming nowadays. Beekeepers are growing inured as a smorgasbord of fatal threats batters honey bees worldwide, wiping out colonies at an impressive clip. Scientists, environmentalists and the federal government are scrambling to reverse the trend before the devastation upends farming and sends food prices soaring. The South is largely leading this effort, using education and research initiatives to spotlight the complex relationship between honey bees and the rest of the globe.
Most people think about honey bees as buzzing insects whose stingers should be avoided. But despite their reputation, honey bees are some of man’s best friends. The striped insects are responsible for a third of the food Americans eat every day, playing a crucial role in keeping fruits, vegetables and nuts in our diets. Farmers rely on bees for pollination and pay beekeepers to park hives close to their crops. While no one thinks honey bees will completely disappear, their plight could make pollination services more expensive and, in turn, ratchet up prices of commodities ranging from apples to steaks.
But perhaps even more frightening than higher grocery bills is the prospect of increasing America’s reliance on foreign food supplies. If honey bee populations continue to dwindle, the United States will be unable to churn out produce in high enough quantities and will have to increase imports to keep stores stocked. “There’s a lot of lip service about weaning ourselves off foreign oil. But just wait until we’re totally depending on foreign food,” says David Tarpy, a professor in North Carolina State University’s Department of Entomology. “That would be a really dangerous situation.”
The impact would be especially acute in the South, where beekeeping is a mammoth industry. Officials estimate that there are 10,000 beekeepers in North Carolina alone, a concentration Tarpy says is the densest in the nation. The state considers pollination services so crucial to its economy that it employs six inspectors charged with helping keep hives alive. While that may not sound like many inspectors, consider that most states have fewer or even none.
Acknowledging the Problem
Hive devastation took on new urgency in 2014 when President Obama ordered the creation of a Pollinator Health Task Force to develop a strategy for promoting the health of natural crop pollinators. Honey bees, while not the sole insects for spreading pollen among plants, are considered the most important. In its directive, the White House says these critters raise $15 billion in crops every year.
The Obama administration’s step reflects the gravity of the situation after eight successive years of widespread colony loss. The plight came into sharp relief in 2006, when beekeepers around the country reported losing as much as 90 percent of their hives. Average losses have hovered between 22 percent and 34 percent every winter since, well above what beekeepers consider economically sustainable, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, a Maryland-based nonprofit research consortium funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Shannon Baxter examines a clump of dead bees in one of her hives in Zebulon, North Carolina. The couple lost only one out of 25
colonies during the winter, which is a much better success rate than what other beekeepers are experiencing around the world.
PHOTO BY BRIAN FRESKOS
Observers blame the scourge on a series of compounding stressors. Mites, pesticides, genetic weaknesses and dwindling queen longevity have combined to challenge honey bees at every step in their already short lives. Some perils are new to America and especially the South, having surfaced in the last few decades as a side effect of globalization and industrial agriculture.
“When I started keeping bees 35 years ago, it was very simple,” says Charlie Parton, president of the Tennessee Beekeepers Association. “I didn’t realize how much I should have appreciated those years before we got mites and chemicals and all the other things that we’re dealing with.”
To reverse the decline, groups across the South are redoubling efforts to generate buzz in hobby beekeeping, offering classes and grants to lure newcomers. But attrition remains a stubbornly persistent problem. Few people seem willing to cope with the pressures that today’s beekeepers must confront. “Some people end up just having bees instead of becoming beekeepers,” says Larry Haigh, president of the South Carolina Beekeepers Association. “We tell them if they’re not serious about this for up to three years, then go get a puppy or something.”
Haigh says 600 people enroll in the club’s annual training program, but 400 of them quit beekeeping altogether the first year or two after graduation. That dropout rate prompted the association to roll out new initiatives aimed at keeping rookies engaged. “We’re trying to implement mentoring programs around the state so the new beekeepers can be assured they will have somebody qualified to work with them,” Haigh says.
Mentorship was key to the Baxters’ coming on board. The couple got its start when Shannon Baxter won her first colonies during a raffle at a meeting of the 5 County Beekeepers Association, which draws membership from a wide swath of Central North Carolina. The club president mentored Baxter until her bees got busy. Five years later, and she has taken over as club president and runs a company with her husband selling honey, soap, lotion and other wax products in online and brick-and-mortar retail stores.
About an hour’s drive from the Baxters, one nonprofit group is trying to show that beekeeping is not solely the province of rural areas. Bee Downtown keeps two rooftop hives on the American Tobacco Campus, a former tobacco works turned entertainment district in downtown Durham. Founder Leigh-Kathryn Bonner leads tours to the hives and says her group teaches city dwellers that it doesn’t require much room to make a home for the bugs. “The goal is to make Durham a model city for urban beekeeping,” she says.
“Ultimately, the big culprit is pesticides.”
– Stan Schneider, professor
Setting examples, though, is only half the battle. Scientists still need to find ways to kill pests and diseases and improve colony health so honey bees can survive long enough to groom subsequent generations. Southern universities are leading this charge. One study by a team of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and N.C. State in Raleigh is trying to figure out how honey bees pick their queens.
Scientists already know that healthier queens mate more and that promiscuity increases the likelihood colonies will survive winters. But figuring out how worker bees select empresses would allow commercial producers to raise queens that worker bees are more likely to embrace.
There can only be one queen per colony. But worker bees raise several virgins at once, hedging their bets that at least one will be strong. During the first few days of their lives, the colony’s virgin queens fight to their deaths, stinging one another in a high-stakes game where winner takes all. In fact, says Stan Schneider, the UNC-Charlotte professor leading the study, “virgin queens are among the most aggressive animals on earth.” Worker bees scheme to influence these fights, protecting queens they want to win and immobilizing those they don’t. Answering why bees favor some queens while condemning others would help commercial queen raisers fashion leaders that colonies want to serve.
Mites and Miticide
But queen health is only one factor stressing colonies, and it isn’t even the worst. Many say that distinction belongs to the Varroa mite, scientifically known as Varroa destructor. These pests latch onto bees like ticks and suck their blood. To the naked eye, they appear small. But when considered in relation to bees, the mites are the same size as a dinner plate is to a person. Even if their lust doesn’t kill bees outright, the mites cause deformities and transmit diseases. “If we could take mites out of the equation, we would have a huge leap forward in being able to fight off a lot of these problems and they would be much smaller in magnitude,” says Tarpy, the N.C. State entomologist.
Like honey bees, which settlers introduced to North America, Varroa mites are not native to the continent. Don Hopkins, an apiary inspection supervisor for the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, says the mites first appeared in the United States in 1987. Varroa’s incursion was so quick and menacing that some beekeepers were forced out of business.
States jumped at the problem. Hopkins says North Carolina went so far as to quarantine bee shipments coming across the state’s borders. The ban was effective for only a short while, though, as state inspectors found Varroa mites three years later. Now there is hardly a hive without a significant Varroa presence. According to entomologists at N.C. State, Varroa mites virtually wiped out the state’s feral honey bee populations and forced a 44 percent decline in managed beehives.
Fighting Varroa mites is like using fire to fight fire. Beekeepers say most miticides are not entirely effective and carry the potential to themselves hurt the bees. And there is heated debate about whether it’s best to chemically treat colonies or take a handsoff approach in hopes they will develop natural resistances to the stubborn pests. “You really touched on a philosophical dispute between beekeepers,” Hopkins says. “Most beekeepers are using some sort of chemical treatment. There are those who flat out say, ‘I will not do it. I’m going to try and keep my bees as natural as possible.’ And then there are some that are brewing up anything they can think of in the kitchen sink.”
Whichever method kills best, Hopkins says Varroa definitely stoked fears about invasive species overrunning North Carolina. To head off another invasion, state inspectors are examining hives for other exotic pests even though they haven’t arrived on American shores. “We’re testing for something we hope we never find,” Hopkins says.
The Real Pests
While Varroa remains public enemy No. 1, pesticides have captured lots of attention in recent years. It is difficult to know exactly how much colony loss is attributable to pesticides because they are difficult to pinpoint. Scientists do know that bees pick up pesticides from nectars and pollens and carry them back to their hives, exposing other bees in the colony. And there are many who blame pesticides for causing deleterious health effects that underpin all the other problems facing honey bees. “Ultimately, the big culprit is pesticides,” says Schneider, the UNC-Charlotte professor. “Until we can bring those under control or figure out ways of managing agricultural systems without this heavy reliance on pesticides, these bee populations will probably continue to decline.”
Last year the European Union sharply restricted a popular class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids, citing their negative effects on bee health. Environmentalists hailed the contentious move as a milestone in the fight against chemical pest control and urged the United States to take a similar step. While the Environmental Protection Agency is re-evaluating neonicotinoids, it has not imposed any restrictions.
Scientists remain divided on neonicotinoids. Some point out that farmers find the insecticides useful and that a ban might force them to use even deadlier chemicals. While not downplaying insecticides’ harmful effects, Jennifer Tsuruda, an apiculture specialist at Clemson University in South Carolina, says even places where neonicotinoids were never used are experiencing unsustainable honey bee losses. “It’s not as simple as just banning these chemicals and thinking that bee populations are going to come back booming and be super healthy,” Tsuruda says. “There are other issues going on.”
Scientists also disagree about how much neonicotinoids hurt bees relative to other pesticides and how many resources should be allocated to studying them. One of today’s neonicotinoids p r o d u c e r s , Bayer CropScience, opened a $2.4 million North American Bee Care Center in Raleigh in 2014. The company expressed hope that the center would bring together the brightest minds in science, industry and academia to resolve the honey bee problem. But in promotional material, the company casts doubt on the harmful effects of pesticide exposure, saying no scientific evidence exists linking neonicotinoid use to honey bee deaths. The company instead points to Varroa and the diseases it carries as the true culprits.
Whether pesticides are harmful or not, they have scared beekeepers into taking steps to protect hives from exposure. In Tennessee, beekeepers and farmers developed a system to share hive locations that includes marking them with “Bee Aware Flags.” In South Carolina, Clemson University rolled out a pilot program last year for beekeepers and pesticide applicators to share similar information online.
Even though the Baxters live near a soybean farm, the couple doesn’t worry about pesticides because the farmer sprays his crops in the evening, after most foraging bees have clocked out for the day. Still, the couple is suspect about most things it considers unnatural. “I think neonicotinoids are terrible,” Shannon Baxter says. “I think they’re not good for you, or for me, or for the bees.”
That may be true. Scientists in the South are hurrying to answer that and many other questions before bees fade to a blip. But no matter the outcome, they say no one answer will be a panacea. “This is a complex problem,” says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant professor in the University of Maryland’s Department of Entomology. “It’s going to require a complex solution.”