As the honeybee population continues to decline, consumers may end up paying more for their fruits and vegetables.
"This is a very big problem for agriculture. Apples are pollinated by honeybees for the most part. Managed honeybees are brought in and are also important to pollinate pumpkins, cucumbers and early berries," said Maryann Frazier, a honeybee specialist at Penn State Extension.
According to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., the United States lost 30 percent of its managed honeybee colonies this past winter.
The rapidly declining honeybee population could have a substantial impact on Pennsylvania's $57 billion agriculture industry, said Casey, who recently sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Environmental Protection urging the agencies to update the federal action plan on how to mitigate honeybee population loss.
The 30 percent loss has been pretty much the average since the winter of 2006-07, said Christina M. Grozinger, associate professor, Department of Entomology, and director of Center for Pollinator Research at Penn State.
Some local beekeepers have been hit even harder.
"I went into the winter with five hives and came out with none. I gave another one to a girl and it didn't make it either," said Regis Nale Jr., Hollidaysburg, who has been raising honeybees for about six years.
"I had 15 [colonies] going into last winter and came out this spring with five. If you average out the losses throughout our association they come out about 60 percent," said Ken Hoover, president of the 2Cs and a Beekeepers Association.
There appears to be several reasons for the honeybee loss.
"We have been trying to figure this out for some time. The reasons for the loss are multi-faceted. We had hoped we would find a single cause," Frazier said.
The parasitic varroa mite is recognized as the major factor underlying colony loss in the U.S., Grozinger said.
"They are in all the hives and are impossible to totally eradicate. The female varroa mite enters a brood cell just as the workers are capping it off to allow it to go through the pupae stage. It feeds on the developing pupae. It also lays eggs which hatch and mature while the bee is developing," Hoover said. "There are management practices you can use to help reduce mite numbers but there is no magic cure."
Pesticides are another major problem.
"Their impact on pollinators is multi-faceted. We know bees are being exposed to great varieties and high levels of pesticides and fungicides," Frazier said. "Another problem is poor nutrition. There has been a lot more use of pesticides that are eliminating the plants the honeybees eat. Homeowners are getting rid of plants like clover and dandelions which are an important food source for pollinators like honeybees."
Nale believes his honeybees starved to death.
"I did not lose any to starvation, though that is easy to happen," Hoover said. "I lost a couple of my hives due to the queen dying. Once the queen is gone there is no one able to lay eggs to replace the dying workers."
The USDA is providing research funds regarding the loss of honeybees and other pollinators to understand their health and welfare, Frazier said.
"We are attempting to control the varroa mites. There is a lot of interest to develop mite resistant strains of bees so they can take the parasitized bees out of the colony," Grozinger said. "As far as pesticides, there is a lot of interest in trying to raise awareness and use them in ways not to impact the bees. Using smaller quantities and less toxic pesticides, that is what we would like to see."
Grozinger is optimistic about the future of the honeybee population.
"I think what is encouraging is people are becoming more aware of the issues and understanding more about the biology of the bees. We are attracting more people to understand the bees and more people who are trying to help them. We are learning how to help promote the health of the bees," Grozinger said. "There is more awareness and interest and this will help us find a healthy population of bees."
However, Frazier is concerned the honeybee population might continue to drop.
"I see it continuing to dwindle until significant changes are made. I also see the loss of commercial beekeepers, that will be a problem for people who like fruits and vegetables," Frazier said. "When we lose the beekeepers, it will have an impact on fruits' and vegetables' availability and their price."
Local beekeepers are not ready to give up.
"It is something that keeps you going, I am enthralled with the wonderful people that raise honeybees. I don't think of getting out of it. We don't make any money on it, it is just a hobby," said Ted Kaminski of Hastings, who has been raising honeybees for 33 years.
"Beekeeping is like an addiction. It gets in your blood. They are so fascinating, the more you learn the more there is to learn. We have beekeepers who have gotten disgusted and quit four or five times. Most of us are committed to this [or maybe we should be committed, I am not really sure]. We teach beekeeping and promote responsible beekeeping at every opportunity," Hoover said.
Mirror Staff Writer Walt Frank is at 946-7467.