Beekeeper returns despite the honeybee decline

Kevin Kolus

During the past three years, Portage County has lost over 30 percent of its honeybee colonies, mimicking a state and national trend that’s leaving scientists mystified about an unknown killer.

Brian Neuman, who was recently appointed by the Portage County Board of Commissioners as county apiarist – otherwise known as beekeeper – said the concern about honeybee health as a national and local issue isn’t misguided.

Colony Collapse Disorder, referred to as CCD by beekeeping organizations, is the proposed exterminator of agriculture’s most valued insect nationwide, though specialists are unclear whether it has struck Ohio.

While it sounds like the apiary industry is making progress with discovering a culprit, the greatest problem with CCD resides in the confusion it’s generated.

That’s because no one can discover the cause.

“It’s very hard to say what it is,” Neuman said. “We had huge winter losses in Portage County this year. Because all bees are dead and rotting at the bottom of the hive, how do you test? There is no way to diagnose what caused it.”

Three years ago, the last time Neuman was Portage County’s apiarist, there were around 1,000 hives locally.

Now the county is down to some 600 hives, Neuman said, which is a monumental loss when compounded on a regional and statewide scale.

“Bees equal food, and they pollinate flowers,” he said. “It’s pretty simple. One-third of all food we eat is a direct result of honeybees. Feed crops for hay come from honeybee pollination. What are we going to feed our cows with if we have one-third less hay?”

Since the imposed pollination loss is putting pressure on the agriculture industry, Neuman warned that the United States could begin importing more food from overseas, especially China.

The Natural Resources Defense Council reported on its Web site that $15 billion worth of United States’ crops are in jeopardy if the bee population perishes.

The Buzz On Ohio’s Beekeeping

While the death of bee colonies might be putting stress on the nation’s farmers, it’s not certain what monetary losses businesses are experiencing across the country.

Businesses at risk include beekeepers, who mostly rely on their honey production as a part-time job; banks, which have given loans to farmers; and bee supply companies, which produce everything from hardware for housing colonies to packages of bees and bred queens.

However, John C. Grafton, apiary specialist at the Ohio Department of Agriculture, said he doesn’t know of any commercial beekeepers that have stopped production in Ohio.

Unlike Pennsylvania, which was hit hard by CCD last year, Ohio escaped relatively unscathed by the epidemic, and no bee supply companies have closed their doors.

It’s also too difficult to be determining losses for the agriculture industry, he said.

“It’s tough to put a figure on anything like that,” Grafton said, “but without the bees pollinating out there, it would decrease the size of your crop. To say exactly what the impact would be, though, is tough to put a value to.”

Grafton is also unconvinced that CCD has even plagued Ohio at all. Since the insects have delicate life cycles, their deaths could have resulted from natural fluctuations that change every year.

The largest colony deaths Ohio has experienced recently happened during the 2006-2007 winter season. Grafton said 70 percent of bees died – up from the past five-year average of 30 percent – but it was not because of CCD.

Most bees are bred in southern states, such as Florida and Georgia, and aren’t hearty enough to sustain Ohio’s winter temperatures. Also, malnutrition in the Ohio colonies might have been responsible.

“When they went into winter they weren’t up to good physical shape as they had been before,” Grafton said. “The cold in January and February stressed them out, and they didn’t make it through because of that.”

Beekeeping: Business and Public Service

Despite his fears that CCD has the potential to eradicate the country’s bee population, Neuman is happy with his occupation.

With 20 years experience beekeeping, three years of county apiary appointments and a growing honey production business (Dew-Bee Honey Farm) in his portfolio, Neuman said he has shown dedication to his work.

Even if that work doesn’t always pay off.

The Portage County appointment pays $4,500 for what he estimated to be 500 hours of work this summer. Not many people will settle for that kind of wage, he said, which is why the industry loses beekeepers.

Neuman usually produces 2,000 pounds of honey per year, which he said could be sold at as high as $5 per pound.

“It’s definitely a job of passion,” he said, “but even as a hobbyist, I don’t know of any other hobby that puts money back in your pocket. A two-hive beekeeper can make $1,000 off his honey if he sells it all retail, and the original package for those bees might have cost $500, so you are doubling your money.”

The Ohio Department of Agriculture reported in 2006 that there were 3,224 registered beekeepers in Ohio. That’s down from 10,000 in the late 1980s.

Neuman argued people should get back into beekeeping because the environmental benefits are staggering.

When his bees, for example, fly up to six miles from his house, they pollinate numerous flowers and orchards.

If CCD is destroying bees, and there aren’t enough beekeepers to replenish the colonies, then an environmental danger is being pressed, Neuman said.

“Anyone who loves the outdoors should try beekeeping,” he said. “You can have something that is beneficial to the whole world right in your own backyard.”

Contact public affairs reporter Kevin Kolus at [email protected].