More than 40 percent of honeybee colonies in America died in the last year, according to a just released annual survey of beekeepers in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Since Maine was one of eight states where the die-offs were even worse – more than 60 percent – we reached out to Ed Flanagan, president and CEO of Wyman’s of Maine, a company that cannot produce its wild blueberry crop without honeybees.

We called him in his Topsfield, Massachusetts, office just as the bees that Wyman’s imports each year were about to make the trek to Maine for the season.

MAINE DRAIN: In hard-hit Maine, the 80,000 hives brought in to work the blueberry fields were hit the hardest. The life cycle of a honeybee is about 35 days. At the end of last summer, the major beekeepers who truck hives into the state called the wild blueberry farmers. “They said we had the greatest loss of bees on wild blueberry land than any other crop they’d been on,” Flanagan said. This both distressed and puzzled Flanagan.

One theory about colony collapse blames neonicotinoids, present in pesticides used both in conventional, or non-organic, farming and in many home gardening products. But Wyman’s uses what it calls only minimal chemicals on its crop – an average of 3.5 pounds of herbicides, fungicides and insecticides per acre – and no neonicotonoids.

THE BIG WHY? Flanagan said tests on Wyman’s “guest” hives at the end of 2014 season showed no trace of neonicotonoids, either in the bees or the wax (where it could have accumulated had the bees been exposed to the “neonics” elsewhere since the bees are trucked around the country to pollinate crops). Likely they are overworked. “We are pretty much the last stop on the way,” Flanagan said. “It could have been kind of a comprehensive exhaustion.” Then there is the weather. “We did have a little early frost,” he mused.

But Flanagan thinks the primary culprit may be in how the beekeepers treat honeybees for a pervasive problem, varroa mites, that transmit viruses and/or feed on the bee’s pupa (think ticks for bees). Eighty-eight percent of the pesticide presence on the bees, according to Wyman’s, was the miticides used to fight the varroa mite. “You’re trying to kill a bug that is on a bug, and that is a really tricky thing,” he said. “The beekeepers don’t necessarily admit this, but I think in their desperation to keep the business going, they might be over-applying the miticides.”

BUSY BEES: Another factor could be that the bees no longer get a winter vacation. “If you go back a decade or so, the business has changed a lot,” Flanagan said. Beekeepers and their bees used to take time off, wintering over in cooler climates. “The cold weather killed a lot of the mites.”

Then along came the almond groves in California (you know, the ones that supply the almond milk for your cereal and use massive amounts of water in the drought-affected state). They need the bees while we’re shoveling snow. “Now (beekeepers) have to get their hives ready to go to California in January.”

BAD DIET: Although wild blueberries and almonds are healthy foods, experts worry about the bees’ limited diet on mono-culture farms.

“The bee is eating one thing, starting with the pollen from almonds,” Flanagan said. “When they get to blueberries, for much of their life they have got one food source at a time. How would we be if we ate nothing but soybeans?”

SHOP LOCAL (FOR BEES)? What about increasing and using the stock of bees that come from Maine? Flanagan said Wyman’s uses some native pollinators, as well as some of their own hives from Prince Edward Island. (Native isn’t really the best term here, since honeybees originally came with European settlers, but it’s the term used for wild bees.) They have plans to double the number of hives on PEI to 3,000.

But Flanagan said blueberry farmers would be kidding themselves if they thought they could rely on native bees. “You are going to need a migratory beekeeping operation to really get the job done.” The blueberry fields are too big for the locals to handle.

LABOR CONTRACT: Maybe these overworked bees need a union? “I don’t know how to answer that,” Flanagan said. “I can tell you this. We lose a fortune on our apiary operation.” (Hives rent for about $100 for the season.) But, he said, “if the managed hives continue to decline, we’ve then got to rely on native pollinators as non-optimal as it may be.”

BEEKEEPER COLLAPSE: Another dilemma: The bee business is not enticing beekeepers. “Virtually every business I know is for sale,” Flanagan said. “I shouldn’t say that. They are not all for sale.” But a lot, he said.

He likes to say, “If beekeepers have a problem, then we have a problem,” and in this case, migratory beekeepers are having trouble staying afloat. “It’s a pretty nomadic business, and their kids don’t want to go into the business. You heard this a lot about dairy farmers, but in a way, it is the same way with beekeepers.” And because many of the beekeepers tend to operate relatively small businesses, “they definitely need help when they get to a problem that is bigger than them.”

DEPARTMENT OF BEES: If it’s all so dire, should the federal government start raising bees for our farmers, bees that don’t have to travel so far? Or a Department of Bee Research? “I am a Republican businessman so I have not been a big fan of President Obama’s,” Flanagan said. “But I will say this; he called this summit about the honeybees last April. At least he showed interest and brought presidential weight behind it.” (And on Tuesday, the Obama administration released a 64-page report calling for a united effort on behalf of the honeybees and other pollinators.)

“I am still split on whether the government does more good or harm when it gets involved in things,” Flanagan said. “But I do think that it is a problem that does need money to be solved.”

Maybe fundraising mechanisms such as a surcharge collected on hive rentals could raise that money, he said.

Wyman’s itself gives $50,000 annually toward research on colony collapse.

BOTTOM LINE: Flanagan said he’s happy to talk pollinators with anybody to spread public awareness. “We need to make a buck in this business, but it is not just about the buck. It’s kind of an ecological problem. There is nothing we can do about a drought in California or global warming, but we have a very big footprint in the world of bees.… I’m not just interested in this because I’m a business person. I’m interested in it because it is interesting.”

 


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