Praise the Pollinators

Praise the Pollinators (July 3, 2012)

Two-hundred seventy-three million, one-hundred fifty thousand.

That, give or take a few million, is the number of legally registered honeybees in the state of Connecticut. And it may not be enough, although new beekeeping enthusiasts like Fairfield's Nadine Nizet are doing their best to counter a global decline in our all-important pollinator population.

Nizet says one reason she became interested in this rather arcane activity involving creatures that can actually hurt you was "all the news going on with bee colony collapse disorder."

Connecticut hasn't actually suffered any documented instances of this mysterious and devastating syndrome that's been snuffing out honeybee hives across the U.S. for the past half-dozen years. Reports indicate that beekeepers in this nation have been losing something like 30 percent of their hives every year.

State experts say the main reason we've lucked out is that bee colony collapse happens primarily to migratory commercial beekeepers who move their hives around the country to pollinate all sorts of big-farm crops. So far, Connecticut hasn't needed to bring in out-of-state pollinators.

That's the good news. The bad news is that we've got our own honeybee troubles such as the varroa mite, a nasty critter some beekeepers refer to by the sinister nickname of "destructor." Researchers from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven say this bad boy has taken a deadly toll of our honeybees since it arrived here in the late 1980s.

But the varroa mite hasn't gotten nearly the same amount of publicity as colony collapse disorder (CCD). And the link between CCD and commercial beekeepers also hasn't made a lot of news.

Big-time commercial operations transport millions of bees aboard tractor-trailers, sometimes traveling thousands of miles from Georgia and Texas to farming regions like California's almond groves, moves that can seriously disorient your home-loving honeybee, say Connecticut experts.

"It affects [commercial migratory beekeepers] because they push and stress their bees," says Marina Marchese, a Weston beekeeper whose artisanal organic Red Bee honeys are considered some of the finest in the nation. Marchese is also the author of Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper.

Stressed-out bees are more vulnerable to all sorts of parasites and diseases, say experts, and gathering nectar from just one kind of plant may not be all that nutritional, making the bees more susceptible to pesticides. It would be like a human eating nothing but Big Macs or Fruit Loops, possibly tasty but distinctly unhealthy.

Recent studies indicate that certain types of pesticides known as neonicotinoids may be big contributing factors to the colony collapse phenomenon, disorienting bees, making it harder for them to collect pollen and nectar and to find their way back to the hive.

Brian Eitzer, an analytical chemist at the agricultural station, has for the last few years been studying the amount of pesticide present in the pollen that Connecticut honeybees are bringing back to a hive in Hamden.

"Typically we find pretty low levels," Eitzer says, results that mirror other studies around the nation. Yet those tests indicate that honeybees returning to that suburban/rural area hive can have traces of 40-50 different pesticides present in the pollen they bring back. Eitzer says his research doesn't delve into what impact all those poisons may have on the bees.

Experts say bees weakened by pesticides or hunger are often more vulnerable to parasites like the varroa mite.

"Connecticut has been over the years very fortunate that we've not had to rely on commercial beekeepers for pollination," says Louis Magnarelli, director of the New Haven "Ag Station."

While we've so far escaped the CCD plague, Magnarelli warns Connecticut's honeybee population has dropped in recent years, matching the global woes of the insect responsible for pollinating most of our biggest agricultural crops.

The deadly varroa mite is a major reason some Connecticut beekeepers have been reporting winter die-offs of as much as 50 percent, Magnarelli says. Another little bee-killer at work in this state is the tracheal mite, which can clog up the breathing tubes of adult bees and choke them to death.

Magnarelli adds that this state's landscape has also become less bee-friendly over the decades, with more forest cover, more development, less open space and less agricultural land. All of which translates into fewer flowers for hungry honeybees.

We're talking about a serious and hugely expensive problem here. According to scientists, one-third of our food supply is dependent on honeybee pollination.

A 2010 congressional study estimated the value of honeybees as pollinators in the U.S. at $15-20 billion a year. One PBS report from 2006 figured the agricultural losses that year as a result of honeybee die offs at something like $8 billion. Reduced crop pollination causes lower crop yields, which explains the loss.