The message the president of Jasper Wyman & Sons of Milbridge, Maine, the largest grower of wild blueberries in the United States, delivered this week was clear: “No bees, no blueberries.”
As commercial beekeepers across the country struggle with colony collapse disorder, a mysterious die-off of seemingly healthy bees, company President Edward Flanagan put his money where his mouth is. On Thursday, he hand-delivered a $50,000 check to Pennsylvania State University’s agriculture college to promote continued research of CCD.
At its height in 2007, the disorder continues to trouble the country’s 3 million honeybee colonies. Over the past two years, the disorder has wiped out a third of all commercial U.S. beehives.
Whether colony collapse disorder involves a virus, parasites, environmental stresses, pollution or a combination of factors, no one is sure. The only thing known is that healthy hives of bees appear to die overnight, leaving agriculture across the country threatened.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Flanagan said that without a healthy bee population, Maine’s blueberry barrens will not produce fruit.
“Every blueberry owes its existence to the dance of a honeybee from flower to flower. If there were no beekeeping industry to come to Maine, the amount of fruit pollinated by natural pollinators would not amount to enough to keep farming the land. We would either be out of this business altogether or charging a price fivefold or tenfold what it is now,” Flanagan said.
Wyman is paying $1 million a year to hire commercial beekeepers, mostly from Pennsylvania, to truck thousands of hives to the blueberry barrens to pollinate the blossoms.
“This expense is up 50 percent in the last two years,” Flanagan said.
The importance of honeybee farms is grossly underrated and misunderstood by most people outside of the farming community, Flanagan maintained. Eighty percent of the world’s crops are pollinated by bees.
Although the honeybees are not native to North America, they have been kept by farmers for centuries and have become crucial to pollination and the success of crops ranging from vegetables, fruits and nuts, to grains for livestock feed. Honeybees are vital to agriculture and, in particular, to Maine’s wild blueberry crop.
“Bees, for us, are the ultimate sustainable issue,” Flanagan said. “There is not one beekeeper that is not still afraid of CCD, mostly because no one knows what happened.”
Scientists studying the disorder say they are still learning how nutrition, pesticides, viruses and mites may be prompting the deaths of billions of bees. Researchers exploring the honeybee genome at the University of Illinois recently announced they may be within weeks of another goal: publicly identifying a genetic marker that definitively identifies that collapse has occurred.
At Penn State, Maryann Frazier, senior extension associate and head honeybee researcher, said Wednesday the extent of colony collapse disorder this spring will become clearer in the next week or so as state apiarists begin to check the level of loss in their hives. “We are very anxious to see the results,” she said.
At least one state, New Jersey, is reporting excellent hive strengths, and Frazier said the pollination of the California almond crop went well. “We are cautiously optimistic,” she said.
“We have learned a lot in the past two years,” she said, “but CCD is still a mystery. We are still very concerned. Overall, we have seen a decline in bee health and numbers over the past 20 years.”
Frazier said the Wyman gift “is a very important contribution to our work, particularly now, when we are beginning the field work season.”
Flanagan said that while the blueberry industry is not organic, its demand for pesticides is low. “The family of chemicals most suspect in CCD is neonicotinoids, and we don’t use them on blueberry crops,” he said. However, it is vital to continue CCD research, he said.
“The bees are really the parakeets in the coal mines,” Flanagan said. “They obviously are telling us something.”
Flanagan said the company did not donate the research money to the University of Maine since it does not study commercial bee production. “UMaine studies lobsters and wild blueberries, not honeybees,” he said. “We needed to put the money with the experts.”