February 24, 2020
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What’s killing the bees?

After a long, hard winter, there is nothing that welcomes spring more than the healthy buzz of a hive of bees.

Keeping bees healthy in Maine, or anywhere for that matter, has its challenges. In recent years, the age-old problems facing beekeepers have gotten significantly worse. According to The Bee Informed Partnership, an organization supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, roughly 20 to 40 percent of all beehives have died each winter since 2006. For many beekeepers, more acceptable winter losses would be in the range of 15 percent. Parasitic mites, extreme weather and exposure to insecticides all take their toll on bees.

Tony Jadczak, Maine’s state bee inspector, works to keep Maine’s bees healthy. He checks hives across the state for disease and parasites, and educates beekeepers and aspiring beekeepers about management techniques that keep beehives alive.

He also keeps roughly 100 of his own hives in 10 bee yards near the Kennebec River. Last year Jadzac lost about 12 percent of his hives through the winter. This year, he expects to lose double that and said losses will be high across New England given the tough winter.

Explaining that bees can run out of stored honey or be unable to access their feed in prolonged cold snaps, Jadczak said that bees are going hungry more often than last winter: “Starvation is far more pronounced.”

The image of bees starving and dying throughout Maine can’t just be blamed on our tough winter, however.

Another culprit is a parasitic mite that feeds on the bodily fluids of bees. Although the reddish mites appear tiny to the naked eye, they would be equivalent to a fist-sized creature sucking a human’s blood, according to Jadczak.

“Imagine three or four of those on you. You would become anemic pretty quickly,” he said.

High levels of varroa mites in a hive stresses the bees and eventually leads to the hive’s collapse.

Not only do mites kill their hosts, they also carry viruses that make the bees sick. And even if the mites are killed, the viruses carried by the mites might kill the hive weeks later. Jadczak has seen some beeyards in Maine with 80 percent losses.

In 2014, there were 909 beekeepers registered with the state. Together, they had about 10,000 hives. In addition, 83,00 hives were brought into the state for pollination of crops like apples and blueberries. The good news is that more and more people are keeping bees in Maine, despite the challenges.

Longtime beekeepers like Lincoln Sennett of Albion also generally agree that the biggest challenge facing any beekeeper is varroa mites. Sennett started keeping bees as a hobby with his grandfather 35 years ago. Now he has been running a commercial beekeeping operation for 20 years, moving roughly 2,000 hives from Georgia to Maine in the spring in time for pollination of apples and blueberries.

This may be a tough year for survival of bees in Maine. “Survival rates will probably be worse this year in Maine due to the long periods of cold weather without breaks for bees to take cleansing flights during the winter,” Sennett said, noting that survival rates would be quite different between beekeepers who migrate with their hives and those that stay up north all winter.

“It is a little early to tell how hives fared this winter in Maine since many hives are also lost in March,” he said.

Varroa mites can be controlled. There are both synthetic and organic treatments that will kill varroa mites. However, the mites have developed a resistance to two of the synthetic controls commonly used in decades past. “The good new is that we have not seen any resistance to organic controls,” said Jadczak.

Also, some strains of bees (Russian for example) have a natural ability to control the mites. Russian bees are better at grooming the mites off of themselves. Another strain, called SMR (suppressed mite reproduction), is able to prevent varroa mites from reproducing.

Some beekeepers use sticky traps to help control varroa mites. Since some mites accidently fall off the bees, a sticky trap at the bottom of the hive — with a screen above it so the bees do not get caught — will eliminate a portion of the small parasites. Many beekeepers have spent countless hours counting the mites on special sticky traps, working with a magnifying glass and a strong light to establish measurable mite population numbers.

Losses might be high this winter, but beekeepers are both hard-working and persistent. Despite all the challenges, and despite the fact that some hives will come up empty this spring, thousands of hives will continue to dot the fields and farms of Maine.

John O’Meara lives in New Sweden. He started beekeeping in 1990. Although he has not kept bees for the last three years, he and his children are starting again with bees in the spring of 2015.

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