Honeybees in a Mite More Than Trouble
Parasites, an Exodus of Apiarists and Budget Cuts Imperil Vital Insect

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 14, 2002; Page A01

Under cover of darkness, Wilson Bowles loads up his 1958 Dodge pickup and heads west toward the mountains with his sleeping cargo.

Bowles is carrying 20 hives of honeybees from his apiary in Boyce, Va., to the apple orchards on the far side of Winchester -- 1 million bees, now snug and huddled for the night between frames of honey and brood comb.

The next morning, the sun coaxes them out into a new world -- the 350-acre fruit orchard of John Marker, where the bees will spend much of April gorging themselves on the pollen and nectar of 45,000 apple and pear trees.

Marker used to count on bees just showing up in his orchards, but no more. The farmer's abiding friend for thousands of years, the honeybee in America stands on the edge of the abyss.

In recent years, two tiny spider-like parasites have been weakening and killing bee populations across the United States. While the mass media have played up the threat of Africanized "killer" bees in the Southwest, the rest of the country has been losing 80 percent or more of its wild honeybee populations.

Only people living within a mile or two of a beekeeper have much chance of seeing the industrious, golden-bodied insect at work on a flower. For everyone else, this icon of the garden and orchard might as well be extinct.

In the garden this means a scant harvest of cucumbers, squash, pumpkins and other vegetables requiring insect pollination, as well as feeble flowering and fruiting of many ornamental trees and shrubs. Wildflowers are not reseeding themselves as they should.

Most important, one-third of food crops need insect pollination, of which the honeybeeis by far the most consistent and reliable source.

Even commercial beekeepers, who take extraordinary measures to ward off pests and disease, are in trouble. During the winter of 2000-2001, Maryland was among East Coast states hit particularly hard by drought and mite-related causes. While a federal program has helped to restock the hives, winter losses generally remain far higher than in pre-mite times. Wild bees remain scarce; longtime beekeepers are calling it quits, and too few new ones are taking their place.

Which is why beekeepers from California to Virginia are scratching their heads at the Bush administration's proposal to close three of the four Department of Agriculture bee research laboratories, including the first, opened in the 1890s in Chevy Chase and moved to Beltsville in 1939.

To save money and avoid possible duplication, the president has proposed closing the bee labs at Beltsville, Baton Rouge, La., and Tucson. The laboratory at Weslaco, Tex., would remain open. Funding would be reduced from $5.7 million to $2.5 million, and the number of positions cut from 21 to 9.

"We certainly recognize the concern, but at the same time we have to reflect some national priorities right now," said Alisa Harrison, spokeswoman for Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman.

But beekeepers interviewed said any duplication of efforts by the researchers is warranted in this crisis, and the cadre of scientists at the four labs represents the honeybee's best hope for survival in the United States.

"It's like cutting all research for mad-cow disease just when an epidemic of the disease reaches its pinnacle and decimates our beef industry," said Laszlo Pentek, an Arlington beekeeper.

At Beltsville, researchers invented a widely used wire-screen base for beehives. As the bees come in for a landing, mites fall through the mesh to the ground and cannot climb back into the bee colony as they could with the old solid bases.

The lab has also demonstrated that naturally occurring formic acid kills mites and is working on an effective delivery system.

The Baton Rouge lab's work may hold the key to the long-term survival of the bee, said Pat Heitkam, a commercial beekeeper in Orland, Calif., 100 miles north of Sacramento. The scientists in Louisiana hope to use genes from the resistant Russian honeybee to create a tolerance for the mites in bee races commonly used in America, notably the gentle and industrious three-banded Italian bee.

But short-term fixes are also important, Heitkam said, especially because the mites are swiftly developing resistance to the chemicals now used to protect managed hives.

Heitkam, president of the American Beekeepers Federation, was in a group that met recently with members of Congress and senior officials in the Department of Agriculture. The beekeepers' blunt message, Heitkam said, was that "if you guys wanted to do more harm and save less money, you could not pick a better way to do it."

Appropriations subcommittees of the House and Senate meet in coming weeks to consider the fiscal 2003 budget, which goes into effect Oct. 1. "There have been requests from a lot of members of Congress to restore the funding," said Lynn Becker, spokeswoman for Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), chairman of the agriculture subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Heitkam supplies 8,000 of the 1 million beehives that the California almond industry needs in February and March to produce its crop. The nut trees bloom at a time when wild pollinators are scarce. "Without bees the almond crop would be a complete failure," he said.

Beekeepers hold back the ravages of the mites through a combination of methods, including the Beltsville screened bottom board; sugar and Crisco patties, which attract the bees and make them too greasy for mites to hitch a ride; and the use of miticides -- but only after the honey is collected. Large, strong colonies, which require greater feeding and care to achieve, are better able to fend off the deadly effects of the mites.

Heitkam estimates that fully one-third of the 1 million hives needed were too weak to press into service in the California groves this spring because of bee pests and diseases.

The remaining bees -- already stressed from being trucked on tractor-trailers -- had to pick up the slack. This might sound like a plot for a Disney animated movie, except no one is laughing.

"We are asking the bees to do more than we have ever done before," said Heitkam.

The varroa mite was discovered in Java in 1904 and came to the United States in 1986. It has spread to the 48 contiguous states and devastated bee colonies. The mites live in the hives and suck the bees' vital fluid. The bees become sick and deformed, and the colony slowly dies off.

The second parasite, the tracheal mite, came to the United States from Mexico in 1984. The mite lays eggs in the windpipe of the bees, whichfeed on their host after they hatch. This parasite can only be observed by dissecting dead bees and looking for the pest through a microscope.

A third serious pest has now emerged, called the small hive beetle. Beekeepers are resigned to its spread and the need for careful management.

Beekeepers are hoping the National Institutes of Health will select the honeybee as the next subject of genome sequencing, a $5 million to $10 million project with payoffs in a number of scientific areas, from human medicine to knowledge of evolution. But it would also yield keys to fighting bee pests and diseases, said Gene Robinson, an entomologist at the University of Illinois who is in a consortium making the request. But other groups are lobbying for different, higher organisms to be sequenced. An NIH task force is due to make a decision this month.

Honeybees have always been susceptible to ailments and pests, from a hive-destroying malady called American foulbrood disease to honey-robbing by skunks and bears. In the old days, it didn't matter, because the maladies were not ubiquitous. Healthy bees would swarm in the spring and live happily in old trees, ensuring honeybees in virtually every pasture and garden.

But without help today, a wild colony "wouldn't last a year," Bowles said.

"Man, you don't see any anymore," said Marker, 54, a fourth-generation apple grower on thisfertile upland of Frederick County, Va.

Now, the woods have lost their buzz, and Marker must keep an eye on his apple blossoms to make sure that if they open early, as they did this year, Bowles would be ready to arrive with his booty.

A youthful 68 with aShenandoah dialect as mellifluousas honey, Bowles made four runs to Marker's orchard over a three-day period in April, delivering 102 hives just ahead of a heat wave that forced an early and swift blooming season. Each hive contains, conservatively, 50,000 bees, most of them female workers whose job is to fly during the day to collect the liquid nectar and the solid pollen the hive needs to sustain itself and expand.

Along tractor paths at the edge of the orchards, Bowles placed the hives ingroups of eight,using a flashlight to find the wooden pallet bases that Marker had set out earlier. Over the next 10 days Bowles returned occasionally to check for swarms in nearby apple trees and then removed the hives the first week of May.

Marker will get a bill for $2,754 -- $27 a hive -- and the pleasure of seeing clusters of tiny apples swelling from pollination. Each pip in an apple represents a fertilized seed. The more pips that are pollinated, the larger the apple. This is more important than ever for Marker, who is trying to shift his production from apples for processing to eating apples, which must be large to sell at a premium.

With the unprecedented need for beekeepers, one might assume that this would be a growth industry. But the bees' woes and the increased costs in time and materials and medications to keep bees has led to a reduction in the number of commercial apiarists, said Heitkam, who also raises fertile queens to sell to beekeepers nationwide.

Keith Tignor, the state apiarist for Virginia, said feral populations have bounced back some since a 90 percent plunge in the winter of 1996-1997 that stemmed from mites and severe cold. But new wild colonies will be found only in the vicinity of managed hives from which they swarmed, he said, and the number of those has dropped dramatically as beekeepers throw in the towel. Before the mites, the state had 60,000 managed hives "and there are now fewer than 30,000," said Tignor.

In recent years, beekeepers have been losing 25 percent of their hives each winter. Thirty years ago, the rate was 5 percent to 10 percent, he said.

In Maryland, where winter losses were not as bad this year as the previous winter's 50 percent fall, the number of commercial hives has reportedly dropped from 16,000 to 10,000 since the arrival of the mites.

Another factor is limiting beekeepers in the Shenandoah Valley: the loss of orchardists. Marker said there were 50 to 60 growers in the valley when he took over the family orchard in 1969, "and now you're looking at 15 to 20 probably."

Similarly, the number of hobby beekeepers is down. At a garden festival at the Prince William County fairgrounds April 27, Rebecca Churchill and Tom Berry staffed a booth to sell the merits of the bee to the public and explain that the insect is in trouble.

"People are just not aware of the situation," Churchill said. The couple started the Prince William-Stafford Beekeepers Association last year. Membership so far: 20.

"I think the honeybee is going to continue to be around," Berry said. "There is enough interest and dedication in the beekeeping community to keep them going."

The stakes are high, and not just for Apis mellifera. At the booth, Berry stuck up a quotation attributed to Albert Einstein: "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left."

2002 The Washington Post Company