Bees enter one of the hives at Pleasant Ridge Apiary, owned by Brent Hamrick. The hive is one of nine that Hamrick maintains. (DHI Media/Erin Cox)
Bees enter one of the hives at Pleasant Ridge Apiary, owned by Brent Hamrick. The hive is one of nine that Hamrick maintains. (DHI Media/Erin Cox)

BY ERIN COX

DHI Media Staff Writer

ecox@timesbulletin.com

VAN WERT — As a beekeeper, Brent Hamrick works hard to keep his honeybees healthy and productive, so when he notices a drop in the number of his bees, he wants to know the cause.

Hamrick, owner of Pleasant Ridge Apiary in Van Wert, is like all other beekeepers across the country trying to figure out if the change in numbers of bees is a result of a bad winter or what is known as colony collapse disorder.

Colony collapse disorder, which was coined in 2006 after beekeepers reported 30 to 90 percent losses of their hives, is a mysterious syndrome where adult honeybees are not present in the hive, but the queen bee can still be alive and immature bees can also still be present. It is mysterious because no one knows the cause of the loss of the adult bees.

“What we have is an unknown death of bees and we’re not sure what’s causing it,” Kevin Browning, the Van Wert County apiary inspector, said. “There’s a lot of science being used to determine what’s going on with the bees, a lot of theories, but no answers.”

The United States Department of Agriculture released a study it did along with the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the Agricultural Statistics Board on March 20 this year that reported 2.74 million bee colonies produced honey in 2014, up four percent from 2013. However, Browning assures the bee colony collapse disorder is an issue in the area.

“The numbers are kind of all over the board right now,” Browning said. “We’re not sure how to attribute some of this to colony collapse, some of it is just the harsh winters we’ve had the last two winters. We’ve seen a harder winter the last two winters in Ohio than we’ve seen prior to this for the last few years. That’s kind of where things are at where science is beginning to step in and decide what’s the prime cause for all of the death. Is it winter, is it colony collapse disorder, is it that we just have fewer and fewer beekeepers all the time causing there to be fewer and fewer bee populations being cared for?”

For Hamrick, who started beekeeping six years ago, losing bees is a common occurrence. Typically some bees do die in the winter, but this spring he started out with 10 hives and is now down to nine after one colony just disappeared. Losing one hive, however, is not the worst he has experienced.

“Two years ago I suffered huge losses,” Hamrick said. “Two years ago when we had that really bad winter, I went into the winter with nine hives and came out with one. Now, can I write that up as colony collapse disorder or do I write that up as severity of the winter? I’m not real sure.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service has four general categories it is looking at as possible causes of the colony collapse disorder: pathogens, parasites, management stressors, and environmental stressors. Management stressors include apiary overcrowding and increased migratory stress from being transported all across the country. Environmental stressors are pollen and nectar quality, limited access to water, or, one of the most discussed causes, exposure to pesticides.

While less bees might seem good for individuals who do not like the chance of being stung, a world without honeybees would be less tasty, and that means more than just less honey.

“Ninety percent of the food that we consume is either directly or indirectly related to bee pollination,” Browning said. “The almond crops in California are 100 percent dependent upon bees to pollinate. There are other pollinators out there that are getting the job done, but they’re not as efficient as the honeybee and they’re not as well maintained as what the honeybees are, but we face a grave danger if we lose the honeybee population.”

The concern for the honeybee population is so great that the White House formed a Pollinator Health Task Force which developed the “National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators” to try to rebuild and maintain the population of honeybees, bats, butterflies, and other pollinators.

“The feral bee population has almost completely been collapsed,” Browning said. “We’ve seen very few feral bee colonies out there. Most of the bees today are being managed, at least in our area of Ohio, the bees are being managed by beekeepers, both in a corporate setting and in a hobby-type setting.”

As the colony collapse disorder continues being researched, beekeepers are just having to wait out the mystery until it is solved.

“Beekeeping can be a fun hobby or it can be a business, but when you do all the right things and you still lose a hive, it’s a little frustrating,” Hamrick said.