Beekeepers Struggle to Support Colonies

Amy Mevorach
Between Varroa destructive mites and colony collapse disorder, beekeeping has become difficult of late. Local experts suggest the use of pesticides, even natural ones, during the time bees are foraging, contributes to the problem, and they encourage homeowners to plant more nectar- and pollen-bearing plants.
Issue Date: 
May, 2019
Article Body: 

In the 1980’s, said Kathy Halamka, President of the Norfolk County Beekeepers Association, “beekeeping was almost as simple as walking to a hive if one was collecting honey.” Since the introduction of Varroa destructor mites from China in 1987, and the onset of Colony Collapse Disorder in 2006, keeping bees has become a high maintenance endeavor. “In 2019, you must be actively working to monitor, test and treat hives. Added to the mix is the pressure placed on bees by the pesticide/herbicide/fungicide load in the environment.”
Halamka cofounded Unity Farm Sanctuary in Sherborn with her husband John in 2016, to create safe, loving, permanent homes for rescue animals such as alpaca, horses, poultry and pigs. They have six bee colonies at the Sanctuary and the survival rate this winter was approximately 75%.
Kris Westland, Chairperson of the Holliston Community Farm Advisory Committee, considers homeowners the greatest hazard to bees. “Even ‘natural’ oil pesticides kill bees if applied when they are foraging.” The Holliston Community Farm is home to two groups of colonies. The Norfolk County Beekeepers have two hives, having lost one over the winter, and what they call the Town Hives consist of two that both survived the winter. The land surrounding the hives is not sprayed for pests, but the bees travel 2-3 miles each way when foraging.
“Bees fly long distances,” said Halamka, “and we beekeepers cannot directly control spraying in their fly zone. The single two most important things a person can do is to not use pesticides harmful to beneficial insects, and to actively plant more nectar and pollen bearing flowering plants at their homes. Here at the Sanctuary we plant a large native flowering meadow, white clover, and also beneficial flowering trees like evodia, heptacodium, and linden.”
Tony Lulek of Little Beehive Farm lost four out of six hives this winter. February to March is a critical time for bees, as they have consumed most of the honey stored for the winter. They cluster around the queen to keep her at an even temperature of 92 degrees, and if the weather is cold, they will not leave her to forage for food. Lulek provides fondant, a sugar syrup, to sustain them. The bees might have succumbed to disease spread by mites, or they could have been poisoned by pesticides.
“Backyard pesticides are a $3 billion a year industry,” he said, including glyphosate herbicides, tick and mosquito sprays, fertilizers, and fruit tree sprays.
In the empty bee boxes, Lulek installed new bee populations with 13,000 bees from Georgia. “They have an earlier spring, so these colonies are already well established,” he said. Midday, the bees were emerging from holes at the centers of their boxes, which resemble a narrow chest of drawers, and soaring over the trees to forage for daffodils, skunk cabbage, and blossoming maple trees. They return to the hives at night from the same direction. Inside the hives, they design and build a masterpiece of hexagonal architecture, supported with wax and disinfected with propolis.
“The hexagon, as opposed to a circle or square, fit together with stronger walls.”
Though many people enroll in the Norfolk County Beekeepers Bee School each year, Lulek said, “there is a high attrition rate. It’s hard work.” Lulek has been keeping bees for over fifteen years. “There are not a lot of us who have been doing it this long.”