The state hasn't been hit hard, but the potential for crop loss is frightening. Some even fear we've been working our bees too hard.
LONG BEACH, Pacific County — The moon rose fat and full, and evening mist was licking the cranberry bogs as Eric Olson and his “girls,” as he calls them — several million of them — arrived for work late last month.
“I’m glad to see them,” said cranberry grower Bob Weyl, 79, as Olson unloaded pallet upon pallet of honey-bee hives.
“Without bees,” Weyl said matter-of-factly, “I wouldn’t have a crop.”
No matter how large or modern agricultural operations become, for many growers like Weyl, success — or failure — still mostly comes down to Apis mellifera, the European honey bee. The simple act of pollination remains the magic touch of agriculture.
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Fully a third of the entire U.S. food supply depends on bees for pollination, from melons to cucumbers, cranberries to apples, and nearly the entire world supply of almonds, according to the National Research Council. Six of Washington’s top 10 crops depend at least indirectly on honey bees, state agricultural statistics show. And those six were worth nearly $3 billion last year.
So it’s little wonder that farmers and beekeepers here are watching with trepidation as experts around the world try to find out what’s behind a sudden and massive honey-bee die-off. Called colony-collapse disorder, it has resulted in bees vanishing from hives in more than 30 states, including Washington, according to one survey.
National Research Council, Status of Pollinators in North America (Washington: National Academy of Sciences, 2007)
In Washington, the situation is not serious — at least not yet, beekeepers here say. But if the situation worsens, it will spell trouble for agriculture.
“And we are suspicious that it is spreading,” said Jerry Tate, president of the Washington State Beekeepers Association.
It’s far from the first bee die-off. In 1975, so-called Disappearing Disease hit 27 states. But the newest crisis, combined with growth in crops that require bee pollination, has some experts warning against putting so much on the slender back of the beleaguered honey bee.
A range of trouble
Beekeepers began reporting mysterious and unusually high losses in 2006. When they checked their hives, they found the queen, a small retinue of attendants and plenty of food. But nobody else was home. No guard bees, no house bees, no worker bees, not even drones.
Colony-collapse disorder is only the latest in a plague of problems for bees, from bloodsucking mites to fungal and viral diseases, pesticide kills, and loss of habitat leaving bees with little to eat. Beekeepers are working harder than ever to find blossoms for their bees as highway medians are being mowed, suburbia is being paved, and towns are enacting anti-bee ordinances that restrict placement of hives.
Over the past 60 years, the number of bee colonies nationally has fallen from 5.9 million in 1947 to 2.4 million in 2005, according to the National Research Council. Meanwhile the amount of acreage planted in nuts, fruits and vegetables that depend on bees for pollination is going up.
So far, farmers in Washington have experienced no shortage of bees to pollinate their crops, Tate said. Not so in California.
Beginning in 2005, California growers resorted to importing bees from New Zealand and Australia to pollinate the $2.5 billion California almond crop. And that has raised the specter of inviting in a whole new bunch of problems and diseases yet unknown.
At the rate of decline documented since 1989, European honey bees may cease to exist in the U.S. by 2035, according to the National Research Council, which warned even before the rise of colony-collapse disorder that over-reliance on one highly managed, nonnative species is inherently unstable.
Some beekeepers think the disorder could have started as early as three years ago, but “we just didn’t know it yet,” Tate said.
But despite a welter of scientists working on the problem, no one knows exactly what’s causing it, or even if it’s really a new problem.
No one even knows how many hives have been lost to colony-collapse disorder across the country or in Washington. Jerry Bromenshenk, a bee expert at the University of Montana, surveyed more than 600 beekeepers around the country from December 2006 until June 1 of this year and found that 38 percent had losses of 75 percent or more, and 28 percent of those beekeepers thought colony-collapse disorder was to blame.
In Washington, losses typically have been between 10 and 20 percent, compared to 60 and 70 percent in other states.
But Olson lost more than 30 percent of his bees in 2005. Maybe it was the new-fangled disease, he says. Or perhaps, it was just poor nutrition and inadequate attention.
Olson knows this: He would have gone out of business if his bank hadn’t bailed him out.
“Sweatshop for bees”
Based in Yakima, Olson is part of a small cadre of migratory beekeepers who pollinate crops across the West. As the region urbanizes, he is in a constant scramble for bee pasture for his more than 13,000 hives. From fireweed in logged-over timberlands to blackberry brambles on the suburban fringe, Olson will take every acre of blossoms he can find.
The work of modern agriculture demands millions of managed bees like his, farmed like teeny livestock and trucked like precision instruments to the assembly lines of industrial-scale agriculture. Some bee experts wonder whether humans are working the bees to death.
“We are stressing these bees out,” said Bromenshenk, the bee expert. “They normally occupy a tree and feed off local crops.
“Now we are moving them vast distances and dropping them into new crops, and some of them don’t even give them a good diet. You are not done a moment out of the almonds and you are racing into the cherries, and then it’s into the apples and crops after crop after crop. This is a whole different way than bees evolved.
“This is kind of like the sweatshop for bees.”
Yet colony-collapse disorder has been reported by beekeepers large and small, by keepers who truck their hives long distances and those who keep them at home. The only thing they seem to have in common are the spectacular losses.
For his part, Olson thinks bee health comes down to nutrition, and just plain paying attention. The year he lost so many bees, he says, he let himself get too busy to go out and “go talk to the bees.”
“They’ll tell you what’s wrong,” says Olson, who claims he can tell by the pitch of his bees’ hum if they are stressed out or thriving. So now, once a week he has been talking to them. And he says he’s having his best year ever.
But he is troubled by the trends. “I am not optimistic about the future,” he said. “And I’m an optimist by nature.”
Busy as a bee
There are morning people, and there are farmers.
Olson springs up at 3:30 most mornings, ready to have at it, coffee in one hand and a slug of his homemade honey in the other to sweeten his brew. This morning, after a short night at a local hotel, he was ready to place the rest of his hives in the cranberry bogs.
By first light, he was bouncing down rutted farm lanes in his truck, finding the electrified fences that enclose the hives and keep bears out. Winnie-the-Pooh notwithstanding, it’s actually not the honey that bears crave. It’s the bee larvae, deep in the hive.
“Once they taste that, you’ll never keep them out,” Olson said.
When he gingerly lifts the lid off one of his hives, bees tickle his face, his ears, his neck. He’s been stung so many times in his life he hardly notices it.
“Be nice, girls,” he said softly. The smell of honey hangs sweet, thick, almost intoxicating around the hive.
Olson and his bees still have miles to go this season. When the cranberries are pollinated, it’s off to vegetable crops in Moses Lake. Then the bees will head east, to the vast pastures of clover in North Dakota that will be transformed into honey and the bulk of Olson’s profit.
Olson, married to a very patient spouse, figures he’ll be away from home traveling with the girls four to five months of the year. And at 63, he said he’s ready to slow down, maybe even sell the business.
But as morning sun warms the hives, he watches with unveiled pride as his bees zip off to surf the waves of blooms.
“They are bugs,” Olson said. “But they are loveable bugs.”
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or email@example.com