WNC farmers and beekeepers collaborate to support honeybee health

STATE OF BEE-ING: Local beekeeper Melanie Johnson inspects a hive frame. Western North Carolina beekeepers and farmers are working together through community-building and online platforms to support local honeybee populations. Photo courtesy of Bob Turner, Creekside Farm

Two years ago, Creekside Farm owner Kara Turner decided to add a couple of beehives to her Arden property as a way to fight the dwindling of the world’s honeybee population. The loss of bee colonies has potentially devastating implications not just for farmers like Turner, whose crops depend on the insects for pollination, but ultimately for the world’s food supply.

Making honey is only a small part of what honeybees do. Arguably the planet’s most significant pollinator, honeybees are an integral part of the ecosystem — the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that they help provide us with about one out of every three bites of food we eat.

According to the Bee Informed Partnership, a collaboration between agriculturally oriented research labs and universities across the country, beekeepers in the United States experienced an estimated 40 percent loss in their colonies between April 2017 and April 2018, a 3 percent increase since the 2011 data collection period. Last year, North Carolina’s honeybee population experienced a 50 percent loss, no doubt impacting the state’s $84 billion agriculture industry.

“The reason why I [keep bees] is mainly to help populate the bee colonies in this area; that’s my No. 1 reason,” says Turner.

The Four Ps

And she’s not alone. Many farmers and beekeepers are focusing their efforts on mitigating further declines in the population. Unfortunately, they can only do so much. Honeybees are up against a series of threats referred to as the Four Ps — pesticides, parasites, pathogens and poor nutrition. And the cause-and-effect relationships that exist among those threats add another layer of difficulty when attempting to tackle the loss of bee colonies.

Proper maintenance of hives can sometimes be all it takes to avoid problems, but this is not always the case. Many experienced beekeepers lose a significant number of colonies without knowing why. “Even though you may feel like you’re an expert in bees, you still don’t understand the life cycle and why you would lose hives quickly like that,” Turner explains.

Finding a solution is of dire importance, especially in regions like Western North Carolina where honeybee losses are substantial. Sarah McKinney, co-owner of Honey & the Hive beekeeping supply and honey store on Merrimon Avenue, is a beekeeper who runs anywhere from 80 to 150 hives, depending on the season.

Typically, McKinney will sell around 750 colonies from her store annually, and she believes motivating more people to start bee colonies is critical. “Everything really shifted in a more serious direction [with honeybee populations],” she says. “So that work was never more important than it was last year.”

Local shops like McKinney’s help create a community that beekeepers can rely on. Honey & the Hive offers beekeeping advice in addition to a wide range of products necessary for those actively maintaining their hives. “Beekeepers come in there, and we save bees’ lives in that store every day,” McKinney says. She also teaches classes where, in addition to providing her students with an overview of the basics of beekeeping, she stresses the importance of careful hive maintenance and highlights the overall significance of the honeybee.

Other beekeepers are following suit, emphasizing the importance of education and research in light of this ongoing crisis. Whether through subscribing to publications like the American Bee Journal and Bee Culture Magazine, attending conferences held by the N.C. State Beekeepers Association or through local beekeeping classes, beekeepers are making it a priority to effectively disseminate information relevant to maintaining their colonies.

“The single biggest thing we’ve done is begin to talk to each other about it,” says David Foti, owner of Sandy Bee Mine in Saluda, who manages just under 100 hives. One way he keeps himself up to date with the latest practices is by working alongside other experienced beekeepers, exchanging his time and labor for knowledge. He says a week or two of working with a commercial beekeeper gives him what would otherwise take a year or two to figure out on his own.

Working together

But Foti isn’t concerned with beekeepers exclusively. A symbiotic relationship with clear communication between beekeepers and farmers is a must, he says. For example, application of pesticides and fungicides on crops has been cited as one of the greatest threats to the honeybee. Online collaborative tools like FieldWatch.com allow beekeepers to post the locations of their colonies so farmers can adjust their spraying schedules to avoid nearby hives.

“It’s self-serving to both people that keep bees and those people that are in agriculture to go ahead and support the best interests of the honeybee,” explains Doug Galloway, president of Caldwell County Beekeepers Association, noting that without honeybees, farmers see diminished crop yields. “Farmers — whether they’re in agriculture or they’re just beekeepers — they’re all working together for the same goal.”

Local apple farmers, for example, will pay beekeepers to transport their hives to the field for pollination, while those who raise livestock can benefit from the pollination of their forage crops. Crops, however, do not have to be dependent on honeybee pollination for there to be a benefit, Foti says. Even though certain vegetables, such as corn, are primarily wind-pollinated, bees will still pollinate these plants as well, resulting in a greater yield.

Improved communication and recognition of the mutual benefits of supporting bees have resulted in increased awareness. Although one of the greatest threats to bee colonies, the varroa mite, was introduced to the United States as early as the 1980s, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that the term colony collapse disorder — an incidence defined by the disappearance of the majority of worker bees from a colony — was used regularly within the beekeeping community, explains Galloway. But creating greater public awareness about the disorder resulted in more money being funneled into research that would in turn help farmers and beekeepers address the challenge of a falling population.

The research gap

Communication and education aren’t enough to solve the problems the agricultural community is up against — research is also critical. The varroa mite, for example, is evolving to be resistant to pesticides. And although North Carolina beekeepers like Foti have adapted to changes in weather patterns, with many transporting their bees to warmer climates over the winter, threats such as those posed by climate change and parasite infestations continue to loom on the horizon.

There are still many unknowns regarding the declining honeybee population, and many beekeepers remain uncertain of the true origins of their losses. “What is it that’s killing the bees? We don’t know,” admits Carl Chesick, executive director of the Center for Honeybee Research in Asheville. “We’re not really that much closer to a solution.”

Parasites “are definitely an issue, but they haven’t proven that it’s the mites that are actually killing the bees,” he says. “It’s possibly true, but nobody has actually done the work to prove that that’s what it is. And making that assumption is not good science. We have to do some things to quantify and try to get to the exact cause, and for some reason, that just keeps getting put off.”

A number of farmers and beekeepers are pushing for the passage of N.C. House Bill 334, which would allocate financial resources for a new honeybee field laboratory at N.C. State University. And on the bright side, the problems WNC beekeepers face  — aside from the threat of bears destroying hives — are not unique to this state or region, making it easier for farmers and beekeepers from all over the world to come together to solve the crisis.

For now, the best thing beekeepers and farmers can do is continue to educate, repopulate and work with one another in an attempt to help the honeybee flourish. “I want to help any way I can,” says Turner. “I want to help grow the population of bees and give them a good start to a healthier road back. Maybe it’s wishful thinking because there are just so many different environmental situations that I can’t control. It may not help at all, but at least I’m going to give it a try.”

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