Parasites that have decimated bee populations across the United States have reached Douglas County.
Douglas County beekeepers are waging a battle that carries major implications for the environment.
Their enemies: tiny parasitic mites that have spread to the Midwest and are slaughtering entire colonies of bees.
"I think for us around this area, it's the biggest problem," said Cecil Sweeney, beekeeper and owner of Mid-Contintent Agrimarketing, Overland Park, a beekeeping supply company. "It's becoming pretty widespread."
Sweeney said problems are being caused by two types of mites -- Varroa and tracheal. Varroa mites attack hives by feeding on adult bees and laying eggs in cells containing bee larvae. When mites hatch, they begin feeding off of the young.
The microscopic tracheal mite kills bees from the inside by entering the insects' breathing passages.
State officials say mites or diseases afflict about 20 percent of Kansas' commercial bee colonies.
Ron Jeffries, Lawrence, said Varroa mites killed seven of his 50 to 60 colonies last summer, decimating one of his most productive bee yards.
"When I came in the yard toward the end of the summer and started pulling honey, I saw a lot of dead bees," he said. "They killed about a third of the yard."
Ed Bishop, a Lawrence beekeeper who tends about 50 hives in the area, said time would tell whether mites had invaded his bee boxes. Right now, bees are surviving the cold by clustering and constantly moving from the hive's core to its perimeter, which keeps the core temperature about 90 degrees.
"When I put them away, they were fine," Bishop said. "When I go in in February or March to check them, it's going to tell me what's come through."
Bishop and Jeffries said regular chemical treatments for mites have become a necessity for beekeepers.
Orley "Chip" Taylor Jr., professor of entomology at Kansas University, said researchers believe Varroa mites were introduced to the United States in the mid-1980s through illegal shipments of bees from South America to Florida.
In less than 10 years, Taylor said, they've spread across the nation.
"What we're going to see in Lawrence, Kansas, is in next four of five years, virtually all wild colonies of bees are going to disappear," Taylor said. "There were approximately 50 or 60 wild colonies of honeybees living in Lawrence. We expect to see all of these die out."
Taylor said effects of the purge were hard to gauge. But already, he said, some people who rely on bees to pollinate crops -- orchardists, for example -- are feeling the sting. And the number of domesticated bees also is shrinking, he said, because economic hardships are forcing beekeepers out of the business.
"It's a time of change," he said. "And the mites are causing part of this."