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Archive for Wednesday, June 19, 1996

PARASITES INVADE KANSAS BEEHIVES

June 19, 1996

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Bees are dropping like flies, which might be bad news for fruit and vegetable growers.

It has been a silent spring around the bee hives that hummed for 20 years at Hoyland Farm, a 40-acre fruit and vegetable operation north of Lawrence in Jefferson County.

Nearly all of the thousands of bees that once lived in the hives there have died within the past year, and owners Bob and Joy Lominska suspect the killer was the tiny parasitic Varroa mite that has been attacking commercial and wild honey bees across the nation since the early '90s.

The mites killed half of Lawrence beekeeper Ed Bishop's 60 colonies in the past year.

"Beekeepers are going to have to change their ways," Bishop said. "I think about everybody had the same problem."

The pinhead-sized Asian Varroa mite, believed to have been introduced into the United States in the mid-1980s in illegal shipments of bees from South America to Florida, last year killed 15 percent to 18 percent of the bees in the 35,000 commercial hives managed in Kansas, according to the Kansas Department of Agriculture.

That means, for starters, less honey produced in those hives.

"It's not a catastrophe," said Gary Ross, an entomologist with the agriculture department. "It's a cause for concern for the industry and something they need to be aware of."

Kansas farmers produce about 2 million pounds of honey a year.

Ross said wholesale honey prices are up 90 percent from a year ago to about 95 cents a pound, although restrictions on honey imports may have more to do with the price increase than supply woes caused by Varroa losses.

Still, the bee deaths aren't just a concern for honey growers and consumers.

In collecting the nectar they use to make honey, bees transfer pollen from one flower to another. That pollination is necessary for flowers to develop into the fruits and vegetables sold in supermarkets and farmers' markets -- everything from peas, peppers and squash to melons, berries and tomatoes.

Some fruit and vegetable plants are pollinated by flies, moths, bumble bees and the wind. But some depend on the European honey bees introduced into North America by colonists in the 1700s and now suffering from the mite attacks.

Another kind of parasitic mite that lives in honey bee breathing tubes also is causing some losses but not as much as the Varroa mites.

"My impression is that there are much fewer honey bees on the clover in my yard than there used to be," said Charles Michener, professor emeritus of entomology at Kansas University.

The Varroa mites can be killed by pesticides in commercial bee hives before entire colonies are wiped out. But the mites also are attacking and decimating colonies of wild honey bees. Farmers and gardeners who have depended on them for pollination might be in for disappointing harvests without them.

Michener suspects that native North American bees that were common before honey bees were introduced from Europe will make a comeback.

"In people's gardens, the native bees may take over," Michener said. Or they may not. The native bees may not be interested in the horticultural crops in most gardens but prefer to gather nectar from native flowers.

Floyd Ott's apple trees aren't producing much fruit this spring on his 268-acre farm south of Eudora. But he blames a spring cold snap for the drop in fruit production, not bee troubles. And his peaches are thriving.

The Lominskas' apple trees were full of flowers but now have almost no fruit.

"That could be a coincidence, but they seemed to bloom well," Bob Lominska said. "The bees just weren't in the apples like they usually were."

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