It's spring. Lawrence-area gardens and orchards should be abuzz with bumbly swarms of pollen-hungry honey bees.
Not this year.
Most of the bees are dead, victims of either an unpredictable winter or a murderous mite.
"Up until about five years ago, there were probably 50 to 70 feral bee colonies in Lawrence. Today, I'd be surprised if there were more than two or three," said Chip Taylor, an entomology professor at Kansas University.
Across the nation, wild bee populations, Taylor said, have been decimated by Varroa mites, tiny parasites that suck the blood from adult bees and developing broods.
"They're pretty much finished," Taylor said. "For 20 years, there was a colony in a catalpa tree by the Campanile. It's gone now.
"There was one for 20 years under the capstone on top of the Natural History Museum next to the Kansas Union. It's gone."
Initially found in Asia, Europe, Africa and South America, Varroa mites were discovered in the United States in the late 1980s. It's not known whether the mites arrived naturally or were introduced.
The Lawrence area's domesticated bees are struggling, too.
"It was a rough winter for them," Taylor said. "It got warm for a while, and a lot of the bees dispersed, then it got cold and stayed cold. So they got 'caught off their honey' -- that's what it's called. They got too far out and they couldn't get back."
Taylor, who's also a beekeeper, maintained about 20 colonies behind Foley Hall on KU's west campus and at the "bee house" southwest of the Lied Center.
"Eight (of the 20) made it through the winter," he said.
Beekeepers have learned to protect their domesticated colonies with mite-killing chemicals or by importing mite-resistant bee varieties.
"Most of us don't use chemicals unless it's absolutely necessary," said Lawrence beekeeper Ron Bishop.
Bishop said he and his father, Ed, went into the winter with eight or nine colonies.
"Four made it through," he said. "It's been so hot and dry the last three or four summers, the queens don't lay as many eggs.
|¢ Bees have been producing honey as they do today for at least 150 million years.¢ Honey bees are social insects, with a marked division of labor. The queen is the only sexually developed female in the hive. Drones are stout males whose purpose is to mate with the queen. Workers feed the queen and larvae, guard the hive entrance and collect nectar to make honey.¢ Honey bees' wings stroke 11,400 times per minute, which creates their distinctive buzz.Source: honey.com|
"To make it through the winter, the colony -- the mass of bees -- needs to be about the size of a basketball," Bishop said. "But we've been going in with colonies the size of a softball or a little bigger. That makes it hard."
Bishop said he was not as pessimistic as Taylor. "There are still bees out there," he said, noting he's already been called to harvest two feral colonies -- one in the 1500 block of East 18th Street, the other in the 1500 block of Pennsylvania Street.
"They were Italian honey bees, so they're probably escapees from somebody else's colonies," Bishop said. Neither colony, he said, showed signs of the dreaded Varroa mites.
They soon will, Taylor predicted.
"The only bees that seem to be persisting are those treated with chemicals to control Varroa mites and those in very isolated areas," he said.
The bee shortage is causing problems for area orchards that depend on bees to pollinate their fruit trees.
"If you're in the orchard business, chances are you're either renting somebody else's bees or you're learning to raise your own," Taylor said.
Greg Shipe, who owns Davenport Orchards, Vineyards and Winery four miles east of Lawrence, says he's come to rely on the Bishop's bees.
"I tried to do it myself, but it got to be too much so I turned it over to them," Shipe said. "Bees are very much necessary for apples and peaches. You've got to have them. A lot of trees are not self-pollinating.
"I've gone to grapes more now," he said. "You don't need bees as much for grapes."