On a spring day earlier this year, Sharon Dobesh left her office in the plant pathology department at Kansas State University, got into her car and headed for Great Bend. She had just received a phone call from a beekeeper in that area, and what he said had prompted her to make the two-hour drive west to see the situation for herself.
The beekeeper’s colonies were dead.
As the go-to expert for bee-related questions for the greater part of Kansas, Dobesh was accustomed to getting calls from amateurs and tending to problems that were usually rooted in common mistakes. But the call she received that day was from a keeper who had managed bees for more than 30 years.
What Dobesh saw when she arrived was something she hadn’t come across before: The hives were completely empty.
“There were no bees. No nothing,” Dobesh said. “They were basically empty hives with a little bit of honey and pollen left in them. We really don’t know why they disappeared.”
Dobesh said that this could have been a result of Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines this as a sudden and widespread disappearance of adult honeybees from beehives.
Incidents of disappearing bees began in 2006, when beekeepers nationwide reported losses of 30 to 90 percent of their colonies. Experts formed a committee to address the issue, and a report by the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency was released earlier this summer.
But if CCD were to blame for the missing bees in Great Bend, it would be an anomaly.
Amid the nationwide conversation about the sudden loss of bees, there have been only isolated incidents in Kansas. Though beekeepers near Lawrence and in most of the eastern part of the state are maintaining their colonies, entomologists like Dobesh and Chip Taylor, a professor of insect ecology at Kansas University, said CCD is something that may have widespread and lasting effects.
Taylor said the environment is having a negative effect on all pollinators, which are essential for one-third of all food and beverages made in the U.S., according to the USDA report.
“If we eliminate those insects, then we diminish that vegetation and we’re going to be losing plants,” Taylor said. “There’s a fabric of life out there that’s mediated by pollinators and that’s why we really have to support those populations.”
Area beekeepers remain unaffected
Both Dobesh and Taylor have found that beekeepers in the state are not experiencing the same degree of loss as commercial beekeepers, who move their colonies for honey production and pollination. Kansas doesn’t have commercial beekeepers because wind-swept pollen is sufficient for most large-scale crops produced in the area.
“The beekeepers I’ve talked with in eastern Kansas, they don’t know what anybody is talking about,” Taylor said. “They don’t know of Colony Collapse Disorder because they aren’t experiencing it. They’re not exposing their bees to the same types of conditions.”
The USDA report did not point to one specific source of CCD. Taylor said it is caused by a number of stress-related factors: poor nutrition, disease and too much travel. In addition, he said, the bees are being exposed to pesticides and herbicides, which are sprayed on plants where bees find their pollen or nectar.
These are not problems that local beekeepers are having because most are hobbyists who own a small number of colonies that they are able to treat carefully.
“There are a lot of different characteristics of exposure that are coming together and complicating the issue for these commercial guys that the local beekeepers just don’t experience,” Taylor said. "I don't see a long-term decline in eastern Kansas in either the number of bee keepers or the number of colonies."
Local beekeeper maintains colonies
This is the case for Richard Bean, who owns Blossom Trail Bee Ranch near Baldwin City.
On Wednesday morning, Bean visited a colony that he keeps at a farm just south of Lawrence to introduce a new queen. When he was checking in a few days earlier, he noticed the old queen was missing.
While he was at it, Bean harvested honey that the bees had produced over the course of one month. He lifted combs from the hive, brushed off the bees and stored them in a box to take home.
“This is a nice one, clear honey,” he said while examining one of the combs.
While a commercial beekeeper manages 1,000 colonies or more, Bean keeps just 60. This allows him to visit his colonies regularly and fix problems, like the missing queen, to avoid losses of bees or honey.
Though his bees have suffered in recent summers because of climate, Bean said they are doing fairly well now.
“The large beekeepers are the ones losing,” Bean said. “You have to treat each colony as an individual, and they’re being treated as if they’re in a factory. It’s going to take awhile to figure out what we need to do to stay ahead of it.”
Working toward a solution
Local beekeepers like Bean have a part in providing a solution, Taylor said. By breeding their own bees, they will eventually have a stock that may be able to tolerate parasites and be resistant to diseases.
“They can benefit from tinkering with their bees and getting them to survive without artificial support,” Taylor said. “The more of them that can do that, the beekeeping industry will be better off in the long run.”
In the meantime, entomologists are continuing to hunt for the source of CCD, something Dobesh said could lead to results.
“We’re finding out a lot that we didn’t think were problems previously,” she said. “And hopefully we’re getting a little closer to that answer.”