BOSSIER CITY — Bossier City beekeeper William Hummer makes his living off the honeybee. Each year, he tends to hundreds of honeybee colonies, extracting their tasty, golden and sticky product for his business, Hummer and Son.
The company, started with his late father Stanley Hummer as a 4-H project, sells its product across the state — most commonly in a 12-ounce “bear” size or by the pound at local grocery stores.
But recently the number of colonies Hummer maintains has dropped 50 percent — from about 600 to a staggering 300. Hummer says he’s been able to meet the local demand for his honey but hasn’t been able to ship as much product down south as he would like, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“The state of the honeybees in Louisiana, they seem to be strong, but we have been faced with a lot of problems over the past few years,” Hummer said. “One being the weather. We’re very dependent upon the weather, rainfall being the big thing.”
Hummer’s experience isn’t unique. Nationwide, beekeepers have seen a steady decline in managed hives since a peak of 6 million in the late 1940s. Today, there are about 2½ million colonies — a drop scientists attribute to a number of factors including drought, disease and parasites.
Those issues can have a serious impact — not only on the bottom line of Hummer and other beekeepers but also on consumer pocketbooks.
Honeybees, nonnative insects brought to America by the Pilgrims, are vital to the nation’s prosperity. Without them, food costs of crops — such as apples, almonds and melons — Louisiana residents have come to rely on would skyrocket. In addition, cotton, a staple for clothing, also would be greatly affected, and flowers, such as sunflowers, would become scarce.
“Honeybees do over 80 percent of the pollination of the fruits (that we eat) and fibers that we wear, so without them we would be in a world of hurt,” Hummer said.
Yet there is a bright spot. A recent survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a substantial drop in colony mortality nationwide for the 2011-12 winter compared with the previous five years. And in Louisiana, the number of honeybee colonies has significantly increased.
“About two years ago, they (Louisiana beekeepers) ran about 30,000 colonies. Over the last two years, it’s jumped up pretty dramatically,” said Allen Fabre, administrative coordinator with a state apiary program. “Now we’ve got about 50,000 colonies, according to our records. I would just say our bees are holding their own.”
From mites to chemicals, a variety of suspects have been identified as reasons for the honeybee decline, but one term continues to pop up: colony collapse disorder. A mysterious problem, characterized by the failure of bees to return to their hive, there is no clear definition for CCD and no test for it, Fabre said.
“They’ve had the greatest minds in the world working on this colony collapse disorder problem that they identified three or four years ago, and they’ve spent millions and millions of dollars on it,” he said. “They still don’t know what’s causing what they consider colony collapse disorder.”
Experts disagree on the reasons for CCD and whether or not there is a sole factor aside from pesticides, parasites or viruses.
“We’ve had a little bit of a kick in the pants on decrease, but can we (attribute) it to colony collapse or is it just bad weather?” Hummer asked. “Even though Louisiana seems to get a lot of rain, (in) this section (northwest) we seem to miss a lot of it.”
Research and solutions
Bob Danka, a research entomologist with the Honey Bee Breeding, Genetics and Physiology Laboratory in Baton Rouge, said Louisiana has not experienced CCD, but a parasitic mite called the varroa mite is at the top of the list of problems for the Louisiana honeybee.
The lab’s research focuses on breeding honeybees to have a genetic resistance to the varroa mite and ultimately allowing beekeepers to cut back on the use of pesticides to control the parasite, Danka said.
“Chemicals are good at killing mites, but the chemicals also weaken the bees to some degree. So if we can take care of this major player by breeding bees to fight it successfully, that would be a great start, and we’ve made good progress,” Danka said.
The lab, which works to improve honeybee health and studies the biological threats to the insect, is one of three bee labs in the country funded by the USDA. It has produced two types of bees that show resistance to the varroa mite: the Russian honeybee and honeybees with the varroa-sensitive hygiene (VSH) trait.
Since the varroa mite originally is from Asia, the Russian honeybee has developed a natural resistance to the mite. Bees with the VSH trait have the ability to hygienically remove mite-infested honeybee eggs and larvae.
Threat to local bees
While the varroa mite has affected colonies in northwest Louisiana, the drought of 2012 and 2011 has presented an additional threat to local honeybees.
Mansfield beekeeper Randy Fair, also known as “the Bee Bumbler,” said his colonies have been stressed by the varroa mite, as well as the drought. He lost around 30 percent of his honeybee colonies and saw his honey production cut by half in 2011 compared with 2010.
“People don’t think about it, but if you don’t get any rain, then the plants don’t bloom, and if there’s no flowers, there’s nothing for the bees to make the honey from,” Fair said. “But with all of the rain that we got, the mild fall and the mild winter, most of the beekeepers that I’ve talked to are looking for a good return on honey crop and bees this spring.”
Another local problem for honeybees is the small hive beetle, but the beetle is not the direct reason the colony dies. The beetle preys on colonies that have been weakened by mites such as the varroa, Danka said.
A defense for local beekeepers and beekeepers nationwide comes in the form of a recently approved chemical called apivar, which is designed to treat varroa mite infestation.
But as Fair notes, “It’s hard to kill a bug on a bug.”
Blueberries are one of the major local crops dependent on pollination from honeybees. Chris Alexander, owner of Hillcrest Blueberry Farm in DeSoto Parish, leases 96 honeybee colonies from a south Louisiana beekeeper every spring to pollinate his 139-acre farm near Gloster.
Leasing honeybees for pollination is standard practice for many blueberry farmers, said Alexander, who also grows blackberries.
“If I don’t bring bees in, there won’t be enough honeybees to do all the pollination because it’s so condensed in regards to how many blooms (are) in that area.
“There’s just not enough native bees to take care of them,” he said.
And what would the nation look like without honeybees? Dennis Ring, extension entomologist with the LSU AgCenter in Baton Rouge, said the continent as we know it would revert to the way it was before European settlers brought the buzzing insect. Our diets might become more bland and the polyester suits from the ’70s might make a comeback.
“We certainly don’t want to lose our European honeybees because it will have a cost,” Ring said. “It will cost humans time, effort and money.”