Honeybees are fun to watch collecting pollen and enabling rich plant growth in the process. Their work is vital to our food crops. Last winter, though, set a nationwide record for greatest colony losses, according to the Bee Informed Partnership run by the University of Maryland. Flowery Branch beekeeper Bob Bradbury agrees. “We were down to 3 hives out of 20 at winter’s end,” Bradbury said. “In 2018, I bought 11 nucs to produce a total of 20 hives, which cost $3,000, to make up for the 2017 losses. This year, we had to start again with a massive rebuild.”
Nucs are small starter colonies which beekeepers use to populate a hive and get honey production going. But the hives are increasingly vulnerable to invasion from pests, particularly the varroa mite. This tiny spider transmits disease to the bees, leading to decimation of the hive until the queen finally decides to pack up and leave, along with her remaining workers. Whether they find a safer home is questionable. Karla Kiefer, a non-commercial beekeeper in Baldwin (and present author’s wife) faced total loss of her hives at the end of 2018. “We fumigated using the traditional oxalic acid method, which kills mites but not bees,” Kiefer said. “It failed. The new colonies will be watched even more closely this year, and we’ll try some new products to counter the threat.”
The rural environment of Banks County presents a safer environment for honeybees than increasingly urbanized Hall County, especially where subdivisions are appearing at a record rate near the Gwinnett boundary. “Lawn services who apply mosquito treatments are a particular threat to pollinators like bees,” Bradbury explained. “Chemicals that kill mosquitoes will get honeybees too. Also, the varroa mites seem to be getting resistant to fumigation.”
The situation isn’t as grave as in California, where wildfires and quirky weather have produced catastrophic losses. “It’s not just that the price of honey keeps going up,” said Kiefer. “70% percent of all plants depend on pollinators to reproduce or produce food. Loss of bees means higher prices everywhere in the grocery store.”
Beekeepers throughout Georgia are working hard to counter this threat. A visit to farmers’ markets in Flowery Branch and Suwanee will give you a chance to learn more in person from Bob Bradbury, and sample superb honey produced right here in North Georgia.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.