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God save the queens

Dr. James Tew of OSU (center) with Central Ohio Beekeepers Dana Stahlman and John George. Photos BF
Dr. James Tew of OSU (center) with Central Ohio Beekeepers Dana Stahlman and John George. Photos BF

Eighty acres of Lee Jones' 300-acre farm in Huron is set aside as a refuge for bees.  Rotating crops of fresh flowers provide the bees with plenty of food. Chemicals are banned, and outside disruptions are kept to a minimum.  All to provide the bees with optimal conditions to flourish.

Why pamper a bunch of insects? 

Because without these insects much of our food supply could virtually disappear.

"We recognize how important they are to our livelihood," says Jones, who is a partner in his family's business, Chef's Garden, one of the leading growers of artisan produce in the country. "(Healthy bees) affect our yields.  It even affects being able to produce a crop at all."

The American Beekeeping Federation estimates that managed honeybees contribute at least $14 billion to the value of U.S. crop production. Bees are vital to the pollination of crops such as fruits, nuts and vine-growing vegetables. Each year two thirds of the nation's 2.4 million managed bee colonies are on the road, traveling to fields of blooming fruit trees, vegetables or nut trees, where their nectar gathering generates the pollination that enables the food production to sustain a hungry world.

The honey we enjoy from the bees is actually some of the food the bees create during the pollination season to sustain their hive over the winter. Honey production is not usually a large source of income for beekeepers, however.

With so much riding on the vitality of these tiny creatures, you'd think they'd get a lot of respect. Unfortunately, bees have been under attack recently from both natural and manmade sources, and their numbers show it.

James Tew, beekeeping specialist with the Ohio State University Honey Bee Lab, says that the number of hives in Ohio is now about one-tenth the number that existed just 50 to 60 years ago.

Today, about 38,000 colonies are kept by beekeepers all over the state. That is down from about 300,000 colonies in the 1950s, says Tew. Nationally, the number has dropped 50 percent since just the 1970s when there were 5 million colonies.

Part of the reason for the decline is that the number of family farms has dropped dramatically since then, says Tew, but other forces are at work as well.

A tiny mite called the Varroa destructor mite that attacks both bee larvae and adult bees has been responsible for a significant number of colony die-offs over the last 20 years.  But declining natural environments for bees due to urban sprawl and wide use of pesticides and herbicides are also factors in honeybee decline.

In the meantime, the bees are needed to pollinate an ever-increasing amount of food fiber due to our modern high-yield crops. The smaller number of bees are worked harder and harder and this may have led to stress on the colonies, says Tew.

In recent years many hives also have succumbed to a condition known as colony collapse. This is a failure to thrive that eventually leads to the breakdown or death of the bees.

To defend the bees, beekeepers in Ohio have turned to breeding hardier queens in an attempt to strengthen the bees from within.

Dana Stahlman, president of the Central Ohio Beekeepers Association and a master beekeeper who has worked with bees nearly his entire 71 years, is actively involved in the breeding program to develop queens that are resistant to mites and tough enough to survive other environmental onslaughts.

"We've had a problem with bees dying since the 1980s," says Stahlman, who learned beekeeping from his grandfather, who kept a commercial bee business in Paulding County. "Just this past year we lost 70 percent of the bees in Ohio.  Beekeepers are picking themselves up and starting over again almost every year."

Generating a new bee hive is an expensive undertaking, says Stahlman.  A small starter swarm with a queen costs roughly $75, and it takes as long as 12 weeks for the bees to reach a maturity point where they can be productive as a colony.  A beekeeper who uses the bees for pollination or honey would need many dozens to more than a hundred colonies to be successful as a business.

Three years ago the Ohio State Beekeepers Association started the Ohio Queen Project to breed queens that would be guaranteed to produce bees that were strong enough to survive through the winter amidst the numerous outside threats.

One breed in particular, the Carniolan from Eastern Europe, has shown promise, says Stahlman.

"Each queen has a number and a color to designate her lineage," he says.  "We will know which queens don't work so well and which queens do. We want queens that are hardy, gentle, that produce honey and that are resistant to mites."

"It takes a lot of hives to see if the results are paying off," he says.  So more time is needed to tell how successful these new queens will be.

Almost anything beekeepers attempt in the efforts to help save the bees is a gamble, says Joe Kovaleski, a master beekeeper from Steubenville who has been raising bees for at least 18 years.

"We hope things are getting better for the bees, but we really don't know."

He does know that if bees disappear, agriculture in Ohio and all across the country will not be the same.

"We'd be in big trouble. Pollination not only affects the quantity but the quality of the fruits and vegetables we eat.  Honeybees are the best at doing this."

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