Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Answer to bee crisis: amateur beekeepers?

Sunday, Feb. 22 2009
FENTON,MO. — Beekeeping has been dubbed "farming for intellectuals." The layered
hives, the sociology of the insects and their intriguing life patterns have
long provided an obsession for anyone disposed to backyard science.

But these days, beekeeping hobbyists may be more than just enthusiasts with
funny netted hats. They could provide a vital link in replenishing the world's
disappearing bees and the estimated $15 billion in crops that depend on them.

On Saturday, the Eastern Missouri Beekeepers Association hosted its second
workshop for beekeepers. It drew nearly 300 people, up from about 200 last year.

"I think the word is getting out about the joy of beekeeping," said Robert
Sears, the association's president, "and the importance of bees in nature."

Dozens of budding beekeepers sat in the Raymond E. Maritz Theater, learning
about where to place their hives, how to handle the frames inside, how to
analyze "honest industry" or determine when their colony has become
demoralized. In another room, more experienced beekeepers — those who attended
last year's workshop — got into the deeper intricacies of beekeeping.

Last year these backyard beekeepers added 150 hives to the area, with an
estimated 7.5 million bees. This year, with the new beekeepers and the
expanding colonies from last year's efforts, the numbers should go up

It's these backyard hives, some experts believe, that could provide reservoirs
of healthy bees to bolster commercial populations, the disappearance of which
has become a worsening crisis.

More than two years ago, beekeepers started noticing that bees were abandoning
their hives, mysteriously going off to die somewhere. Since then, the numbers
of bee deaths have climbed.

Last year the population of managed bees — those kept in hives — dropped 36
percent, following a 33 percent drop the previous year, threatening the 90 or
so crops that depend on bees for pollination. Researchers have yet to agree on
the cause of this "colony collapse disorder," but they're getting closer. In
the meantime, many believe, it's up to hobbyists and regional groups to right
the imbalance. "We're pretty confident that hobbyist beekeepers with hives that
raise local queens will continue to create the genetic diversity necessary for
honeybees to survive," Sears said.

Commercial bees are often moved around the country on flatbed trucks, going
from pollination site to pollination site. One hypothesis is that the stress
often sickens the bees, and that chemical and antibiotic treatments further
weaken them.

Some researchers believe they have identified another plausible cause behind
colony collapse disorder.

"We are recognizing that bees are suffering from multiple infirmities," said
Dewey Caron, a speaker at Saturday's workshop and one of the country's
preeminent bee researchers. "We're closer to understanding why they can't fight
back, and that seems to be because of pesticides and herbicides."

But most gardeners don't use either substance — meaning backyards could provide
safe pockets for bees to thrive.

The workshop attendees came from all around the region, and had different
levels of experience or commitment. But, they said, they wanted to be part of
helping nature find a solution.

"We're asking too much of these bees," said Margie Sawicki, an assistant
professor at St. Louis University, who attended the workshop. "This is a way to
build up the population."

And, of course, there's a little bonus in the process, if you get it right.

"I'd like to help with pollination," said Penney Boyce, of University City.
"And I like the honey."

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