Local beekeepers respond to New York Times story on colony collapse
A recent New York Times article suggests that a virus and fungus have paired up to cause the demise of many hives across the country. Since the Upper Midwest is home to many large and small beekeeping operations, we asked a couple of local experts about what this means for the region's honey producers, many of whom jumped on the bandwagon when Minneapolis legalized having colonies within the city limits last year.
How much of a threat is this to Minnesota bees and farming operations? Here's what two area bee professionals had to say.
We spoke with Brian Fredrickson, proprietor of Ames Farm in Watertown, Minnesota, who raises bees in 18 locations around the west metro and southern Minnesota. According to him, "This is an industrial feed lot issue, not a risk for the general bee population." He runs a sustainable outfit, allowing his bees to rest in the winter. That means he doesn't ship them west for paid pollination gigs. Fredrickson explains that the bigger oufits are "feeling the pinch of cheap foreign honey" and have to rent their bees out for pollination fees. That involves trucking thousands of hives at a time out to California to help almond, cherry and other crops.
When the bees are thrown together in large groups, disease spreads quickly. Also, altering the hives' natural schedules, food, and environment may create more revenue but will ultimately stress the colonies, making them more susceptible to illness. Fredrickson explained how many keepers feed their hives corn syrup while they are en route to a crop site. Once there, the bees experience a monoculture diet of only one food type (the crop they were sent to pollinate). Both these factors may contribute to weakening the insects, who then become unable to withstand adverse conditions. According to Fredrickson, the media has hyped the issue but has not always discussed the role that sustainable practices can play in protecting bees.
On the other hand, University of Minnesota bee lab researcher and apiculture professor Dr. Marla Spivak says keeping hives healthy has become harder for everyone, whether large or small operators. She is happy that progress has been made in finding some of the medical components of CCD but believes that, "We still need to know why colonies have become so susceptible to these pathogens." Spivak says it could be due to a lack of available flowers for bees or the long history of pesticide use in this country, or a combination of both those factors. Nobody knows for sure at this point.
So while scientists continue to look for details and proof, what can we do to help the bees of the Upper Midwest? Spivak recommends "planting large plots of flowers that secrete nectar and pollen, and eliminating pesticide use as much as possible." For a list of appropriate plants, check the Xerces Conservation Society website. And if you plan to buy honey, choose a brand that follows sustainable beekeeping practices.
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