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The Lost Colony: Bees are gauge of environment’s health

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Glenn Tyler thinks of his honeybees as environmental canaries in the coal mine.

They are dying in such alarming numbers, the phenomenon has been given a name: colony collapse disorder.

“If it’s happening to the bees,” Tyler said, “what’s it doing to us in the long run?” He said media attention has heightened interest in the plight of the honeybee. “It’s maybe not as profound as a lot of people believe,” he said, “but we have some very real problems.”

Tyler, the state’s Beekeeper of the Year in 2014, said an annual mortality rate of 25 percent has become the norm. While that would wipe out a livestock farmer, beekeepers can split their hives and begin to recover. “We can rebuild on an annual basis,” Tyler said, “so from that aspect it’s not quite as dramatic.”

Bees are responsible for most of the pollination that produces the world’s fruits and vegetables, Tyler said. “We’d have a very bland diet without them,” he said.

Lori Hensley, who owns True Blue Nursery with her husband Brett, keeps a beehive near a pond on the property to pollinate flowers. “This is a perfect place to have bees,” she said. “Most beekeepers have to take bees from one crop to the next to get a source of pollen. Here, we bring the flower to the bee.”

An agriculture major, Hensley took a beekeeping class as an elective at the University of Florida and decided she wanted her own hive. Within two years, she produced 35 pounds of unusually flavorful True Blue Honey that she gave to employees and friends. “It’s great for customers to see we have bees,” she said. “It lets them know we are concerned about the environment, and it’s great for the plants.”

Hensley said beekeeping is being promoted as a hobby with a queen and honeybees delivered by mail in a package containing sugar water. “The hardest part,” she said, “is to just get over your fear. Bees will perceive your fear and become aggressive.”

She said Stephen Mantell of the Collins Glen neighborhood near Murrells Inlet, a beekeeper for 10 years, helped her get started at True Blue and set up a hive of his own there to support hers. He also helps beekeepers at Hobcaw Barony produce the honey sold in the gift shop.

Mantell got interested in bees when a swarm took over a birdhouse in his yard in Annapolis, Md. He enjoyed watching them, but the bees didn’t survive the winter. When he moved south he got some beehives. “The first couple didn’t work out very well,” he said. “Then I got a couple more, started getting honey, started donating it. Everyone liked it. I like gardening and being outside.”

Mantell said moving the 185-pound beehives is a good workout. “I don’t need to go to the gym,” he said. Mantell has lost some of his immunity to bee stings over the years. Protective clothing is not 100 percent effective. After a bee popped him on the leg through his blue jeans, it was time to move away from the hives.

Mantell had a setback a year ago after his neighborhood association wanted him to get rid of his bees and some vandals kicked over his hives. “They were decimated,” Mantell said. A neighbor with an open field across a creek allowed him to move the hives and nurse his operation back to life. His honey production this season is only about five gallons when it would ordinarily be 25, he said.

Trying to talk someone into beekeeping is never a good idea, Tyler said. “A lot of people get into beekeeping, thinking they are doing a great thing for the environment, and find it is an awful lot of work,” he said. “Don’t go into it because it’s the right thing to do. It is hot, hard work. Bees do sting. You need to have the passion to do it.”

Tyler keeps between 40 and 60 hives on his family farm near Loris but doesn’t consider himself a commercial operator. He lost most of his honey extracting equipment in a fire last year. As a state director, he no longer has the time to rent his bees to farmers for crop pollination and prefers keeping them near swamps and away from pesticides in fields and gardens.

Even bees in a fairly pristine location can die. Henry Culbertson, who keeps bees to pollinate orange trees and a garden on the river in Hagley Estates, inexplicably lost eight queens this spring. He ordered new ones to rebuild his operation but has a 45-quart backlog of honey orders.

“You just don’t know what happens to them sometimes,” Culbertson said. Mites, viruses and insecticides all put pressure on the bee population.

Imidacloprid, Tyler said, is an insecticide popular in home and garden centers that has done a lot of damage. It’s used to treat seeds and is also applied at planting. “It works in the plant in minute amounts,” he said. “It would probably be better if it killed the bees outright. Over a period of two or three years as pollinating insects visit, they get particles, non-lethal doses, and take them back to the hive. Beeswax works like a sponge, absorbing everything. There’s no way to expel that. After a few years, you’ve got a very toxic environment within the beehive.”

Tyler said Lowe’s and Home Depot no longer sell plants that have been treated with imidacloprid, but it’s still on the market. He expects other gardening stores to follow suit.

Tyler said commercial chemicals are not solely to blame for the honeybee’s plight. Beekeepers themselves have contributed by using pesticides to kill mites. Most, he said, have switched to wood bleach, which has been found to have no long term residual effects on the honeycomb or the bees.

Homeowners contribute by using more pesticide than a label recommends. “Kill them twice as dead,” Tyler said. Even organic products, if not properly used, can be harmful to honeybees.

Tyler said home landscapes can be made bee friendly with wildflowers and holly bushes. Bees love flowering dandelions. “Let them grow for an extra day or two before mowing,” he said. “If you use pesticides, do it late in the day so it will be dry by morning. Don’t spray when things are blooming. Little things will help the honeybee survive.”

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