”My rain dance doesn't seem to be working,” Seth Rick, a local beekeeper based in Shively.
Rick, who has been working in the industry for 25 years and living in Humboldt County for 32 years, said he's never seen anything like the last two seasons.
“The weather's been bizarre,” he said. “2012 was my worst year. I have been really worried about the future of bee populations, but now I'm just really curious to see what will happen this spring.”
Rick, who is also a member of the American Bee Federation, said bee populations rise and fall on pollen and nectar. If they don't have enough, the hives won't build up.
”Usually, at this time in Shively during a normal year, there are hundreds of acres of flowering wild radish, which is a great pollen and nectar source for bees, but there's none right now,” he said.
Local beekeeper Garrett Brinton said those in his field, similar to others who keep livestock, need to propagate bees by taking the stronger hives that survived winter and divide them into two or three hives in the spring.
Brinton, who has taught a course on beekeeping at Humboldt State University for the last five years, said that there were about 5 million U.S. managed honeybee hives in the 1950s. Today, that number stands at 2.5 million.
”We're losing more hives nowadays than a few decades ago,” Brinton said. “Beekeepers have to work harder to make up for these loses, it's not as easy as it used to be. The Varroa mites are probably the No. 1 cause of bee loss over the last 20 years since they showed up from Asia.”
Besides mites and the drought, there are pesticide issues and fungal diseases that further weaken bees' immune systems, Brinton said.
These multiple variables that build on top of one another were given the formal name “Colony Collapse Disorder” in 2006.
”People wouldn't necessarily die without honey bees,” Brinton said, but losing them entirely would affect much more than most people seem to realize. “Dairy indirectly relies on honey bees. Clovers need pollination and cattle depend on clovers.”
Roughly a third of all our food, including plums, apples and squash, depend on some kind of bee, mostly honeybee, pollination, Brinton said.
”One word I would use to describe the honey bee situation is 'precarious,'” Brinton said. “There's no guarantee bees will survive, but there's a lot of effort towards researching about them. I'm cautiously optimistic, because a silver lining of the decreasing populations is that there's more general interest in the situation.”
Rick has attended many international conferences regarding bees, including the 2013 Apimondia conference in Ukraine, where people, mostly scientists, from all over the world discussed the bee situation.
”People all over the world are doing studies on things like pesticides,” Rick said, though in the U.S. this research seems to be more scarce. “We really need to look at these things.”
Jamie Bucklin, president of Humboldt County Beekeepers Association, said he has hope that the U.S. can turn the situation around, though it won't be an easy fight.
”I had plans to start a bunch of new hives this year, but now I'm hesitant, because they won't have anything to eat,” he said. “I've been in Humboldt 20 years and I've never seen it look as dry as it does now.”
Brinton said Humboldt is not a huge beekeeping county, with a few beekeepers and a few hobbyist beekeepers.
”The chemical agriculture that we've created seems to be the culprit of decreasing bee populations,” Bucklin said.
The Humboldt County Beekeepers Association has created a “New Beekeepers Support Group,” to give new beekeepers advice and assistance. It has already had two meetings and is looking to really get going this spring, Bucklin said.
For more information about the “New Beekeepers Support Group,” contact Jamie Bucklin at 845-3362
Jillian Singh can be reached at (707) 441-0509 or Jsingh@times-standard.com.