By Tamara Scully
Columbus — The winter meeting of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association recently highlighted the many issues facing the state’s honeybees — and therefore the state’s farmers — this season.
The honeybee, which is the state insect, is a necessary part of New Jersey’s agriculture production. Providing pollination to approximately 80 percent of crops, these busy insects are responsible for more than one-third of the food found on tables today.
Beatrice Tassot, of Tassot Apiaries in Long Valley, was appointed as the 2007 president of the State Beekeepers Association at the winter meeting.
One of her goals for the year is to raise awareness of the roles honeybees play in agriculture. She and husband Jean-Claude run an active apiary producing honey and providing pollination services to farmers throughout the region.
“Beekeeping is a part of the agriculture landscape. If we don’t have bees, we don’t have fruit. Honeybees are the insect pollinators for one-third of our food,” Tassot said.
The outlook, however, is currently looking bleak for the bees. The honeybees are under attack this winter. A multiplicity of factors has combined to make the survival of colonies in the Northeast, and across the nation, questionable.
A mysterious ailment, now known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, has been affecting hives across the United States in what could be called epidemic proportions. The Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium, formed to address the pest management problems facing beekeepers over the past several years, recognized CCD as a major threat to the industry. The Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium issued an alert stating that the severity of the colony loss across the United States, combined with the dwindling number of beekeepers, could potentially prove catastrophic to the honeybee population.
Even before the recognition of CCD as a major threat to New Jersey’s bee colonies, the state was attempting to cope with a loss of beekeepers over the past five or so years, resulting in a decline of almost 50 percent in the number of New Jersey beekeepers. With about 60,000 honeybees per beehive, the loss of hives has caused a significant decrease in the state honeybee population.
In 2006 the New Jersey Department of Agriculture offered a program to promote beginning beekeepers, financing start-up supplies for participants. The program did generate quite a bit of interest in beekeeping, Beatrice Tassot said, and linked experienced mentors and the beginning beekeepers together.
This year, the resources available through the Department of Agriculture have been decreased, Tassot said. A short course on beekeeping is to be held in the spring. No other courses are planned.
New Jersey beekeepers are also concerned about the position of state apiarist, left vacant after the recent retirement of Paul Raybold.
With the Varroa mite already causing major losses for New Jersey beekeepers, there is concern that the agricultural sector may not have enough bees for adequate pollination of many crops this season.
The exact extent of the loss won’t be known until beekeepers are able to get out and inspect hives, which is beginning to take place about this time of the year. Apples, peaches, pumpkins, melons and berries are some of the crops grown in New Jersey that depend upon pollination by managed honeybee colonies.
With the amount of loss around the country, there is concern that replacing decimated colonies will be either very expensive, or that there will not be an adequate replacement supply of bees.
The rate of decline attributed to CCD has approached 90 percent for some beekeepers in the northeast, according to the MAAREC data. At Tassot Apiaries, a loss of almost 70 percent of their 160 hives has occurred.
A normal winter die-off would have been no more than about 12 hives, Jean-Claude Tassot said.
The Tassots keep their hives at numerous locations on farms throughout Morris and Hunterdon Counties, and raise five different species of bees.
Every location and every hive type has been affected.
Another observation made by Jean-Claude Tassot is that the hives that were strong — with adequate food supplies and vigorous populations going into the winter — have been affected just as much as the weaker hives. CCD, it seems to him, is not related to the amount of food available to sustain the colony through the winter.
While there is currently no conclusive evidence as to the cause of CCD, plenty of theories, including one based on evidence from a similar collapse in France during the mid-1990s, abound.
What is known is that beekeepers are finding hives that contain full amounts of food and honey, but no bees at all.
“Last year American beekeepers from 22 states started noticing the death of a lot of honeybee colonies, with the same symptoms that French beekeepers registered,” Jean-Claude Tassot said “I personally noticed the same thing for the two past years, but thought that my losses were due to my mistakes or to the Varroa mite infestation.”
In France, beekeepers began noticing that colonies began to disappear or to be found dead in front of the hives. Other colonies were found shivering and unable to move in the hives, Tassot said. He believes that the situation now occurring in the United States may prove to be related to the situation in France.
The colonies affected in France were found to be those that were pollinating sunflower fields. Dead bees were also found on the sunflowers. A pattern also began to emerge with colonies that had stored pollen from the corn crops. As the stored pollen was eaten by the emerging spring bees, the same symptoms associated with the sunflower pollination occurred.
The missing link between the two crops was the use of systemic pesticides known as “imidacloprid” and “fipronil,” according to Tassot. These and similar chemicals belong to a newer class of pesticides called neonicotinoid pesticides.
The chemicals were ultimately banned in France, but the country’s honeybee population had declined drastically, with a subsequent drop in honey production from 32,000 metric tons to less than half of that over an eight-year period, he said.
These same chemicals are currently used in the United States on many agricultural crops, raising some concern among beekeepers that a similar situation is now happening here. This class of pesticides works by blocking a neuron pathway that is most active in insects, and less active in mammals.
The EPA notes that these pesticides are toxic to honeybees. Interestingly, these are the same pesticides that are found in common flea control products for dogs and cats.
Preliminary research by MAAREC suggests that it is possible that the bees are consuming fresh or stored pollen contaminated with these chemicals.
They may then become memory impaired due to the affect on their neuron pathways. Young bees leaving the hive can’t find their way back. The loss of the juvenile bees impacts the survival of the entire hive, and could explain the disappearance of entire colonies.
“Recent research tested crops where seed was treated with imidacloprid. The chemical was present, by systemic uptake, in corn, sunflowers and rape pollen in levels high enough to pose a threat to honey bees.
Additional research has found that imidacloprid impairs the memory and brain metabolism of bees, particularly the area of the brain that is used for making new memories, according to report released by MAAREC in December 2006.
Landi Simone, a master beekeeper with 40 hives in the Montville area, cites cumulative stressors as a contributing factor that could be impacting some of the hives with CCD. She said that monoculture pollination — which occurs when hives spend a large majority of their time pollinating one crop only — can cause poor nutrition. Additionally, commercial colonies that move from site to site providing rotating pollination services to farmers across the country are exposed to numerous disease organisms.
Along with the strong potential for pesticide poisonings, there is also the possibility that GMO plants, which have been genetically engineered for insect resistence, are detrimental to honeybees, Simone said.
MAAREC is conducting further research on this potential relationship, as well as exploring other possible reasons or contributing factors in CCD.
Further information on the preliminary research can be found at the Web site, http://maarec.cas.psu.edu.