Beekeepers Confronted by Demise of Colonies



Published: March 4, 2007


The honeybee, whose regimented hives and thick swarms resemble miniature military forces, is battling for survival against two enemies in New Jersey: a mysterious disorder that has killed millions of bees in 20 states, and the consequences of an unusually warm fall and early winter.


In the Region

Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut and New Jersey


Bob Hughes, 73, of Yardville, said the current threat to bees was greater than others he had faced in 20 years as a beekeeper, or apiarist. While parasite infestations in the past killed thousands of his bees, he said, the 125 colonies on his farm are confronting a different peril: The bees are starving to death.

Warm, wet weather persisted much later in the season than normal, Mr. Hughes said, which prevented bees from collecting the dry nectar from flowers that is necessary to make honey. Warm weather also led to increasingly active bees, so hives consumed too much of their honey reserves too early in the season to make it through the winter.

Mr. Hughes, the president of the New Jersey Beekeepers Association, estimates that he has lost 30 percent of his hives. But bee starvation is not his biggest worry.

Instead, he fears the effects of what is called colony collapse disorder, or hive dwindling, an affliction that is leading to unheard of numbers of deaths of bees throughout the country and threatening farmers who rely on bees to pollinate crops. He said the disorder, not bee starvation, “is the big thing that all the researchers are looking at.”

Maryann Frazier, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University who is studying colony collapse disorder, said it was a graver threat to bees than unseasonably warm weather. "We’ve had years with die-offs from weather before,” she said, but they were never unexplained or as severe as the colony collapse disorder.

Ms. Frazier said the disorder was causing the largest problem for commercial apiarists, who often rent hives of bees to large-scale farms for pollination. The cause is uncertain, she said, but may be linked to an unknown virus spread by migratory beekeepers who truck their insects to farms from California to Florida during pollination seasons.

Pollination by bees is crucial for crops like apples, cucumbers, cranberries and almonds, she said.

“The best-case scenario is that consumers will be paying more for fruit at the grocery store because growers are paying more for bees,” Ms. Frazier said. “The worst case is that some foods won’t be available because there aren’t enough bees to get the job done.”

The New Jersey Department of Agriculture estimates that there are more than 10,000 bee colonies in the state. The department does not have figures on the number of bees affected by starvation or colony collapse disorder, a spokesman said; bees seal hives in the winter to maintain heat, and opening them now to check their conditions could lead to fewer surviving the winter.

Like many other states in the Northeast, New Jersey faced a honeybee shortage before the recent threats. Now it is only worse.

Bea Tassot, who owns Tassot Apiaries in Califon with her husband, Jean-Claude Tassot, said that they lost 91 of their 141 hives to colony collapse disorder. With an average of 20,000 bees in a hive, that amounts to almost two million bees lost in one season. She said it was clear their bees were not starving and were stricken with the disorder.

While researchers search for answers, Mr. Hughes tries to find solutions for the state’s beekeepers. “There is no substantive information to give to the beekeepers at this point,” he said, “because nobody has any information to give.”