When master beekeeper Jann Amos started losing hives early in November, he didn’t think too much of it.
“I always have some losses,” Amos said. “A 20 percent loss is normal for me.”
When his losses began mounting at an alarming rate, the veteran beekeeper and owner of Amos Apiaries realized the deaths were anything but normal.
Through last week, he had lost one-third of the hives he tends to in the Columbia area.
“This is the worst loss I’ve ever had,” he said.
Amos isn’t certain about what killed his bees. But since October, honeybee colonies around the country have been dying off at unprecedented rates from an unknown cause.
Beekeepers around the nation are on high alert — Amos has lost 30 out of 40 of his hives in one yard in Jasper County — and researchers are struggling to find answers to what is being called “colony collapse disorder.”
The problem first appeared on the East Coast in October and by December was being reported on the West Coast, where beekeepers are now reporting huge losses.
Michael Brown, an entomologist with the state Department of Agriculture, said the extent of the problem in Missouri remains unclear.
“It could be here and I haven’t heard about it,” Brown said on Friday. “Beekeepers may have lost hives, but we don’t have information at this time to say with a degree of certainty that it is the colony collapse disorder.”
Others haven’t noticed unusual losses on their farms. Rick Huffstutter of Huffstutter Orchards near New Franklin said he’s “not worried at this point in time because I’ve not heard anything, and my beekeepers will usually keep me updated. So far, so good.”
Some beekeepers have been unable to check on their bees until recently because of winter conditions.
“We do them more harm than good,” said Chris Gibbons of Gibbons Bee Farm located near Columbia. “If we open it when it’s cold, the bees will die and we can’t risk that.”
“Over winter, we can’t do much — only feed sugar water to them on warmer days,” said Art Gelder, who raises bees at Walkabout Acres, his Columbia farm.
The honeybee industry has been dealing in recent years with mites and other diseases. At best, beekeepers can only speculate about the causes of this new problem.
“It could be a queen failure, it could be the mites, or it could even be a problem that’s been around for some time but we didn’t realize it,” Amos said.
“There’s a lot of different hypotheses, but no one really has a good idea of what it might be,” said Richard Houseman, an MU associate professor specializing in urban entomology.
“We don’t know what to do with it, we don’t know what it is,” Gelder said.
Beekeepers are not the only ones who could feel the sting. Crop growers dependent on honeybee pollination might soon be affected if beekeepers who provide them bees lose too many hives.
Bruce Barrett, an MU associate professor specializing in insect behavior and tree fruit entomology, said fruit growers could take the brunt of the impact.
“Large fruit producers, like apple growers, have to bring in bees from out of the state due to the lack of native bees for pollination,” he said. “For crop growers to have a good crop, most of the crops need to have an even pollination, and this is supplemented from bees that are brought in from other states.”
According to statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture, honeybee pollination of agricultural crops is valued at nearly $15 billion annually. Pollinators are critical in crop production. Crops as diverse as alfalfa seed, almonds, tomatoes, sunflowers, tree fruits, berries, squash and melons are dependent on bees for pollination.
The USDA estimates that one-third of the human diet is indirectly or directly dependent on insect pollinated plants, and honeybees accomplish 80 percent of insect pollination.
Gibbons said the threat adds to the frustrations of beekeepers, who don’t get the kind of subsidies available to other agricultural operations.
“We’re a smaller industry as compared to the cattle industry,” he said. “However, we’re just as important, if not, more important. If there’s no pollination, the very thing down the food chain can disappear, including the food that the cattle eat.”