Mysterious honeybee disorder jump-starts Columbia-based beekeeping group

By Seth Putnam
news@ColumbiaMissourian.com

COLUMBIA — Honeybees have been vanishing at an unsettling rate, and mid-Missouri growers are stepping in to alleviate the strain on their crops.

Carl Korschgen, a biologist for the Columbia Environmental Research Center, a U.S. Geological Survey research facility in Columbia, said the lack of bees has been taking a toll on his produce. Along with a stand of Norway spruce trees, Korschgen maintains an orchard of about 50 fruit trees and a vegetable garden on 22 acres in south Columbia.

"I noticed especially in the last two years that the productivity of my plants was way below par," Korschgen said. "In our neighborhood, there are very few bees. One of my biggest awakenings was that last summer should have been an absolute banner year for apples."

Korschgen's fruit trees are about 8 years old and should be in prime productivity, but instead of bagging bushels of fruit from his orchard, he harvested fewer than a dozen apples and pears — total — this past year.

"I'm a witness to everything that people are talking about in terms of the importance of pollinators to our foodstuffs," he said. "Most of our fruit trees reproduce sexually. If you don't have pollination going on, you don't have reproduction."

The cause of the widespread honeybee exodus is a malady called colony collapse disorder — a phrase that was created near the end of 2006 to describe a sudden drop in the honeybee population. This issue holds special significance not just for honey consumers but also for commercial and hobbyist growers, too.

The baffling symptom of disorder is the absence of bees. When a colony is diseased or unhealthy, dead bees will typically pile up outside a hive, but in a case of colony collapse disorder, the insects simply aren't there. It's an anomaly that scientists haven't been able to figure out.

This lack of progress in solving the disorder is what made Korschgen decide to take matters into his own hands by getting involved in beekeeping, or apiculture, in an effort to rejuvenate his own crops. By bringing bees to his own land, he said, he hopes to see a marked difference in the way his plants are performing.

It's the same story for others who have noticed a decline in growth. This year, there was an especially high turnout for an introductory beekeeping workshop hosted by the Boone Regional Beekeepers Association. The sting of colony collapse disorder is partially responsible for the influx of new beekeepers this year. Korschgen and 37 others enrolled in the weekend workshop, up from 23 last year.

Art Gelder, president of the association, attributes the increased class size to the problems with colony collapse disorder.

"People are concerned with the loss of honeybees and they're wanting to help cut the losses," Gelder said. "They're also into local food."

Many of those who came to the workshop are casual gardeners who noticed a dearth of bees in their own small-time operations. All of them understand the potentially devastating effects the disorder could have on the world's crops if allowed to go unchecked.

Corri Flaker, who attends massage school and works for the city with GetAbout Columbia, decided to start keeping bees when she moved to a bigger property.

"I like to garden a lot, and I have my own garden," Flaker said. "I like the idea of making my own plants as well as other people's plants healthier by having them pollinated by bees. I've heard about the bee collapse, and I thought I'd better do my part."

Farm manager and mother Sylvia Donnelly thought her 250-acre farm would be an ideal setting for apiculture.

"Since I was a little girl, I've always been interested in beekeeping," Donnelly said. "As I kept hearing about the collapsing hives ... I just thought, 'I have no excuse not to get involved and to try to help in whatever way I can.'"

Dwayne Stone, former owner of the Beloved Brew Coffee drive-throughs that have since closed, said he got into beekeeping after noticing a lack of production in his own small garden.

Colony collapse disorder is affecting veteran beekeepers such as Gelder, too. "In 2007, I started with 84 hives," he said. "I lost over half of them."

His operation is recovering and is up to 55 hives. The more people he can get involved in keeping bees, Gelder reasons, the better.

"The more bees that we can get out there and have beekeepers taking care of, the more likely we're going to be able to survive this; at least that's my theory," Gelder said. "Even if they swarm, we're going to have more feral bees that can reproduce. We have to give Mother Nature time for her to work her magic and let the bees develop their own immunities."

Dan Kuebler, chairman of the nonprofit Sustainable Farms & Communities and former president of the Columbia Farmers' Market, said the disorder has been a source of consternation not just for hobbyist growers but also for mid-Missouri farmers.

"I used to see a lot of bees," Kuebler said. "I'd walk through the garden in the morning — that's when the bees work the flowers heavy. Now there's one bee every 100 feet. In the past, I'd walk around and see 15 to 20 all around me."

Through his own farming operation, which he calls The Salad Garden, Kuebler regularly sells salad greens and vegetables through the Columbia Farmers' Market. Lately, his garden's performance has been subpar.

"You can tell because squashes will still grow, but they'll be misshapen and mealy," he said. "They won't grow right, and that's because of poor pollination — incomplete pollination, really."

Participants in the beekeeping workshop in late January got all the equipment and training they needed for their foray into apiculture.

They were an enthusiastic bunch, discussing the merits and uses of honey and groaning at the bee jokes that are inevitably thrown back and forth: What did the bee order at McDonald's? A hum-burger. And what sound is made by a bee flying backward? Zzub-zzub.

In the two-day seminar, students learned the basics: how to establish and maintain a hive, collect honey and troubleshoot potential problems created by pests and diseases.

The equipment required in setting up an entry-level operation is a protective suit, wooden hive boxes and a smoker to sedate the bees when harvesting honey or performing in-hive maintenance. Building a hive costs about $170, and the 10,000 bees that will initially populate it generally cost about $85.

The honey produced by bees has an astonishing variety of uses. It can be applied to burns and cuts, used as a preservative or administered to treat colds. It doesn't go bad and, of course, it's the world's oldest natural sweetener.

In mid-April, the introductory workshop group, along with the beekeepers association, will receive a batch of honeybees through the mail and learn how to introduce them to their new hives.


CLAY MCGLAUGHLIN/Missourian
Carl Korschgen of Columbia, places a frame into a partially constructed beehive. When bees are introduced to the hive they will use the frames as a starting point to build the honeycomb. Frames are made using a thin plastic layer coated with wax.


CLAY MCGLAUGHLIN/Missourian
Korschgen holds a frame that will be placed in the hive. Bees use the frames as a starting point to build honeycomb.



CLAY MCGLAUGHLIN/Missourian
Korschgen builds hives to help prevent colony collapse disorder.



CLAY MCGLAUGHLIN/Missourian
Korschgen noticed a decline in his plants' productivity and decided to begin beekeeping.

 

Bee facts

* One-third of human diet relies on pollination, much of which is carried out by bees.

* $15 billion worth of vegetables, fruits and nuts depend on bees for pollination.

* Commercial-food growers — particularly almond growers in California — have been hit especially hard by colony collapse disorder. Almond growers get a crop that is 60 percent larger if the trees are pollinated by bees.

* In the summer, one generation of honeybees usually lives for 48 to 50 days; it’s double that in the winter.

* The honeybee is the only insect in the world that produces food eaten by humans.

* It takes 556 bees to make one pound of honey.

* Those 556 bees visit 2 million flowers to collect the pollen needed for the pound of honey.

* In visiting those flowers, the 556 bees will fly a collective 55,000 miles.

* Honeybees feed on pollen, sugar water and their own honey.

* The queen can lay 1,000 to 2,000 eggs per day.

* One hive box will hold up to 60 pounds of honey.

* One hive houses 80,000 to 100,000 bees.

Source: Art Gelder, president of the Boone Regional Beekeepers Association

 

What can you do to help the bees?

* Diversity — The wider the variety of plants in your garden, the better. Color and shape are both factors that attract different types of bees to flowers. Staggering the flowering time of your plants keeps the bees busy year-round.

* Stay clear of pesticides — Although there is likely a conglomeration of causes to blame for colony collapse disorder, pesticide use is suspected to be a major one. Plus, plants that haven't been treated with pesticides yield produce that is healthier for human consumption.

* Don't be afraid of pollen — Most allergies aren't caused by flower pollen, and plants that have been bred to not contain pollen make the bees think that there's food available when there isn't.

* Go native — Native plants and trees such as the American basswood tree grow well in Missouri's climate and produce essential nectar for local bees.

Sources: The Natural Resource Defense Council and the Grow Native program