Silence in the beeyard

Published 7:04 pm Tuesday, April 19, 2011

For the long-time beekeeper, silence in the beeyard is deafening. Jim Baerwald, a commercial beekeeper for many years, examines Phil Hempel’s hives for clues as to what killed the entire beeyard, which did not make it to spring this year. Photo by Kathie Hempel

Beekeepers are a breed apart. I know. I married one.

Spring is an exciting time for lovers of the honey bee. As temperatures creep above 50 degrees, beekeepers everywhere head out to their yards in search of but one thing — the hum.

It is then we start to see the earliest signs of activity. A light knock on the side of the hive should be rewarded with the buzzing promise of bottling honey and the harvesting of wax.

My husband had a bad accident last fall and so this spring it was up to me to accompany our dear friend Jim Baerwald, a commercial beekeeper from Eau Claire, out to our hives at Andrew’s School farm in Buchanan. Making our way out the bumpy tractor trail to the beeyard, we hoped to see a flurry of activity outside the hive as the bees began their spring cleaning.

However, we saw no bees. We knocked, but no one was home.

“There is nothing more devastating to the beekeeper than a silent beeyard,” Baerwald told me.

He began cracking the lids to check, and our worst fears were realized. One hundred percent loss. All our bees were dead.

For those who may wonder why a local food columnist is indulging in this narrative, you need to know that without the hardworking powerhouse that is the honey bee, a minimum of one-third of all the shelves in your local market are empty. The apples cease to keep the doctor away because there would be no apples.

When my husband speaks to young children, he makes his point by telling them that. Without the honey bee, even their favorite meal at McDonald’s disappears.

Last year we had a near 85 percent retention rate. This year, without some very specific attention last fall — when my husband would normally treat for the mites and nosema that can plague bees who do not go south for winter — they simply could not survive.

Over the past several years bee losses have been at a record high. You have perhaps heard of the “colony collapse disorder.” Why? This is the question we and most other beekeepers we know hear most often.

The answer isn’t easy. At best we describe it as a perfect storm of disastrous proportion as disease, mites and the increasing use of certain pesticides and genetically-modified seeds take their toll on these wonders of nature whose best-known product, honey, dates back to the tombs of the Pharohs and is toted in scripture as a synonym for “Utopia.”

Baerwald at one time managed nearly 2,500 hives. This year he has 1,600 returning from the southern migration and hopes to split those off to add another 600 to 800 hives. Once home, the hives will quickly find their way to into fields and orchards across Michigan, where the honey bee will pollinate our local fruit and vegetable crops, allowing us to once again enjoy fresh locally-grown foods.

“The traveling is hard on the bees,” Baerwald says. “But it is necessary not only to maintain the southern crops but it allows the bees to survive our harsher winters and to build up in numbers sufficient to be ready in time to pollinate crops here.”

Another friend, Ron Dalkhe of Dal-keys Honey Farm in Sodus, minces no words in describing how the increasing use of genetically-modified seed and the highly-suspicious systemic neonicotinoid pesticides are a possible catalyst for the vanishing bees.

According to a Fox News story on Feb. 7: “Initially introduced to food production in 1994, neonicotinoid pesticides are absorbed into every part of a plant, including the roots, stems, leaves and pollen. When bees pollinate, they carry the pesticide back to their hives.”

Dahlke, who once managed up to 1,300 hives, now is maintaining approximately 800. The problem he sees as extending far past that of the dying bees.

“If these chemicals are so thorough in killing off our bees, what are they doing as we consume them through our vegetables … in baby foods?” he asks.

The Fox News story concurs. It questions, “Who knows what effect these supposedly ‘harmless’ small amounts have when consumed every day for 20, 30, 40, 50 years? The facts are still clear that if bees become extinct we will have a severe collapse in our food chain.”

Your own question by this time might be, “What is the solution?” And there are some steps each of us can take to help with the problem.

Roger and Amy Morgan attended some of the recent beekeeping classes my husband, Phil Hempel of Blossomland Bee Supply, holds each year at our home in Buchanan. They recently purchased five live hives from a retiring beekeeper in Mentone, Ind. for their 41 acres just north of Niles.

Roger’s grandmother, Annie Tackett of Paintsville Ky., was a beekeeper who managed 12 to 15 hives when he was young. The couple wanted to do something for the environment while pursuing an interesting hobby.

Amy, a cancer survivor, found this a “novel” hobby to pursue that would not be overly taxing. She laughingly suggests that a niece once told her, “I love you Aunt Amy, but you know you are nuts!”

Those of us who love beekeepers can agree their focus is a bit “different,” but thank God for it.

Madison Gordush, 12, of Bridgman, dragged mom Jodie to the Backyard Beekeeping class.

“She has this idea that perhaps if she learns beekeeping she might be able to interest her middle school in the project and leave it as a legacy as she moves forward in her education,” her mother said.

“It is the backyard beekeeper who is helping to keep the populations of honey bees growing,” Hempel says. “At one time there were a little less than 13,000 commercial beekeepers in the United States. Those numbers have dwindled to approximately 1,100, according to a study a few years back.”

Another answer to the problem is you. You can plant bee-friendly flowers and plants, which produce the nectar used by the honey bee, not only to create the honey we all love but to feed the colonies.

When we all become more concerned about not only the problem of the vanishing honey bee population, but also question what additional traces of chemicals we are ingesting when we eat our “fresh” fruits and vegetables, we can draw attention to the problem. We can write our local government officials about these concerns and hope they will listen.

This problem will not be solved overnight. However, if we don’t look for the solutions soon, it may be too late.

Goodbye, McDonald’s.