Local Beekeepers Speculate About Disease, Pesticide 

Idaho beekeepers aren't feeling the sting of colony collapse too badly, yet, but that doesn't mean they don't fear it. Nor does it mean that the Idaho bee industry is terribly healthy. With the market for honey on the wane, many Idaho beekeepers make a living traveling to California every year to rent their swarms out to almond farmers who need their crop pollinated. Although the concept of colony collapse disorder concerns them, they're often more worried about the effects of pesticides from neighbors.

At the Golden Bee apiary in Marsing, Jonathan Millet is in his busy season right now. He's getting a half-dozen calls daily about swarming bees around the valley, he's just gotten back from his annual pollinating trip to California's Central Valley; and he's busy managing the hundreds of thousands of bees, and five employees, that he has on-site.

He is also accustomed to calls from reporters now, wanting to hear about colony collapse disorder.

"I don't lose sleep over it, but I'm concerned about it every single day," Millet said. "Pesticide is what I really worry about. Everybody and their dog is mixing chemicals into their backpack sprayers, and spraying it on their blooms."

Colony collapse disorder, the phenomenon in which colonies of bees leave their hives, then never return, or die altogether in the hive, is haunting beekeepers simply because they know so little about it.

"We know nothing of what causes it," Millet said. "We know nothing of what it's about."

The syndrome visited Idaho beekeepers last winter, said Randall Johnson, another Treasure Valley commercial beekeeper. Johnson, whose company is called Honeygold Corporation, said he lost something on the order of 35 to 40 percent of his bee colonies in a one-month period.

"There's no sign of the bees having died," Johnson said. "They're just not there. We have no idea what is happening to them."

When his hives were hit, Johnson still had to keep up his contracts with pollinators. So he ended up renting colonies of bees to keep up. In one mysterious kill, he said, a beekeeper could lose between 7,000 and 10,000 bees in one fell swoop.

Mike Cooper saw the same thing. Cooper, the Idaho Department of Agriculture's bee specialist, keeps a few bees himself. Then, in February, he started losing masses of bees at once.

"I went and looked at them, and they were almost all dead," Cooper said.

Others, he said, just left the hive and never came back.

"It's like the bees come out of the winter, go out to forage, and didn't have enough energy to come back," Cooper said. "They just collapse and die."

After several trips to California to pollinate almond crops, Millet has begun to wonder if he is exposing his bees to new diseases while there. Because the almond pollination business is so lucrative, beekeepers from all around the country flock to California's Central Valley every spring. Millet estimates that 80 percent to 90 percent of every moveable bee colony is shipped to California for a month, where bees are released into almond trees to help pollinate them. While down there, Millet said, he's rubbing elbows with beekeepers from all over the country, including Florida, where, he said, a variety of bee viruses and mites exist.

"Florida has every bee disease known to man right now," Millet said. "Who knows what I could come home with? I could be picking up diseases the whole timeI'm there."

Johnson doesn't disagree with the notion that bees could fall prey to some new disease. Nor does he dispute the effect that new pesticides might have on his bees. Just last week, he opened a set of hives near Melba to find them three to four inches deep in dead bees.

"It's disheartening," Johnson said. "You go out and here are half of your bees dead in front of your hive. It doesn't feel good."

In many cases, Johnson will end up meeting with area farmers to find out what they're spraying on their crops, to see if that's had an effect on his bees. The timing of the spraying can be a factor, too, Johnson said. If farmers spray chemicals while bees are out of the hive and flying around the crops, they're more likely to affect the bees.

"The farmer doesn't see it. But a few bees take back the poisoned material, and it affects the whole hive," Johnson said.

Cooper has been monitoring the Montana study. He has heard rumors, he said, that researchers may be pursuing a new lethal virus of some sort, but is quick to note that no conclusions are out yet.

Johnson is putting his hopes in the study group, hoping they can come up with some new ideas.

"We can't continue to have the losses that we've had in the last three or four years," he said.

-- Shea Andersen

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