Winter stings Iowa’s honey bee population

The population faced colony collapse, parasites, pesticides and a very cold winter

Published: March 23 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:01 am in

The buzz in the bee community isn’t good following the harsh winter conditions experienced throughout much of the Midwest.

Iowa bee experts estimate an upward of 65 to 70 percent of the state’s honey bee population didn’t survive the past cold season.

“This is probably the worst year we’ve seen for the bee population,” said Bob Wolff, a hobbyist beekeeper from Cedar Rapids.

The volunteer beekeeper at the Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids had 12 hives before winter but only 2 hives remain – an estimated loss of 80 percent of his bees.

Andrew Joseph, state apiarist (bee expert), characterized the significant situation as a “death by a thousand paper cuts” as the honey bee population has faced an environment lacking in diversity, pesticide problems, colony collapse and parasites such as varroa mites, since the 1990s.

These conditions lead to stressed, sick and weakened bees that can’t weather the winter.

“It’s not that bees can’t handle a cold winter or snow … (but) when you go into winter with those types of bees and then you’re confronted with the harshness of this season, they don’t make it through to spring time,” Joseph said.

Honey bees normally cluster tightly around the queen bee and feed off the honey stores in the hive throughout the winter. However, the long winter with temperature fluctuations cause the honey bees’ cluster to loosen, and some go look for food.

When temperatures dip back down – sometimes below freezing such as during this past winter – the bees are stuck, can’t get back to their cluster and can starve to death.

Joseph said an average honey bee winter loss is around 15 to 20 percent in Iowa. Experts compare the numbers from October to April and although he doesn’t have official numbers yet, early reports hint at a significant loss, he said.

Joseph said while the honey bee population isn’t doomed it will be a rebuilding year. He said beekeepers will have to put more time and effort into keeping bees strong and healthy to try to stem future loss.

Matt Stewart, owner of Noble Bee Honey in South Amana, went into the winter with 35 hives and now has 16. He said he tries to make sure healthy hives have 90 pounds of honey for the winter.

Stewart said other parts of the country are experiencing population strains as well. He’s ordered 15 replacement packages of bees from Georgia after his normal supplier in California experienced drought problems.

The state's Joseph estimated Iowa has between 3,500 and 4,000 beekeepers, ranging from people with one or two hives in their backyard to  business operations such as Stewart's.

Stewart, who has been in the business since 1990, said he’s seeing more full-time operations leave because of the continuous losses. He said he'll be able to bounce back and has no plans of getting out any time soon.

“It’s the challenge of it. It’s one of the only things you know how to do,” he said with a chuckle. “And stupidity, maybe.”

However, Wolff, the hobbyist, said he’s seeing more people taking an interest in backyard beekeeping. The classes he helps with at the nature center are often full, and people are placed on waiting lists.

Wolff has been a beekeeper for 22 years and said the loss likely won't affect his honey harvest, which typically occurs around August. But he’ll have to spend $500 to $700 replenishing his honey bee population.

He sells some of his honey to Third Base Brewery in Cedar Rapids for its honey beer.

Joseph said although honey is what honey bees are known for producing, they’re also vital for healthy vegetables and fruits, which they pollinate to give the crops good color and the taste people enjoy.

Joseph said despite the troubling decade or so for bees, he’s glad there remains a growing interest in beekeeping.

“One of the things we tell them is you’re getting into this at the worst time in history. But that doesn’t seem to deter very many at all,” he said.

“They want to do something good and learn more about what’s going on, and I appreciate that interest.”

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