Bee worried

Collapse of bee colonies impacting U.S. food production
By J. LOUISE LARSON
The Daily Light
Published: Sunday, June 29, 2008 12:31 AM CDT
Mark Brady has 320 million reasons to be concerned about colony collapse disorder.

With 8,000 beehives and 40,000 bees in each hive, the sudden disappearance of up to almost half of America’s honeybees has him concerned.

A lifelong resident of Waxahachie, Brady’s one of Texas’ top commercial beekeepers and president of the American Honey Producers Association.

beekeepers all over the U.S. started losing more bees than they would normally lose. Every year, a 10-15 percent loss – that’s pretty normal,” he said.

“Some of these guys all of a sudden started losing 40 percent or 50 percent – some even higher than that. As it got more widespread all over the U.S., we realized we had some new problem we hadn’t had in the past,” Brady said.

His theory is that the disorder is actually a combination of things – a sort of Bermuda Triangle of conditions: diseases bees have had for years, like virus strains, and the Veroa mite that attaches itself like a tick and is said to be building up resistance to treatments that once worked like a charm. Add stress from being shuttled cross-country for work and pesticides that keep the plants pest-free, and maybe something’s got to give.

“I believe it has just become too much for the bees. You hear the bees just disappear – I don’t believe they’re disappearing. I believe the adult bees aren’t living as long as they used to. Their lifespan is being shortened and they die off when they’re in flight. They’re not getting back,” he said.

Average U.S. honey production has been about 200 million pounds in recent years. The year before last, that dropped to 155 million and, in 2007, it was 143 million, he said.

The drop cannot entirely be attributed to colony collapse disorder, Brady said. Drought plays a factor as well.

Last year, Brady was joined by others in the industry in Washington, where they testified before a House and Senate subcommittee.

“They asked us questions about what we thought was going on and what they could do to help,” he said.

The House Appropriations Committee approved $780,000 Thursday for research on colony collapse disorder and $10 million for bee research. The money awaits approval by the full House and Senate, the Associated Press reported.

“I don’t want anybody to panic. We’ve got an awful lot of really good people working on this. I’ve got faith we’re going to work this thing out, between the scientists and the good beekeepers, we’re going to figure out what’s going on,” he said.

Bee industrious

The apis mellifera is a social insect. About 95 percent of all bees are female – and the females do all the work.

“They’re the go-getters in the group,” Brady said. “Their goal every day, daylight to dark seven days a week, is to make the hive better, to produce honey and feed the young. And at the time I’m taking the honey away from them, their only goal is to make some more.”

About 50 percent of Brady’s company’s income comes from renting the bees out for pollination service – and the other half from selling about a million pounds of honey to companies like Burleson Honey.

“There are 90 different crops in U.S. that have to be pollinated by bees or we don’t have that food,” Brady said.

Currently, pollination prices are good and, with a shortage of honeybees, likely to stay that way. An Associated Press story reported that the buzzy pollinators are in such demand some produce prices may increase dramatically.

Right now, some of his hives are in Nebraska and the rest are in the Houston area, gathering honey. In the winter, he will ship all his bees to California for almond pollination.

“We’ve got a loop we run,” he said.

His hometown, Waxahachie, is played out as far as bees are concerned. Suburban homes now bloom where clover once adorned country roadsides and the vertical wood boxes filled with honeycomb were once much more commonplace.

“There’s so much cultivation and concrete, there’s not much there for them to make honey off of any more,” Brady said.

Beeginnings

Brady got into the honeybee business early; he has been in the bee business for 35 of his 55 years.

“When I was in high school, I had a summer job with a beekeeper. I was only out in the bee yard a short period of time and I pretty much knew what I wanted to do right then,” he said.

“There was something about being out there with Mother Nature. Those bees are just incredible – it’s just amazing, watching them work and seeing what they’re able to do,” he said.

Beekeeping is not for the faint of heart. Brady estimates that he spends a total of three months of the year at home in Waxahachie, where his wife Peggy is his true partner and manages all of the company’s paperwork for their nine employees.

His son, Tyler, an Ennis fireman, has worked with him for years, extracting honey and transporting bees and helping with other aspects of the business.

“He’s still a big part of this business,” the elder Brady said.

For additional information about beekeeping, see americanhoneyproducers.org.

E-mail J. Louise at jlouise.larson@wninews.com.