Tuesday, August 24, 1999

Honey bees in short supply

Gardeners feel sting, get busy

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Linda Helm points out the importance of what you don't see here: honeybees.
(Michael Snyder photos)
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        WAYNESVILLE — What's the latest in backyard buzz? That, for many gardens, there is none.

        Gone are the days wild honeybees infested clover, gardens and orchards, dancing from bloom to bloom and spreading pollen in the search for nectar. Parasitic mites that struck in the early 1990s virtually wiped out the wild honeybee population and decimated up to 80 percent of beekeepers' hives.

        Feeling the sting, gardeners and farmers across the Tristate have gotten busy — bringing bees back. Avid gardeners are starting their own hives, spurring a rebound this year in the number of beekeepers in the Tristate and across the country. Produce farmers are renting hives to replace the free labor of wild honeybees to ensure their crops will be properly pollinated.

        Linda Helm, a Waynesville resident, wanted to get her garden going, and noticed that bees were conspicuously absent.

        “I didn't see a lot of bees around here, and I wondered why,” Ms. Helm said. “I did some reading and learned there were no wild bees, so I figured it just goes hand in hand, my gardening and my bees.”

        She started two hives this spring. The result: While plants wither across the Tristate, she has watermelons to spare. She believes her hives, withabout 100,000 honeybees, played a significant role in doubling her average yield, to about 10 melons a vine.

        The beekeeping resurgence is welcome news. Nationally, the number of beekeepers fell about 50 percent in a decade, to 112,500 this year. Ohio saw two-thirds of registered beekeepers drop out of the business, from 9,000 in 1990 to 3,000 today.

        Dr. Thomas Webster, a bee expert with Kentucky State University in Frankfort, said few people realize the value of honeybees.

        “A lot of people, when they get a pumpkin for Halloween, they don't think much about how the honeybees pollinated the vine. When they have a pickle on a hamburger, they don't think about how the pickle got started,” he said. “If you like fruits and vegetables, hamburgers and ice cream, (the honeybee) matters.”

        Agriculture and bee experts said there's no accurate way to measure how much backyard garden yields are down because of the honeybee shortage. There are too many factors that weigh in on a plant's yield, including heat, rain and other insects. Still, the lack of one of nature's most efficient pollinators means cucumbers, watermelons, fruit trees and other crops won't produce as much.

        The bees' impact on Merrill Fromer's garden has made a believer out of him. He can't give enough vegetables away this year.

        “Our production has been a lot better since we've gotten the bees,” said Mr. Fromer, who started beekeeping at his Lebanon home last year. “I've got zucchinis coming out everywhere.”

        Newcomers such as Ms. Helm and Mr. Fromer are behind the surge in beekeep ing this year.

Honeybees return to a hive at Linda Helm's Waynesville home.
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        “A lot of people have found they're not getting pollination in their garden, so they're deciding, well, maybe I should get a beehive,” said Troy Fore, executive director of the American Beekeep ing Federation, a trade association with 1,500 members. Although it's too early to have concrete numbers, Mr. Fore said anecdotal evidence indicates beekeeping is on the rise around the country this year.

        Kim Flottum, president of the Ohio State Beekeepers Association and editor of the national magazine Bee Culture, said he expects 1,000 new beekeepers to register by the end of the year with Ohio's Department of Agriculture. Bee experts in Kentucky and Indiana said they expect similar increases.

        “"A lot of people getting started are not hard-core beekeepers, but hard-core backyard naturalists,” Mr. Flottum said.

        Gordon Rudloff, Ohio's apiarist, said a top priority for the state's department of agriculture is to encourage more people to take up beekeeping as a hobby.

        “We've become totally dependent on beekeepers,” he said. Without the wild honeybees, “the burden is even more on their back. And their numbers aren't great. We need more beekeepers.”

        Bees produced more than 220 million pounds of honey for consumer use in 1998, according to the National Honey Board. The crop was valued at $144 million.

        “Honey is a nice product, and most people enjoy honey,” said Phillip Craft, apiarist — or beekeeper — for the state of Kentucky. “But pollination is what is most important.”

        Pollination is a byproduct of the bees' quest to produce honey. On an average trip from the hive, a honey bee visits 50 to 100 flowers, collecting nectar and pollen. As the bee hops from flower to flower, some of the pollen is transferred, fertilizing or pollinating the plant and enabling it to bear fruit.

        The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates a third of the human diet is derived from insect-pollinated plants. Honeybees are responsible for about 80 percent of the insect-crop pollination, according to the USDA.

        Pollination is crucial to Dan Rouster. As owner of Rouster's Apple House, 6 miles east of Milford, Mr. Rouster relies on good pollination for his livelihood.

        Each year, he rents 16 hives at $45 a piece. Mr. Rouster said renting the hives “is another expense, another hassle. It's just one more thing that makes your job a little tougher.”

        But, he said, the alternative is bleak: “No bees; no fruit.”

        Ron and Gayle Irons of Lebanon turned to a beekeeper for hives five years ago when they watched the blooms of their apple trees fall to the ground without bearing fruit. In the past, wild honeybees had taken care of the pollination, but with the numbers down, they needed help.

        The Ironses struck a deal with beekeeper Marion Ackman: he manages the hives, and they sell his honey at their store without deducting commission. Production has been up since Mr. Ackman brought the hives onto the farm, Mr. Irons said.

        “The bee sting you can get used to,” he said. “You can't get used to the lack of crops.”


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