For The Bees

Brian McDonald got into the honey business about 10 years ago, just in time to witness the discovery of Colony Collapse disorder.

“I was actually working with a commercial beekeeper in the Kansas City area when it came about and people started losing hives,” said McDonald, who runs Ole McDonald Honey Farm out of his home in Fultonville. He keeps his honeybees at a separate location in Carlisle.

“Of course, it was a huge mystery at the time,” he added. “It still is quite a bit of a mystery on why.”

Beekeepers began noticing incidences of CCD in October 2006. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, between 2006 and 2011, annual winter losses of bee colonies averaged about 33 percent, although losses dropped to 22 percent in 2012.

The USDA points to a number of possible causes for CCD, although it still remains somewhat mysterious. Among these are pathogens such as nosema, a gut fungus that infects honeybees and disrupts their digestive process; parasitic varroa mites; and environmental stressors including limited access to nectar and pollen.

But pesticides and fungicides are perhaps the biggest concern facing honeybees, according to some local beekeepers.

“We are experiencing a lot more trouble now with what is being applied by the farmers as far as herbicides and fungicides,” said Mark Rulison, who co-owns Rulison Honey Farm in Amsterdam with his cousin, Gary. “Some of it makes bees sick; it doesn’t outright kill them. And it isn’t just the bees that are out foraging; they bring the pollen back to the hive and use the pollen as food for the brood [larva], and that makes the brood sick. If anything else is bothering the colony at the same time, it can be lethal.”

Rulison, whose farm averages around 70,000 to 100,000 bees in the fall during peak season, said he had a loss of about 40 percent of his bees last spring. This spring, he lost about 30 percent of his bees.

The Rulison farm was founded in 1893 by Rulison’s grandfather, Earl Rulison. In the past, the farm had upwards of 2,000 hives; this year, the farm is running about 1,000. Much of this is due to weather patterns, with the harsh winter affecting the hive numbers this year.

“For us, the last couple years have been a real struggle,” he said. “We’re not going to call it all colony collapse. Some of this is outright, the bees didn’t have enough honey to live on in the springtime, and we lost them to starvation. We don’t like to admit it, but it’s reality.”

Issues with pesticides and fungicides come about when bees are used to pollinate farms where these chemicals are used. Specifically, the insecticides known as neonicotinoids, which have been banned in Europe, cause forager bees to lose their memory and to not be able to find their hives, according to Rulison.

Rulison does pollination for a number of apple orchards in the Capital District, including Rogers Family Orchards in Johnstown. The orchard’s owner, Todd Rogers, will spray his insecticides and fungicides a few days before the blossoms open to hopefully curb any issues they might cause when the bees come to pollinate.

“Most of the problem is our own doing,” Rogers said. “What [researchers are] trying to develop are insecticides that do the job on insects, but don’t bother the bees as much. … But we have to have some control on insects; they’ll chew you out of house and home really quick. There’s a little beetle called the cucumber beetle that is so bad, in two days if I plant 10 acres of pumpkins, it will kill them all; if I hadn’t sprayed one day, it would eat them all that quick.”

In the last 10 years, Rogers has actually seen an increase in the number of wild bees, such as bumblebees and orchard mason bees, that will pollinate his crops.

“I could probably do my pollination without regular honeybees,” he said. “The reason I bring them in is because the weather sometimes isn’t conducive to pollination. When the blossoms are out, sometimes there’s only a day or two to pollinate because it’s raining, or the wind is blowing.”

McDonald’s operation is smaller than the Rulison farm, with only about 600 hives at the moment. He said he hasn’t had many issues with CCD, and in fact has seen growth in his operation since moving it from Georgia to upstate New York in 2009.

Although McDonald does pollinate a handful of farms, he said he tends to stay away from doing that to protect his honeybees’ health. According to McDonald, CCD seems to affect larger beekeeping operations more severely than smaller ones such as himself, mainly due to the large amount of pollinating large beekeepers do.

“Whenever [the bees] come off pollination [at a farm], I always like to get them onto another food source right away, in case any of the food source in the other location has been tainted with any fungicides or minute amounts of pesticides or whatnot,” he said.

He estimated that he will produce about 40,000 pounds of honey this year. Last year, he only produced roughly 18,000 pounds due to adverse weather conditions.

“We had a lot of rain, almost consistent rain from the middle of May to the middle of June, where [the bees] couldn’t go out and forage off of that early crop,” McDonald said. “And then in the fall time, we got that freeze, which knocked off most of the fall crop for us.”

Demand for honey has continued to increase, and combined with CCD, this has caused prices to go up. When McDonald started in the beekeeping business, prices were at roughly $3 or $4 a pound, he said; now he charges $7.50 per pound in a plastic container, and $8.10 for glass.

“There’s also been a shortage of honey this last year and subsequent years through this country, and the demand for local honey has dramatically climbed, which is good,” McDonald said. “People are more aware of where their food’s coming from, which is wonderful, actually. It allows us to keep doing what we’re doing; it allows us to grow.”

While an overarching solution to CCD isn’t clear, Rulison and McDonald agreed that more cooperation between beekeepers and farmers is needed.

“Sometimes [farmers] can do other things like spray late in the day, so the stuff dries and dissipates before the bees see it the next day,” Rulison said.

“On the other end, it’s just, we’re always just looking for whatever’s going to help the bees be healthy and survive,” he continued. “There are plenty of research projects going on, and they’re finding out things that can be helpful, so I’m hopeful that part will turn around, too.”