Bee population devastated by harsh winter

Carolyn Huden knew she was going to find around 2 million dead honeybees when she opened the hives at her Genoa farm this year.

“You just know,” Huden said. “You see it. You feel it. And there’s nothing you can do. Silence is dead.”

DeKalb County honeybee keepers lost upwards of 70 percent of their bees during the winter, more than three times greater than what the USDA reports the average beekeeper in the United States lost.

The high bee mortality rate left local beekeepers scrambling to replenish their hives with new bees in hopes the devastating losses won’t affect speciality crops such as apple trees, pumpkins and raspberries or cut local honey production by thousands of gallons.

The USDA reports that nationally, beekeepers lost about 23 percent of their honeybees during the winter, an improvement compared to the 30 percent loss during the 2012-2013 winter.

Large winter honeybee losses are part of a phenomenon plaguing honeybees known as colony collapse disorder, or the spontaneous abandonment of hives by bees. Scientists have yet to pinpoint a cause for the disorder.

Beekeepers this year tied the causes of death over the winter to varroa mite infestation, queen failure and poor winter conditions, the latter being to blame for DeKalb County’s steep losses, local beekeepers said.

DeKalb County beekeepers said they lose around 40 percent in a typical year, with last winter’s frigid temperatures and snowfall making it a devastating exception.

At Honey Hill Orchard in Waterman, owner Steve Bock hopes his nearly 70 percent loss won’t hurt his apple trees, pumpkins or raspberry bushes or cut too deeply into his honey production. Bock, like Huden, purchased new bees to replenish his hives. Each of the 10 hives he bought weighed around three pounds and contained about 10,000 bees.

Bock’s concerns extend beyond his property lines because honeybees will travel around two miles for food.

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