Saturday, June 02, 2001

Hive talk

Bad time to be wild honeybee

        While walking in a grassy field near Oxford, I noticed something I haven't seen much of in recent years — honeybees.

        Think about it. How many wild honeybees have you seen? Probably not too many. Granted, they're the insects we don't remember because they won't bother us the way flies and mosquitoes do.

        But these are bad times in bee land. Even the Ohio Honey Festival, most recently of Oxford, has flown off to obscurity. Where are you, bearded bee man, when we need you?

        Apparently the number of “domesticated” honeybees is also declining in parts of Ohio, although not around here.

Fewer beekeepers

        According to an Associated Press story this spring from Neptune, in Mercer County, the number of honeybee hives has decreased in Ohio because of disease and a declining number of beekeepers.

        They are leaving the business, in part, because the price of honey is lower than it used to be, according to Tom Piper, a science teacher and beekeeper who keeps 60 hives in Neptune. Each hive produces about 100 pounds of honey.

        A few years ago, honey sold for $1 a pound, but now it's about 44 cents per pound. Meanwhile, production costs continue to increase and many apiarists are growing older.

        “Beekeepers are getting frustrated,” said Dave Heilman, apiarist with the Ohio State University Bee Laboratory in Wooster. “We've been battling parasitic mites for 15 years. They've caused billions of dollars in damage.”

        In Ohio, 50-some plants — including apples and strawberries — depend on bee pollination.

        But as wild honeybees continue to die because of mites, beekeeping is becoming an increasingly important job in Ohio, said Steve Bartels, a Butler County Agricultural Extension Agent.

        “Wild bees have pretty much died out,” Mr. Bartels said. “But around here, beekeeping is booming.

        “We hold a beekeeping school once a year for people in Butler, Warren and Hamilton counties. When it started in 1977, 110 people attended. We thought that was great. This year, 350 came. People want to become beekeepers to help out, I think. It's important to our crops. There's definitely some interest in it in this part of the state.”

        Although other types of wild bees have taken up the task of pollinating orchards and crops, he said, they don't do the job nearly as well as wild honeybees.

        Greg Meyer, a Warren County extension agent, said the number of beekeepers in Ohio varies by county.

Making comeback

        “With the honeybee population, I wouldn't say we've got a big difference in where we were from a year ago, but we really think those populations are starting to stabilize and make a comeback,” he said. “They're not anywhere near the (low) numbers we had years ago. As some bees die, others eventually become somewhat resistant to the mites.”

        Mr. Meyer doesn't know exactly why interest is growing in beekeeping in Butler, Warren and Hamilton counties. But the yearly apiary seminar, held each March, shows strong interest.

        “We get 25-40 new people each year who want to sit through the beekeeping course. So beekeeping is not a dead science — yet.”

       Randy McNutt's column appears Saturdays. Contact him at 755-4158 or at The Cincinnati Enquirer, 7700 Service Center Drive, West Chester, OH 45069.


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