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Port Orange Observer Friday, Apr. 6, 2018 4 years ago

The unique world of beekeeping and the battle to maintain healthy hives

Volusia County beekeepers have been working to keep Varroa mites from attacking bees.
by: Nichole Osinski Community Editor

About ten years ago, Tom Barlett heard about different reports that the honeybee population was in decline. Wanting to see for himself, Barlett spent several days afterward looking for bees where he lived. He couldn't find one. 

Wanting to help in some way, the Port Orange resident started educating himself on the ins and outs of keeping bees and maintaining a hive. Throughout the next few years, Barlett started to learn how much was involved in the world of beekeeping. He attended beekeeping meetings and started training through the University of Florida's Master Beekeeper Program, which takes at least fives years to complete. 

Beekeeper Woody inspects a hive. Photo courtesy of Tim Blodgett

Now, Barlett holds the title of master beekeeper and works to educate other members of the community about bees. This year, Barlett has three hives, each with about 60,000 to 80,000 bees, half of which are pollinators that travel within a three to five radius of his home.

"Being a backyard beekeeper is really doing the community a service," Barlett said. "They pollinate the neighbor's flowering fruit trees, which are doing really well."

Because of beekeepers like Barlett, honeybees may have a better chance of thriving. However, the threat of a decline in bees is still present. Among the more than 1,000 native bee species more than half are declining while 347 native bee species are at an increased risk of extinction, according to a 2017 report from the Center for Biological Diversity.

Tim Blodgett, a hobbyist beekeeper, said one major problem bees and beekeepers face are the parasitic Varroa mites that have spread throughout the state killing honeybee colony after colony since being brought to Florida in the 1980s. The mites can feed on adult honeybees as well as reproduce on larvae, which can transmit viruses. 

"They're destroying the bees right and left," Blodgett said. "The Varroa mite is the number one cause of bees declining in number."

Donna Athearn, who is a hobby beekeeper alongside her husband Marlin Athearn, had to buy new hives and start new colonies of bees due to all of last year's colonies dying. She hopes to have the hive numbers back up to where they were by the end of May. The Athearn's started out with 22 hives at the beginning of 2017 and by October all of the bees had died. 

"This [past] year the Varroa mite count was higher," Athearn said. "The drier the summer, the more they flourish."

Athearn said that she knew of several commercial beekeepers who lost thousands of hives. 

Another problem local beekeepers have seen is a decline of colonies in the spring and summer when homeowners start spraying their yards with pesticides and herbicides. Barlett said that while using the recommended amount of sprays to eliminate unwanted vegetation, many individuals are not limiting what is being sprayed causing the excess amounts to cling to flowering plants or be deposited into water that pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, are drinking from. 

When it comes to solutions for keeping bees from dying or being on the receiving end of a virus, there is no single solution. The use of sprays may have to be left to education but as for the Varroa mites, individuals, groups and companies are still looking for the latest and most reliable answer.

A beekeeper points to the queen bee. Photo courtesy of Tim Blodgett

The Athearns have used chemical strips to try and stop the mites but have found out that if the hives aren't treated soon enough they are running a risk of being unable to fight the invasive pests. 

"The Varroa count was so high we couldn't treat again and again without damaging the health of the hive," Athearn said. 

Then there is an old method of sprinkling confectionary sugar over the bees causing them to clean themselves and lessen the possibility of a mite attaching itself. But when there are multiple hives, Athearn notes it is almost impossible to do this for all the bees. 
According to Barlett, one way to help prevent infestation is to continuously keep the area of the hives and the equipment being used clean.

If mites are found, Blodgett said most beekeepers want to use a chemical-free method. One of those methods could be a new heating treatment recently created by Lynn Williams. The thermal mite killer heats hives to 106 degrees killing the Varroa mites in three treatments per year while not affecting the bees. 

In the meantime, local bee organizations, such as the Beekeepers of Volusia County, have been helping to raise money for a Honey Bee Research and Extension Lab on the University of Florida campus in Gainesville. The lab was designed to create a better understanding of honey bees and spearhead more research into keeping colonies from decline. 

"There is hope on the horizon," Blodgett said. 

Then there are beekeepers like Blodgett, Barlett and the Athearns who do their best to educate the public on honey bees and their importance in agriculture.

And despite the losses and uncertainty of how a hive will do from year to year, there is an undeniable passion these beekeepers have to keep the hives thriving. 

"It's a wonderful hobby to be able to watch bees do what they do. It's quite amazing," Athearn said. "It's a challenge we enjoy. It's also an excellent environmental stewardship if we continue to bring in more hives and help those hives flourish."

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