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Honey bees are fascinating social insects. For the past decade, they have received quite a bit of interest from many of the news outlets, as they should. Honey bees play an essential role pollinating thousands of plant species and about 33% of our edible crops. These insects are not just fascinating but also important. Of course, honey is another great reason to love these insects, too.
However, as many know, the honey bee has faced big challenges over the last 30 years. At one time, it was easier to keep bees because there were fewer pests and diseases. Colony collapse disorder is what really launched the importance of honey bees into the public eye. Colony collapse disorder is the phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food, and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen.
The first new honey bee pest I remember was the tracheal mite. This pest first arrived in the United States in Texas in 1984. Since then, there have been other pests like the varroa mite and small hive beetles.
The Bee Informed Partnership is a collaboration of efforts across the country, from leading research labs and universities in agriculture and science, to better understand honey bee declines in the United States. This partnership is supported by the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The partnership works with beekeepers to better understand how to manage for healthier bees.
To help guide bee research, the Bee Informed Partnership has been conducting a survey of beekeepers since 2006 to determine why honey bee colonies die. The latest survey had participation from 4093 beekeepers from across the country. The results show that colony losses were 15% during the summer, 44% in winter months, and 49% colony losses during the entire year. There is a lot of data in this report, but part of what stood out to me is that summer losses were much higher in commercial beekeeping operations and winter losses were much higher in backyard operations.
The top-ranking issues that beekeepers have been facing since 2006 have consistently been related to environmental factors (weather) and management practices. I found it interesting that queen failure was a more serious problem than all the disease and pest problems beekeepers face.
Colony Collapse Disorder, which is what prompted the formation of this partnership, accounts for 8% of the colonies that were lost. Much of the current bee research is being directed by the results of this survey.
At NC State University, the main honey bee research has focused on improving the quality and longevity of queen bees.
The major function of a queen bee is to lay eggs to perpetuate the colony. During spring build up, a queen bee can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day! This is twice the weight of her body. If a chicken could do this, it would lay 96 eggs in a day!
The queen is the only insect in the colony that lays eggs. Twenty or thirty years ago, it was not uncommon for a queen to be productive laying eggs for 3 or 4 years before she would slow down or stop laying eggs. Now the average beekeeper replaces queens almost every year.
Although beekeepers today have more challenges than their predecessors, it is still possible and very rewarding to keep bees. Honey bees are the perfect complement to the home vegetable garden or farmstead. Sharing honey with friends and neighbors can be fun, too.
If you are interested in beekeeping, the Caldwell County Beekeepers are having a beginner beekeeping school. The school will be held March 11th and 18th from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Caldwell County Agricultural Center and Public Library. The school fee is $50.00 and includes course materials, textbook, and a one-year membership to Caldwell County Beekeepers Association and North Carolina State Beekeepers Association. The school is free for students attending with a parent or guardian at full price.
The school is designed for beginner beekeepers and those wanting to get started. However, it is also a great refresher for current beekeepers wanting to enhance their skills. The school covers the history of beekeeping, getting started, seasonal management, and the treatment of pests and diseases. To register, contact Caldwell County Beekeepers at firstname.lastname@example.org or the Caldwell Extension Center at 757-1290 or visit us online at http://caldwell.ces.ncsu.edu.