Unsung heroes of nature

April 20, 2003|by MEG H. PARTINGTON

Cloaked in white coveralls with veils over their faces are the hobbyists who may be saving our food supply.

Since parasitic mites were introduced in the states around the mid-1980s, beekeeping has become an essential avocation, according to area apiarists, or beekeepers.

When the mites, believed to be from Southeast Asia, came to the United States, 70 percent to 90 percent of the natural wild honeybee colonies in North America were destroyed, says John Seets, owner of Seets Apiaries in Catonsville, Md. Most of the current bee population is cared for by beekeepers with colonies in their back yards, he says.

An estimated 30 to 50 percent of all the food we eat must be pollinated by honeybees, Seets says.

Without their help, refrigerators and pantries would nearly be bare.

"You don't have the bees, you don't have food," says Nancy Troup, a Williamsport beekeeper. "Without bees, you don't have a whole lot out there anymore."


Keeping bees healthy means finding room for hives, ensuring they are at a comfortable capacity, and making sure their inhabitants are properly fed and protected from mites.

"Now intervention, it's vital" Troup says. "You really do have to treat your bees."

The mites

There are two main types of mites that threaten honeybee populations.

Varroa mites lay their eggs on top of bees' cells, stealing nutrients from developing larvae. As a result, bees can emerge undersized, and may have missing body parts or misshapen wings, says Dave Freese of Martinsburg, W.Va., a member of the Eastern Panhandle Beekeepers Association.

Tracheal mites lodge in the tracheas of bees, blocking the flow of oxygen.

To determine if varroa mites have infested a hive, a sugar shake test is given.

About 200 bees are placed in a pint jar containing powdered sugar and topped with wire mesh, then beekeepers "shake the devil out of them," Freese says. The shaking loosens the mites' grip on the bees. The dark color of the mites, which are a bit larger than the head of a pin, makes them visible in the sugar.

Treatment of varroa mites involves placing miticide strips in the hive, Freese says. Bees rub against the strip, transferring its contents to the mites on their bodies, thus killing them.

Tracheal mites, which are microscopic, can be killed with menthol, which is vaporized in bees' breathing tubes, Freese says. They also can be treated with patties made from shortening and granulated sugar, a method that is believed to hinder the movement of the mites to other bees, he says.

Working the hive

Maintaining healthy hives is a hands-on process.

While observing bee activity on the outside of a hive can provide a quick assessment of its condition, the only way to really see what's going on is to open it.

Inside the wooden boxes - backyard hives are not the bulging ovals often seen in cartoons - beekeepers look for a uniform pattern of egg-laying and a healthy number of eggs in various stages of development, says Freese, who's retired from the U.S. Coast Guard. They also seek out an oval of eggs surrounded by honey, the carbohydrate source for bees, then by pollen, the protein source, Freese says. Beekeepers also are on the lookout for evidence of parasites.

During the cold months, Freese says, he opens his five hives about once every one or two weeks. In spring and summer, he's in them once or twice a week.

For Nancy Troup and her husband, Bill, tending their 130 hives is essentially a full-time endeavor. Both have been master beekeepers since 1990 after passing certification tests given by the Eastern Apicultural Society of North America Inc.

The Troups have hives on properties all around Williamsport, Nancy Troup says.

The Troups transport some of their hives to orchards in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, as well as to a pumpkin farm in Waynesboro, Pa., to help pollinate them, Nancy Troup says.

Preparing bees for winter is an extremely important job, too.

Colder months are tough because bee populations decrease while mite populations increase, Freese says. Moisture is more damaging to bees than the cold, he says, because it makes them more susceptible to diseases and can accumulate on their food stores, which can in turn freeze.

Before the onset of winter, beekeepers need to be sure their bees are healthy, and that their hives are well populated and have sufficient food supplies, Freese says.

Bees can be fed sugar water from jars placed in front of hives, in box feeders on top of hives or through plastic buckets placed within the hives, Freese says.

With a hearty food supply, the bees will be strong and healthy in time for nectar flow, which in this area is from April to the end of June, says Seets, a member of the Montgomery County (Md.) Beekeepers Association.

To further boost the population, bee enthusiasts can do some strategic planting to attract their striped, winged friends.

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