USDA researchers are working to help people learn about bees while trying to figure out why some bee colonies are disappearing.
By Tony Tucci
“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!” — Albert Einstein
A handful of Oak Hill area residents are part of a global effort to save one of our most important insects — the honey bee, whose numbers declined by an estimated 30 percent in 2010.
The honey bee works tirelessly to gather nectar and thus pollinate flowers and crops. It visits about 750 blooms before returning to its hive, thus earning the saying: “busy as a bee,” a term first recorded in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” in 1387. The reward for this hard work is a short life span. In about 45 days, its filmy wings tatter and shred, and the honey bee dies.
Now, they’re being attacked by an enemy that no one seems able to identify. Some say it’s the varroa mite; others point to the wax moth. Still others blame it on pesticides or the growing number of cell towers.
Large bee losses are not uncommon, and have been reported numerous times in the last century. However, researchers believe the recent losses are something new. More than one quarter of the 2.4 million bee colonies have been lost. According to the Apiary Inspectors of America, a national group that tracks beekeeping, that is tens of billions of bees.
The unknown cause can collapse a colony in about two days and is being called “colony collapse disorder.”
Jack Brisette-Mills, who keeps bees as a hobby and teaches others in Southwest Travis County to start bee colonies, blames the commercial beekeepers for using practices that stress the bees, and consumers who won’t pay a little more for local honey.
“In the food industry, it used to be that the only thing driving the market was cost,” he said. “Then there was a counter movement, where people started buying organic foods, eggs from free-ranging hens, for instance. With bees, however, we’re stuck with an inability to define the product. We need a label like ‘smart honey’ so consumers will know that producers treated the bees humanely.”
If bees were a higher life form, such as horses, activists would be protesting the way they are treated. Brisette-Mills, who lives between Oak Hill and Dripping Springs, said commercial beekeepers often take all the honey from a hive and feed the bees sugar, which is cheaper but harder for the bees to process. Brisette-Mills also said commercial growers make bees live in plastic cells instead of their natural honeycombs, and they truck bees around the country to pollinate crops far from their natural habitat. One month they might be in California pollinating the almond trees, and the next month they might be in the apple orchards in Pennsylvania.
Brisette-Mills, a piano tuner and math tutor at Westlake High School and the Waldorf School, is doing his part to increase the bee population. “I generally have 8 to 12 hives, and help from one to four families with bees each year. Over the past 15 years I have helped 20 or more families start hives,” he said.
He also teaches beekeeping and has a blog, Austin Bee Helpers, that he said got about 10,000 hits in the past year from people all over the world.
One of the people Brisette-Mills helped is Don Melcer, a resident of Granada Hills.
“Hello girls,” Melcer says in a calming voice as he and his wife Eleanor approach the hive in the backyard of their home on Westview Road.
“I have just the one hive now,” Melcer said. “I lost four out of five of my hives last year when we had swarming.” Swarming is a natural process in which about half the bees in a colony will leave the hive and move to another location. The hive with the remaining bees is in a weakened state and the wax moth invaded, destroying the hive.
Melcer said there are about eight people in the neighborhood who have hives. “Jack (Brisette-Mills) is our teacher. We just want to save the bees. I’ve never taken a drop of honey,” he said.
Jim Hogg, who is called “The Bee Enchanter” because of his ability to charm bees as he removes them from attics or crawl spaces or wherever else they have swarmed, said he believes the decline of bees is being caused by cell towers.
“We’ve always had predators such as mites and wax moths, and pesticides don’t account for the recent drop. The only really new thing is the cell towers.” He said a study was done in India in which a cell phone was held up to a hive for 30 minutes. “The frequency of the cell phones messed with the bees,” he said. “It is worthy of further study.”
Hogg said that Austin is fortunate in that there is a belt running from Anderson Lane on the north to Niederwald on the south where the bees have managed to escape the hive collapse. He attributed this to the fact that the neighborhoods have older flowering trees where the bees have managed to survive.
Hogg, who lives between Oak Hill and Dripping Springs off Fitzhugh Road, said he helps people who want to provide a site for a bee hive on their property. He currently has seven locations throughout South Austin. He does not take any honey, but feeds it back to the bees so they can survive the winter. He checks the hive every two to three weeks.
“This is a hobby with me,” said Hogg, who teaches computer programming at Stony Point High School in Round Rock.
Hogg said that while hive collapse is a global problem, there hasn’t been a united effort to identify the cause and solve the problem.
Another amazing thing about honey bees is that bees can travel up to five miles from their hive, and still find their way back. How they do it is nobody’s beeswax.
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