The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

July 15, 2013

Saving honeybees, one hive at a time


Varroa mites got creative, genetically. The pesticide would kill off maybe 99 percent of the mites, but the surviving 1 percent developed a resistance to pesticide. Then the next year, pesticide killed only 98 percent of the mites.

All they did in the end was create a resistant varroa mite.

Bill six years ago stopped using pesticide or any other chemicals in his hives.

“I lost big,” he said. “About 35 percent.”

He did the same thing the next year. “I lost 33 percent. The next year, 25 percent. And so on.”

He let nature take its course. And the bees began developing an increasing ability to survive the mites. He and Candy work hard at this. They grow clover for the bees on their farm. He said other beekeepers are adopting chemical-free methods and that it works.

In June, Bill and Candy studied “queen rearing” at a workshop at the University of Nebraska. Because queens determine the genetics — and therefore the strength — of an entire hive, learning how to replicate good queens means they can replicate stronger hives, one hive at a time.

Brown said that’s the kind of work that might save the bees. Other beekeepers, including himself, are doing variations of the same thing. A few years back, he donated 500 hives to scientists to do the same kind of work, building genetic strength. Out of 500 hives, only 20 survived, he said. But they learned things.

Candy said she didn’t think criticizing or lashing out at the Monsantos of the world was a good idea. Instead, she said, bee people ought to do what they can to educate and persuade. If they are approached the right way, the chemical companies might find solutions, she said.

Dealing with mites is one thing, Brown and Verhoek said. Dealing with humans is another.

At Bill’s farm in Marion County, he and Candy rode a four-wheeler to the 40 hives he keeps in the shade a few hundred yards south of his home. After he shut off his engine, he could hear a low, steady, rumbling hum, from hundreds of thousands of bees busy inside the hive boxes a few yards away. The air was thick with bees coming and going.

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