Winter bee deaths devastate keepers

| Saturday, May 18, 2013, 7:32 p.m.

Problems that decimated the nation's largest commercial hives are affecting backyard beekeepers, who say losses of bees this past winter were the worst ever.

“My highest loss before this last winter was 33 percent,” said Steve Repasky of Dormont, president of Burgh Bees, a nonprofit group that offers beekeeping classes. He typically sells about 800 pounds of honey each year, but only 12 of his 35 hives survived the winter.

“It's by far the worst year ever. This is the first winter nationwide that small backyard beekeepers have had such steep losses,” he said.

Such losses could put a dent in backyard and community gardens this summer, which depend on bees for pollination of foods such as apples, broccoli, celery, peaches, squash, tomatoes and strawberries, agricultural experts said.

“Bees produce honey and food for all of us, and they are under lots of stress,” said Lee Miller of Economy, a former president of the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association.

Colony collapse disorder occurs when worker bees from a hive abruptly disappear. The cause is undetermined, but when coupled with exposure to pesticides and a proliferation of mites carrying viruses, the effect is devastating.

Nearly one-third of managed honeybees in the United States died during the winter, up from 22 percent from the previous winter. It's a level of loss that threatens about 70 agricultural crops that depend on pollination, according to a survey released this month by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and two industry groups.

Bees in urban areas account for 80 percent of pollination of wildflowers, home gardens and increasingly popular community gardens.

Miller, who manages about 40 bee colonies, lost half of them over the winter — the most ever. Beekeepers in Western Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan were particularly hard hit, he said.

“I think it had something to do with the weather last year. There was a relatively dry summer. The amount and quality of nectar and pollen was less than adequate, and bees were weakened,” Miller said.

The dry summer — a drought in much of the Midwest — followed a mild winter and abnormally early spring last year. Apple and cherry blossoms appeared five weeks early.

“The early spring gave mites more time to grow. Controlling mites is getting harder. We are still seeing very high levels of loss for many reasons. It's not just colony collapse disorder,” said Dennis van Engelsdorp, a research scientist at the University of Maryland and honeybee expert.

Jana Thompson, who lives in Pittsburgh's Mexican War Streets in the North Side, keeps two beehives.

“After winter, there were maybe 150 bees left in one of them,” Thompson said.

Bee colonies house 20,000 to 30,000 bees. Thompson since replenished her colonies.

Repasky is scrambling to rebuild his beehives by splitting colonies and collecting swarms. Last week, he collected a swarm from the backyard of a Pine resident.

“It's better to use a swarm to make a new colony than to kill bees by spraying them,” he said.

The total number of managed honeybee colonies in the United States has fallen from about 5 million in the 1940s to 2.6 million, according to the USDA, though demand for pollination services increased. Without honeybees, the USDA estimates, the nation would lose crops valued at $20 billion to $30 billion.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or

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