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Bee crisis deepens; Pa. keepers turn to making honey over pollination

| Saturday, May 16, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Stephen Repasky looks at the bees from one of his hives as they swarm in a process called splitting the hive, where one hive becomes overcrowded Repasky is able to make multiple hives from one, at his farm in Sewickley, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hive-splitting is one technique used to combat colony collapse.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Stephen Repasky looks at the bees from one of his hives as they swarm in a process called splitting the hive, where one hive becomes overcrowded Repasky is able to make multiple hives from one, at his farm in Sewickley, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hive-splitting is one technique used to combat colony collapse.
Steve Repasky looks at the bees from one of his hives in Sewickley on Friday, May 15, 2015, as they swarm in a process called splitting the hive, in which one hive becomes overcrowded. Hive-splitting is one technique used to combat colony collapse.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Steve Repasky looks at the bees from one of his hives in Sewickley on Friday, May 15, 2015, as they swarm in a process called splitting the hive, in which one hive becomes overcrowded. Hive-splitting is one technique used to combat colony collapse.
Stephen Repasky looks at the bees from one of his hives as they swarm in a process called splitting the hive, where one hive becomes overcrowded Repasky is able to make multiple hives from one, at his farm in Sewickley, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hive-splitting is one technique used to combat colony collapse.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Stephen Repasky looks at the bees from one of his hives as they swarm in a process called splitting the hive, where one hive becomes overcrowded Repasky is able to make multiple hives from one, at his farm in Sewickley, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hive-splitting is one technique used to combat colony collapse.
Stephen Repasky looks at the bees from one of his hives as they swarm in a process called splitting the hive, where one hive becomes overcrowded Repasky is able to make multiple hives from one, at his farm in Sewickley, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hive-splitting is one technique used to combat colony collapse.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Stephen Repasky looks at the bees from one of his hives as they swarm in a process called splitting the hive, where one hive becomes overcrowded Repasky is able to make multiple hives from one, at his farm in Sewickley, Friday, May 15, 2015. Hive-splitting is one technique used to combat colony collapse.

For the first time in 45 years, Dave Hackenberg, Pennsylvania's largest commercial beekeeper, will not take his honeybees to pollinate blueberries in Maine.

“It just doesn't make sense,” said Hackenberg of Lewisburg, Union County, who lost almost half of his 3,000 colonies in the past year to Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD.

Instead, he will spend the next couple of months in New York's Adirondack region, a forested area largely free of agricultural pesticides, where his bees will make honey.

“The price of honey is sky-high. Honey makes more sense than pollination,” he said.

Hackenberg decided to skip Maine long before last week's announcement by the Department of Agriculture that the past year was the second-worst for honeybee deaths since researchers identified CCD nearly a decade ago as adult bees vanished from hives in droves, leaving behind newborns.

Managed honeybee colonies like Hackenberg's suffered losses of 42 percent in the year ending April 30, a survey of 6,100 beekeepers nationally found. In the same period the year before, the number was 34.2 percent.

In Pennsylvania, the losses were greater. Beekeepers reported losing 61 percent of their colonies between April 2014 and April 2015.

The past year was the first in which summer bee deaths exceeded those in the winter — a development that worries and puzzles researchers.

“I was surprised. Winter is usually more stressful for bee colonies,” said University of Maryland entomologist Dennis van Engelsdorp, a co-author of the survey.

The survey's results, said Jen Sass a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, mean it's “past time to take action.”

But what kind of action to take is neither clear nor easy to determine, van Engelsdorp said.

Most beekeepers are certain that pesticides are killing bees, but it's more complicated than that.

“We need to follow data, not ideology,” he said. “We have to know what the facts are before making big decisions. Pesticides are not good for bees, but Varroa mites are still responsible for more bee deaths than pesticides.”

Persistent bee deaths could jeopardize large swaths of agriculture, said Jeff Pettis, a survey co-author and a senior entomologist at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md.

“If beekeepers are going to meet the growing demand for pollination services, researchers need to find better answers to the host of stresses that lead to both winter and summer colony losses,” he said.

Scientists say the main causes of CCD are a mix of nutritional stress, mites, fungus, viruses and pesticides.

Bee deaths have made the cost of pollination jump. Honeybees pollinate about $15 billion worth of crops each year, according to the USDA.

Crops that depend on bees include asparagus, broccoli, celery, squash, citrus fruits, peaches, blueberries, strawberries and melons.

For growers, the cost of renting bees is well above the price in 2005, the year before CCD was identified.

It's about $200 per colony for almond pollination, compared to $70 a decade ago. Blueberry growers pay about $140 compared to $50 a decade ago while the cost of pollinating apples has jumped from about $30 to $90 in that time.

Steve Repasky of Dormont manages about 75 bee colonies across Western Pennsylvania. He lost only about 15 percent of his honeybees in the past year.

Urban bees are healthier and feed on more diverse plants, he said.

“You play around with them — breeding queens and looking to bees that will survive better. There is the art of beekeeping and the science of beekeeping,” he said.

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

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