LONGMONT — Imagine, if you will, watching half a herd of cows drop dead.
It’s a pretty shocking idea in a country freaked out by a handful of cases of mad cow disease.
But the nation’s beekeepers say they are facing that kind of reality in dealing with a tiny parasite known as a Varroa mite, which latches onto bees and sucks their blood, killing them.
Beekeepers and honey experts say the problem has been growing for years and could devastate the nation’s honey production and interfere with the pollination of a third of the food we eat.
A $260 million state industry, honey is the third-largest piece of the agriculture industry in Colorado.
“We’re having colonies going into the winter strong, heavy with honey, and by spring they’re down to a fistful of bees or nothing at all,” said Tom Theobald, a Niwot beekeeper and longtime advocate for better research into mites. “We’ve been courting this disaster for a long time. It was always my fear it would take a disaster, and this may be it.”
The Varroa mite, native to Asia, first surfaced in the United States in the 1980s and made its way to Boulder County by 1995, experts say.
Honeybees in this country have little natural defense against the invaders, and some estimates say as many as 90 percent of bees in a colony can be killed by the mites, which are about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
In Colorado, death rates for colonies range from 20 percent to 80 percent, according to beekeeping industry estimates.
Now, the National Honey Board, which is based in Longmont, is trying to raise awareness of the problem and find solutions.
That is tricky, however, because there’s relatively little money available for bee research, and beekeepers pride themselves on producing a natural product. Anything that’s seen to taint that image could hurt the industry more than the mites, said Honey Board CEO Bruce Boynton.
Potential mite treatments range from misting hives with mineral oil to fumigating them with ozone. Researchers funded by the Honey Board are investigating those and other mite-control techniques.
“The industry wants to maintain that wholesome, natural image,” he said. “It’s not going to do any good to treat for mites and contaminate the honey at the same time.”
Boynton said there are two accepted forms of treatment for mites, but the mites are growing resistant to them. Some beekeepers are turning to expensive Siberian bees, which are more naturally resistant to the mites.
California in particular is susceptible to huge farm losses. Almond growers, for instance, need 1.2 million bees to pollinate their crops, which are worth about $2 billion. But the growing shortage of bees is endangering that crop and one-third of all foods we eat, from apples to strawberries to watermelons.
Bees help produce fruit by transferring pollen from one plant to another. Many plants will not produce fruit unless pollinated with pollen from another plant. According to the Honey Board, a 2000 study by Cornell University found that pollination by honey bees is worth more than $14.6 billion in increased yields and quality.
The mites attack bees when they are most vulnerable, as they grow from larvae to adults. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the mites attach to the developing bees, suck their blood and prevent them from maturing properly.
Jeffrey Harris, a research entomologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Louisiana, said the mites are the biggest problem facing beekeepers, and this is an industry that is already struggling with deaths from other kinds of mites and pesticides.
Harris said that when the mite first arrived in his area, nearly all the wild honey bees were killed, as were many of the domesticated bees. He said the populations are starting to rebound as beekeepers learn how to better manage their hives to protect against mite infestations.
But he said the death of so many bees has created a booming business for beekeepers who are willing to ship their hives to different farms and orchards to help pollinate crops.
That increased cost will likely be passed on to consumers, although that hasn’t yet happened, said Madhava Honey president Craig Gerbore. The Lyons-based company processes and sells honey, but does not keep bees.
Still, the mites are on people’s minds, Gerbore said.
“It’s a primary topic of conversation,” he said. “It affects all our producers.”
For years, Theobald has been warning of the impact that he says pesticides and mites are having on local bees. Theobald has “somewhere between zero and 100 colonies” of bees, depending on how many survive the winter. He usually has about 50,000 bees during the summer, and numbers drop to about 30,000 over the winter.
“We knew these problems were coming,” Theobald said. “We knew 15 years ago these problems were coming. We’ve known these things for a long time. It’s not just the mite problem. It’s a combination of problems on a surprisingly fragile industry. Nothing has been done. It’s gotten worse. Where have been the decision makers who might have changed the course of events? If this industry collapses, what are we going to do? It’s very frustrating.”
Trevor Hughes can be reached at 303-684-5220, or by e-mail at email@example.com.