Government researchers have determined some bees have evolved an ability to sniff out and remove deadly mites before they develop. USDA scientists say the blood-sucking mites are the bee industry's most serious threat. The tiny pests have destroyed up to 70 percent of the hives in some parts of the country. That has a serious impact on the farm economy, since bees pollinate some $15 billion worth of nuts, fruits and vegetables grown annually in the U.S.
While the USDA discovery is good news, many farmers are dealing with a shortage of winged labor. Nancy Crowfoot reports on one state's call to action.
North Carolina agriculture is in a state of transition. The federal government recently eliminated its tobacco price and quantity control business, so many of the state's tobacco growers quit growing the golden leaf and switched to other crops & such as produce. Growing fruits and vegetables may be a good and profitable move for those farmers. But a major player in the "support" system for a successful crop is not in place. The issue isn't processing and marketing. The issue is the lack of "farmworkers" needed to pollinate the crop -- honeybees.
David Tarpy, Assistant Professor and Extension Apiculturist, North Carolina State University, Raleigh: "It's been a slow erosion of the number of bees and beekeepers within the state and nationwide as a whole. In North Carolina it's been about 44% decline since the mid 80's."
Two parasitic mites -- the tracheal mite and verrora mite -- have killed much of the bee population nationwide. To exasperate the problem in North Carolina, the number of beekeepers has declined due in part to retirement of aging beekeepers. Of the 13 fulltime commercial pollination businesses in the state, only two are operated by people under the age of 60.
Jack Tapp, Busy Bee Apiaries: "I'm in my mid-60s, so I've retired twice and now I work 16 hour days, six days a week. The demand here in North Carolina could probably support at least 25 commercial beekeepers that have from 2,000 plus hives a piece."
One solution came from North Carolina State University. With a $164,000 grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation, which finances agricultural projects in the state, the university gave 500 hives of bees to non-beekeepers.
David Tarpy, NCSU Extension Apiculturist: "Rather than just provide bee colonies to existing beekeepers, we thought it would be much more effective to boost the managed honeybee population by creating new beekeepers."
Nearly 28-hundred residents applied for the free bees. Only 250 were selected. They received 2 new hives and 2 "boxes" each containing three pounds of bees -- a total of 24,000 bees. NCSU's David Tarpy says that covers the immediate $300 start up costs for a would-be beekeeper
For the new hobbyists just picking up their first bees, there were "instant" education presentations and they were sent home with an "owner's manual" of sorts.
The program also provided them with what they hope is a genetic "weapon" to fight the deadly parasitic mites that have plagued even the most astute operators of commercial pollinators. The "weapon" is a Russian queen bee -- said to be more tolerant to the lethal mites. The USDA imported the Russian bees and tested their "survival skills" before releasing them to the public in 2000.
David Tarpy, North Carolina State University, Raleigh: "And they've shown that they are over twice as resistant to these parasitic mites than standard, commercial stocks."
Tarpy says a Russian queen will be put into a hive of "regular", or Italian, honeybees. As the queen lays her own eggs and the short summertime lifespan of the existing bees -- it will be just a matter of 6 to 9 weeks before the entire hive will be comprised of mite-resistant Russian bees.
These new hobbyists with two hives each may not seem like they would have an impact in the commercial field where many beekeepers care for hundreds and oftentimes thousands of hives. But to commercial beekeeper Jack Tapp -- who sold the bee program half the bees needed for the giveaway -- the new hives could definitely help with the bee needs of smaller farms.
Jack Tapp, Busy Bee Apiaries, Chapel Hill, NC: "The biggest thing it'll do for the commercial side is it'll take a lot of the demand for one or two and three and four hives off of the large pollinators."
Tapp, who started as a hobbyist himself in 1986 while working as a Sheriff's detective, retired and went fulltime into the bee pollination business when he discovered he could earn what he described as a "decent" living.Prices for hive rental vary with demand, but he says in North Carolina the average rental price for the largest vegetable crop in the state -- cucumbers -- is $45 per hive.
But getting a good price for pollination is just one aspect of the job. Up until this year, it was difficult for farmers and beekeepers to even find each other.
Ashley Porter, farmer, Algier, North Carolina: "Just called around, word of mouth. Everybody would have 4 or 5 hives here and it was just, I don't know, I just found them where I could. Some years I couldn't find any."
When Ashley Porter started farming strawberries and pumpkins 8 years ago, he had few resources to help him locate the 30 hives a year he needed.
Today a Web site maintained by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture serves as a "matchmaker" resource for farmers and beekeepers.
Such resources and a support system may be enough incentive for these novice beekeepers to grow their operation into a commercial enterprise.
And if that happens, veteran beekeeper Jack Tapp can see a bright, prosperous future for North Carolina's produce crop.
Jack Tapp, Busy Bee Apiaries, Chapel Hill, North Carolina: "We would produce during a time when it starts dropping off in Florida and before it picks up in Maryland. And I envision that North Carolina could be actually the produce basket of the East Coast of the United States."
For Market To Market, I'm Nancy Crowfoot.