Old Main bees moved to teaching, research coloniesJuly 2, 2007
By Howell Medders, Division of Agriculture Communications
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- The queen from a large hive of about 100,000 honeybees removed recently from Old Main at the University of Arkansas was placed -- along with a cohort of drones and workers -- in a hive used for teaching and research at the research and extension center operated by the U of A System's Division of Agriculture north of the campus.
Entomology professor Don Steinkraus, graduate student Jon Zawislak and carpenter Charles George removed the bees from a fifth floor window casing. The removal was requested by the Kinco, Inc., crew that is restoring the exterior of the historic building.
Steinkraus said the Old Main colony was much larger than other feral honeybee colonies he has seen, which have had up to about 60,000 bees at the most. They removed two large trash bags of honeycomb and about 100 pounds of honey.
Steinkraus said the fact that the hive had thrived for several years is also unusual; it might mean the bees have a degree of genetic resistance to the varroa mite, which infests virtually all colonies and is the number one enemy of honeybees.
The varroa and another mite often "kill" colonies that are not properly treated to control the pests, Zawislak said. His master's degree research project with Steinkraus is a study to determine if some plant materials used in bee "smokers" can reduce the level of mite infestation in a colony.
A smoker is routinely used to calm bees for handling. Beekeepers use whatever smoker fuel is available, usually dry leaves, and some have claimed that smoke from certain plants reduces mite infestations.
"The smoke won't kill mites, but it might cause them to drop off of the bees," Zawislak said. If the hive has a screen floor, the mites would fall to the ground and die.
Zawislak developed a laboratory process to document the effects of different smoker fuel sources on mites attached to live bees. He hopes to soon identify promising candidates of smoker fuel for field-testing.
Bee scientists have given the name of "colony collapse disorder" to a widespread phenomenon of large declines in commercial colonies reported since 2006 in 35 states, including Arkansas.
The Arkansas case is the Jester Bee Co. at West Ridge in Mississippi County. Kevin Jester, a commercial beekeeper for 19 years, reported that his 2,000 hives had dwindled to about 200. Struggling to stay in business, he has built his farm back up to 500 hives.
No specific cause has been identified in Jester's case or in any others labeled as colony collapse disorder. Researchers have not identified any new diseases. The cumulative stresses of modern beekeeping may be at the root of it, Steinkraus said.
Jester and other commercial beekeepers harvest honey as part of the management process, but their primary income is from farmers who pay to have hives located in their fields to pollinate crops. Some crops, such as almonds, require extensive pollination by bees.
One of the nation's largest bee farms is near Jonesboro, operated by Richard Coy, his father, Bobby, and brothers Steven and David. California almond growers are their main customers.
"The price of honey is below our cost of production in most years, so we have to ship our hives to California every winter to stay in business," Richard Coy said.
The Coys have about 12,000 hives. Each fall, the best 5,000 hives are shipped to California and spend the winter in almond groves. They are then shipped from California to a Coy bee farm in southern Mississippi to produce a spring honey crop. They then come back to Arkansas for harvest of a summer honey crop.
Coy said, "We haven't experienced that (colony collapse disorder), but for the last 10 years our bee losses have increased. A loss of 15 percent was a bad year, 10 years ago. Now, we expect to lose 20 percent and have lost as high as 30 percent."
Coy attributes the higher losses in part to a larger operation with more hives, but also to a growing level of stress on the bees, which includes several factors.
Coy said environmental stresses include the frequent movement of hives over long distances, the loss of pollen and nectar sources due to commercial and residential development, and farming practices that may be less bee-friendly than in the past.
The main direct biological stress is from varroa mites. One mite on a bee would be like a tick the size of a hamburger on a person, Zawislak said.
Mites can develop resistance to the miticides used to control them, Zawislak said. Alternative treatments are needed, and he hopes that his project will help provide an effective alternative.