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Fall 2013

Kansas beekeepers fret over future of bees

by Charlene Scott Myers

If you've never witnessed the birth of a honey bee, as my husband Dave and I have, you haven't really lived!

In a field west of Larned, beekeeper Jim Kellie proudly showed us a portion of a hive on which bees hovered like anxious aunties near a baby bee squirming and struggling to escape from its encasement in the capped cell in which Mama Queen laid her egg.

Kellie is one of many Kansas beekeepers concerned for the future of bees around the world and here on the farms of Kansas, where climate change, disappearing pastures, mites, and pesticides threaten bee extinction and colony collapse.

"The future doesn't look really good for bees in Kansas," said Kellie, owner of the Kellie Honey Farm and past president of the Kansas Honey Producers Association, an organization of more than 200 Kansas beekeepers.

"Crops are changing, and bee pastures all over the United States are disappearing," Kellie noted. "The bee population in Kansas has declined for many years because of the loss of bee pastures.

"Bees flourish when they can gather nectar from alfalfa and wild flowers, but farmers now are planting wheat, milo, and corn for ethanol and corn syrups. Farmers make a greater profit from these crops."

Kellie now runs only 200 colonies (hives) of bees "because of the drought." He has had as many as 300 to 350 hives in past years. (More than 15,000 hives are located all over the state of Kansas.) Kellie's bees produce 100 pounds of honey per colony each year. Each colony has some 60,000 bees and 200 drones that mate in flight with the queen, and then die. Poor drones!

"We transport the bees in winter by truck to Kilgore, Texas, where the weather is warmer and has more moisture." Kellie explained. "We can start earlier making new colonies and queens in Texas."

Kellie also protects his bees from pesticides sprayed on Kansas fields in the springtime, another reason he has taken his bees to winter in Texas for the past 30 years.

"In the spring while driving from Dodge City to Larned, I've seen as many as 15 planes spraying pesticides on crops," he said. "Bees pick up the pesticides in pollen and bring them back to the hive, which kills all of the bees in the colony. I don't return my bees from Texas until the Aerial Applicators are finished spraying."

Pesticides may be one of several causes of CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder), Kellie pointed out. "CCD used to be called 'the disappearing disease' because the bees feel sick and lose their sense of direction, then end up dying in the field. It's almost like having AIDS for bees."

Scientists also have pointed fingers at pesticides in recent years as one of the main causes of bee and other insect destruction. More than 2.6 million people from around the world (including this writer) signed a petition to urge bee protection through a European Union pesticide ban. Fifteen of the 27 member states of the EU voted April 29, 2013 in Brussels to ban for two years such bee-killing pesticides as neonicotinoids, which soak into seeds and permeate plants, killing bees and other insects that chow down on them.

Bayer Company in Cologne, Germany produces this pesticide in massive quantities sold for billions of dollars around the globe. Bayer also sells aspirin and vitamins.

If in two years beekeepers see a resurgence of bees and other tiny creatures that no longer are killed by neonicotinoids, perhaps the EU and other nations will pass a permanent ban on pesticides poisonous to these valuable insects. The United States has not banned neonicotinoids.

Mites, especially one that Kellie calls "a destructive little vampire," (better known as the varroa mite) also destroy honey bees. "A mite injects its fangs into the bee and sucks hemolymph (bee blood) from the bee, which causes it to die."

Four common species of U.S. bumble bees have declined 97 percent in recent decades, and billions of bees are dying around the planet, endangering crops and food. Bees are not only honey producers, they also pollinate 90 percent of the planet's crops and plants, and more than one-third of the food supply of many countries. Fruits and vegetables and other commercial plants such as coffee and cotton depend on bees for pollination.

"California's almonds cannot live without bee pollination," Kellie explained.

Steve Tipton of Meridian, the current president and a 20-year member of the Kansas Honey Producers Association, acknowledges that bees are in danger in the United States and across the face of the earth.

"Our organization has as its purpose the slogan: 'Promoting mankind's most beneficial insect: the Honey Bee,'" he said.

Tipton, who sells between 3,000 to 6,000 pounds of his honey from his 50 hives every year, does not remove his bees to warmer climes, but he did say that when pilots spray pesticides in certain Kansas areas, "Beekeepers are forced to move their bees or cover them with sheets."

Butterflies and fireflies also are in danger of extinction. In past years, massive swarms of Monarch butterflies visited Southwestern Kansas. We used to rejoice each year to see our neighbor's tall fir trees dressed in thick garments woven from hundreds of these magnificent butterflies.

Sadly, last year we came across only two of these winged creatures on the hot sidewalk while walking our dog Sarah. They seemed to be struggling for life, too weak to reach the cool shelter of trees, a dangerous dilemma for their kin throughout our world.

I remember as a child the joy of welcoming the hundreds of multi- colored butterflies that fluttered into our yard. My five younger brothers and I were equally delighted by fireflies (we called them "lightening bugs") that blinked their lights like the stars twinkling above them.

I enjoy the hum and buzz of bees around my purple Russian sage bush, and the rare glimpse of the delicate beauty of butterflies or a sparkling firefly. I mourn the loss of so many of them that--despite their tiny size--are among God's most precious creations.

John Muir, a naturalist who founded the Sierra Club in 1892 to protect the environment, also convinced President Teddy Roosevelt and Congress to safeguard the grand display of nature at Yosemite and other lovely U.S. areas as national parks.

Muir wrote: "Our souls need wild places." I believe our souls and our world need bees, butterflies and fireflies, and all other wild creatures as well.


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