Another threat beekeepers still
grapple with is the varroa mite. Originating in Asia, the mite was
introduced here in the 1990s and has since spread around the world. Varroa
mites weaken bees’ immune systems and carry viruses.
“We saw other mites in the ’80s but since the varroa mite
we have gone from an annual loss of 5 to 7 percent [of honey bees] to a 30
percent [annual] loss of bees,” Tignor explains. “In the pre-mite era in
Virginia, we had maybe 98,000 hives; by the 1990s we had about 20,000 hives.
In 1996 and 2004, particularly, we lost maybe 80 percent of feral bees and
60 percent of managed hives.”
He adds, “If you were a business person and every year
you lost one-third of what you had and had to replace it, how many years
could you do that and stay in business? Beekeepers were becoming very
discouraged. We lost a lot of experienced beekeepers.”
Of Virginia’s approximately 3,500 beekeepers, only 2
percent are commercial; 92 percent are small-scale. Commercial beekeepers’
primary income comes from bees and have 500 or more hives; sideline
beekeepers hold full-time jobs but have bees who generate some income; and
small-scale beekeepers typically have 1-50 hives. Commercial beekeepers’
income can include selling honey, beeswax, royal jelly (a high-nutrition
food supplement) and pollination services.
Migratory beekeepers move honey
bee hives so crops have enough pollinating insects for maximum production.
Every February beekeepers from around the country transport billions of bees
to California almond farms that produce 80 percent of the world’s almonds.
“None of our Virginia beekeepers go out to California but
[some] Virginia beekeepers ‘follow the bloom’ to New York or Maine for
blueberries or apples,” Tignor notes.
Although California almond farms rely on migratory
beekeepers, Tignor says moving “stresses out the bees,” and moving bees four
or five times annually can make them more susceptible to problems.
Tom Fifer, a beekeeper for over 30 years, keeps some
hives at his Henrico County home for personal use but also keeps bees for
pollination at several sites, including 35 to 40 hives kept year-round on
Hanover County’s Dodd’s Acres Farm, a large fifth-generation farm operation.
“People don’t realize the importance of pollination. One
out of three bites of your food is either directly or indirectly related to
insect pollination,” Fifer, 75, says.
Fifer started his beekeeping avocation with three hives
and says his greatest challenge has been “getting my bees off chemicals.”
“They sell chemicals to combat the mites; you put
chemicals on in August after you remove any salable honey. I had three
seasons where I could not get out to my hives to work them or put chemicals
on them,” he recalls. “I lost about half of my colony but the ones that
survived, I raised queens from them and split those hives from the
survivors. Over a period of three years, their resistance built up so mites
are not decimating my hives.”
Beekeeper Lannie Ballard, 73,
agrees, explaining, “I do not use chemicals for my hives. I have about 40
hives, although I don’t know how many will survive the winter. I made the
decision about eight years ago to not use chemicals. I feel if we keep using
chemicals, we’ll never have bees that progress enough to resist problems on
He adds, “I do lose some bees, but with chemicals they
may have died anyway because of their gene pool, so what was I
accomplishing? What I have done to increase the gene pool is to have some
bees able to tolerate this stuff.”
Ballard developed a fondness for honey bees as a teenager
and became a beekeeper when he moved to Rockbridge County 16 years ago.
“Honey bees have always fascinated me. I am fascinated
with what they contribute. I look at them as one of God’s greatest
creations,” he explains.
Ballard says people tend to lump honey bees in with
stinging insects like yellow jackets and hornets, noting that honey bees are
generally gentle and not aggressive.
“When I decided to get into
beekeeping, getting stung did not enter my mind,” he admits. “I don’t know
why. They are soothing and relaxing to work with ... I just wanted to work
He adds, “My wife and I eat a lot of honey in teas and on
cereal. Honey is the only food that will never spoil. It can ferment and
will crystallize, but if you put it in a jar with warm water [it will be
fine]. People with multiple sclerosis have also used bee venom as therapy.”
ALSO AT RISK
Ballard recounts anecdotal evidence of decreasing feral
bees. He used to have several logging companies who would call him if they
found a tree with bees in it.
“In the past three years, I’ve not had a call from them,”
he notes. “They are not seeing feral bees anymore.”
Start-up costs for novice beekeepers can range from
$150-$300. More people are being attracted to beekeeping but Ballard
emphasizes, “It is work, you can’t just take them and set them outside. It
will help your garden and your flowers but you shouldn’t expect to get any
surplus honey out of it the first year. That first year you want to [get
your bees] through the winter; in the second year they can produce honey.”
“My advice is purchase local bees,” Fifer says. “Even if
you have to wait [for local bees], don’t be so impatient. Beekeeping
patience is a virtue.”
Although challenges continue, Tignor says things seem to
be getting better: “We’re now up to about 35,000 hives in Virginia. We’re
seeing a wide range of people getting into beekeeping and we’d like to see
more people get into it. It looks like things are improving.”
FASCINATING HONEY BEE
A typical feral (wild) honey bee nest can contain 30,000
bees, while managed honey bee hives can contain 80,000 bees. Colonies
contain one fertile female, the queen bee; a large population of infertile
female worker bees who do all the work of a hive, including collecting food
from outside and creating beeswax cells; and fertile male honey bees known
as drones. Drones’ only function is to mate with a queen; they die shortly
Queen bees mate only once and store sperm for future egg
fertilization in their bodies. A queen may live from one to five years and
may lay 1,500-2,000 eggs per day. Since worker bees determine a queen bee’s
development (by the type of food fed to larva), beekeepers “raise” queens by
utilizing the bees’ natural systems. Keith Tignor of the Virginia Department
of Agriculture and Consumer Services says beekeepers can determine which
cells are workers or queens visually: “Worker cells are flat. The queen
cells are extended out, up to 2 inches from the [honey] comb.
“Beekeepers set up hives that are queenless and provide
the bees with a situation that will encourage them to raise queen cells,” he
Honey bees store food to keep the
colony alive from one year to the next. In contrast, bumblebees store honey
for a short period of time just to keep the colony alive. During the winter,
the honey bee queen is kept alive by worker bees huddling in a tight ball
Honey bees look for a
certain-size cavity to create their nests, but as populations increase in
the spring and space is filled up with food and bees, worker bees can leave
and form a new colony, called “swarming,” which occurs more often in wild
populations. In managed populations, beekeepers can add more space to a hive
to prevent swarming.
“The great thing about honey bees is you can take the
hive you have and split it, setting up a separate population to increase the
number of hives,” Tignor says.
If you decide to try beekeeping, beekeeper Lannie Ballard
advises, “Join a local beekeeping association, meet other beekeepers and
find out the costs, etc., before you buy your first hive.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services:
Virginia State Beekeepers Association:
American Beekeeping Federation: