To bees, they mite be giants

Beekeeper Dale Spoor holds up a panel drawn from one of his surviving hives. He and other island beekeepers lost large portions of their bees from a foreign invasion of parasitic mites. The decimated bee population also undermines pollenation vital to cherry, apple and peach crops.  - JESSE BEALS/Staff Photo
Beekeeper Dale Spoor holds up a panel drawn from one of his surviving hives. He and other island beekeepers lost large portions of their bees from a foreign invasion of parasitic mites. The decimated bee population also undermines pollenation vital to cherry, apple and peach crops.
— image credit: JESSE BEALS/Staff Photo

Parastic mites hurt the island bee population, honey yield.

Wearing a helmet, face net and rubber gloves, Dale Spoor often hesitates before cracking open one of his hives swarming with 30,000 honeybees.

It’s not so much the sting he fears – it’s what’s stinging the bees.

“I haven’t given up yet, but I’ve lost four of my six hives this year,” the beekeeper of over 30 years said. “I bought more bees, but others I know have lost everything and quit. I don’t want to be an alarmist, but I don’t think we have a clue of what impact this will have on the future.”

While many of Spoor’s bees dash back and forth, converting blackberry nectar into honey, microscopic mites are also at work, sucking the bees’ blood from the outside and from within the bees themselves.

These spider-like mites have ravaged the honey bee population for two decades, nearly wiping out all wild hives, threatening vital crop pollination and decimating some island beekeepers’ entire stock.

“It’s very exasperating,” said Jim Willman, who lost all his hives last winter. “You think everything’s going well, but then you see the hive go upside down and you end up with nothing. I don’t know when I can start again.”

Typically losing about 10 percent of his colonies during the lean, cold months, Willman and other island beekeepers have seen a sharp spike in the decimation of their honeybees due to an outbreak of two types of increasingly prevalent mites.

The tracheal mite, a native of Europe that arrived in the United States about 20 years ago, crawls into the throats of bees to lay eggs. Once hatched, the young mite taps the bee’s blood, weakening it from within.

At the same time, most hives are also saddled with the Asian verroa mite, which attaches to bee larvae like fleas on a dog. The parasite’s impact on the developing bee produces misshapen young, often incapable of flight.

“I see the young bees wandering out of the hive with their shriveled wings,” said John Tullis, who keeps bees at the old Johnson Farm on Fletcher Bay Road. “Their first jump into the wild blue yonder is their last. They never fly back.”

Tullis used to produce 1,000 pounds of honey in a good season. That waned to 500 pounds in the last five years; this year, Tullis’ yield sunk to 200 pounds.

“In the past, I might lose one or two hives,” he said. “But to lose eight this year, that’s a huge jump for me. But it’s like that everywhere in America with mites. They’re really wrecking havoc.”

In Washington state, the number of registered beekeepers shrank from 532 in 1997 to fewer than 280 in 2003, according to the state Department of Agriculture’s latest figures.

Fewer bees means fewer pollinators for over 50 crops, including cherries, apples and peaches.

Many larger beekeeping operations now make most of their money not from honey, but by carting hives down to the California almond fields where producers are willing to pay nearly double for pollination services.

The bees-ness

Most Bainbridge beekeeping operations are small, backyard affairs run for decades by retirees who give away more than they sell.

Spoor hands out jars as gifts or donates them to local charities like Helpline House.

Dennis Heeney has hives stationed in Kingston, Poulsbo and on the island. His honey is sold by his daughter at the Bainbridge Farmers Market and other local outlets.

Tullis, who also works as a Washington State Ferries skipper, markets his “Captain’s Own” honey via word-of-mouth through a vast network of friends and co-workers. A few jars were recently shipped to England and France bearing Tullis’ ferry and Bainbridge map-themed label.

“A lot of people in my Rolling Bay neighborhood have standing orders,” he said. “I never have a problem getting rid of it. But I may have a problem making enough of it.”

Part of the challenge for beekeepers is finding ways to root out the mites. During the initial outbreaks of the 1980s and early ’90s, many honey producers saturated hives with pesticides.

The high doses helped mites build tolerances, and, over a short time, generated a parasite that was adapting faster than new chemical arsenals could be produced.

“Americans like to do things quick and dirty and just flood the hives with killer liquids,” said Heeney, an Eagledale resident. “That was a big mistake flooding both the sick hives and the ones that were doing fine. It meant they all got a dose and they all figured out ways to adapt to it.”

Eventually, the pesticides tickled more than they terrorized.

“The mites would just laugh and take a chomp out of it,” said Tullis.

As an alternative to pesticides, Heeney prefers using formic acid, which is derived from ants. The acid was found to ward off mites after birds were observed stuffing crushed ants in their feathers to fight off an avian breed of mite.

Formic acid is considered an all-natural option but it can be corrosive and harmful if inhaled by humans.

It is also temperature-dependent and is largely ineffective during the high heat of summer and the cool months of fall and winter, according to some beekeepers.

Heeney is also trying out a strain of Russian honeybee considered more tolerant to mites. But a tougher bee comes at a price, as the Russian bees are more aggressive than their popular Italian counterparts.

“They’re much meaner and easier to perturb,” Heeney said. “When they get ticked-off they’ll chase you longer. The usual Italian bee might follow me half way to the house. But the Russians follow me all the way and try to get in the door to get me.”

Tullis is trying a more traditional approach: powdered sugar and vegetable oil cakes. Attracted by the sugar, bees are coated with a thin sheen of oil, making their bodies difficult for mites to latch onto.

But even this folksy technique has had little success.

“We’re really scrambling here,” Tullis said. “Everybody’s looking for the silver bullet.”

Etymologist Steve Sheppard, who heads Washington State University’s bee research laboratory, believes he may have about two dozen such silver bullets.

After five years of research and crossbreeding, Sheppard has developed eight strains of queen bee he hopes will be mite-resistant, docile and adapted to Washington climates.

“Many of the domestic bees and most of the wild bees have been eliminated,” he said. “It would be foolish to repopulate Yakima with bees from the Alps. They wouldn’t deal with the heat very well. At the same time, people with hives in their yard in (Bainbridge) probably don’t want bees from Southern Italy.”

A new bee

Many of Bainbridge’s beekeepers welcome a new local breed of bee just as they recognize the benefits of a local breed of honey.

According to Tullis, some of his customers revere his island-grown honey as an allergy-buster. Bits of the region’s common pollens are imbedded in the honey, giving honey-eaters a low-dose of what ails them and a measure of immunity over time.

Local honey is also more trustworthy, said Heeney, especially since honey produced on Bainbridge Island is likely sold, given or traded face-to-face.

Heeney contrasts this with honey produced in China that was recently found loaded with dangerous levels of antibiotics and was banned from U.S. and European markets.

“As a rule, people that come to me know who they’re buying from and I know who I’m selling to,” he said. “If I was shipping my honey to Jupiter or Neptune, why would I worry what happened? I don’t have to look those people in the face.”

And, unlike many overseas varieties, which are often produced by sugar-fed bees encased in warehouses, Heeney says his honey has the taste of home.

The main strains of Western Washington honey are drawn from maple (which Tullis described as “smooth and buttery”), blackberry (“fruity and looks great in the jar”), and mountain fireweed (“incredibly sweet and clear”).

Still, most beekeepers say they don’t really care all that much if people eat the honey — just as long as the bees survive the coming winter.

“I just like watching them and looking after them,” Heeney said. “They’re unreal. You could donate your whole life to studying bees and still find there’s so much you don’t know.

“The bee is the most facinating thing in life. Honey’s just a bonus.”

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