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Ohio Honey Bee Industry Struggles After Long Winter

This past winter's polar vortex did a number on agriculture. Crops and trees suffered damage. Hit hard were bees, which were already struggling with other problems. Some Ohio beekeepers lost nearly all of their stock, and the loss reaches far beyond the bee hive. The United States has seen a shrinking bee population for years. And their keepers have a lot of theories as to why. "It's a different environment for bees. A lot more stress: the pesticides; the diets they have; the foraging areas; the mites. It's all adding up." This past year was really bad. A soggy spring and summer did not allow bees to make the honey they needed for what turned out to be an extremely cold winter. The Ohio State Beekeepers Associationsaid most bee farmers lost about 40 percent of their hives...some lost 90 percent. Bee farming struggles David Crawford lost a lot of bees during the winter. He's been a beekeeper for about 30 years. He has 40 hives in several bee yards south of Circleville in Pickaway County. "We're getting ready to go into a yard here that had 16 hives last year in the fall," Crawford said. "It came through with two living." Crawford estimates he's out a couple thousand dollars. That doesn't include a poor honey crop and all the money he spent on food supplements and parasite medications for bees that died. But Crawford isn't deterred. He removes a concrete block from the top of a buzzing hive and pops open the lid. A couple hundred bees crawl around on a honeycomb. "This is a 'honey super' here," he noted. That's a beehive used to collect honey. "The bees are going to need that full of honey to get it through the winter," Crawford said. "The bees need about 80 pounds of honey to make it through the winter. So, of course, they didn't have that last winter so we're trying to make sure they get it this time." To rebuild stock or buy new bees? Tim Arheit is president of the State Beekeepers Association. He said beekeepers have a few options to rebuild their stock. They can buy new bees, but that gets expensive. Keepers can also split up their bees; move them to hives that didn't make it. That has a downside, too. "If you split your hives, you reduce the number of bees in each of the hives," Arheit said. "And honey production depends on a very high population of bees in the hives. So you're going to reduce the amount of honey each hive collects." The honey bee losses affect more than beekeepers. Bees and farming For years, farmers have shipped in honey bees to help with pollination. Small fruit farmers usually turn to local sources for bee rentals. "I feel bad for anyone who has orchards this spring. A lot of the beekeepers they had contracted with to bring in hives for pollination didn't have those hives because of the winter," David Crawford said. "Instead of maybe bringing in 20 hives all they could bring in were 10. And those 10 hives may not have been a full strength." Columbus Blueberry owner Daniel Huggett has a 20-acre farm just north of Circleville. Huggett was scrambling for honey bees this spring. "I had 12 hives last year, and by the spring I only had three. And then the beekeeper I normally rent my hives from, he lost about 80 percent of his hives," Huggett said. "And he's getting up there in age where he's going to retire, so he decided he had to cut back. And so, on short notice, I had to find more bee hives from different beekeepers." Bee prices on the rise Huggett said he was able to get the hives he needed. But he had to pay for them. The bee shortage drove up prices. "A package of bees has gone up from about $40 to $100 because the bees, if they're dying at a higher rate you have to replenish them. When they're in demand, the price goes up." So what does all of this mean? Well, a couple of things. There may be less fruit and honey. Even if fruit farmers were able to get all the honey bees they needed for pollination, and production is average, prices may still go up as the farmers pass on the extra costs they incurred getting their bees. Honey prices likely will go up, as well. State Beekeeper Association president Tim Arheit predicts honey yields to be cut in half this year, and that's if the summer weather is favorable. Bees all across the country took a hit this winter, but locally, famers and beekeepers are going to be seeing a tough summer ahead.