Dan Pompili and Steve Fogarty | The Gazette
One of the hardest winters to hit Ohio in years devastated the state’s honeybee population. Agricultural officials have estimated beekeepers across the Buckeye state lost 50 percent to 80 percent of their honeybees, which pollinate more than 70 crops including apples, strawberries and pumpkins.
Peggy Garnes, president of the Medina Beekeepers, said the worst winter in more than 20 years immobilized bees in the hive, in many cases killing them only inches away from the honey that sustains them through the winter.
“It’s heartbreaking, especially when you’ve got 80 to 90 pounds of food left, just inches away, and nothing but dead bees in a hive you had high hopes for,” she said.
Kim Flottum, editor of Bee Culture magazine, published by A.I. Root Co., said the cold destroyed two of four demonstration hives on display at the company’s West Liberty Street campus in Medina.
“In winter, bees gather together in a cluster to keep warm” and feed on honey stored in the hive, he explained.
In a normal winter over several weeks, the temperature will reach 40 or 50 degrees at least once — warm enough to allow the bees to move to another part of the hive where there is honey.
“This year, we didn’t get those warm days,” he said. “It was just too cold for too long.
“I’ve lived here 30 years and this is only the third time this has happened.”
Garnes said the bees’ high mortality rate means trouble for local farmers.
“The farmers will not have enough bees for early pollination, and apples will be ready in just a week or two,” she said. “Other plants as well. We should have already had dandelions for a couple weeks, but they’re just coming up now.”
She said one local apple farmer lost all three of his bee colonies.
Garnes said that bees can be imported from the southern state, but they pose problems.
“You are bringing up genetics from pesky bees,” she said. “And genetically, they are too hot for our area. These are bees that have been bred there and they won’t survive the winters here.”
Valerie Weiss, a trustee with the Lorain County Beekeepers Association, is also the owner of Honeybee Treasure in New London in Huron County.
She lost 27 of 34 bee colonies — each colony holds 60,000 to 80,000 bees, meaning the loss was somewhere between 1.6 million and 2.1 million bees.
“We’ve been beekeeping 14 years and for us it was the most severe winter,” Weiss said.
Some members of the county beekeepers group reported losing 75 percent of their colonies, while others lost all of their bees, Weiss said.
And these devastating losses come on top of the 30 percent to 60 percent of bees lost by many a year ago.
“We just picked up and installed 15 packages (of bees) at a cost of $105 apiece,” Weiss said.
The packaged bees are purchased from bee supply businesses such as one operated by a fellow beekeeper in Spencer, and are used to jump-start badly depleted bee colonies for the coming growing season.
Each package contains an average 10,000 bees and weighs 3 pounds, Weiss said.
For people who have a honey business, like Weiss, the packaged bees keep those ventures going.
“People are still looking for bees, but there’s none to be had,” Weiss said.
Ohio producers of apples, strawberries, melons, pumpkins and other fruits and vegetables may have to buy bees from outside their local areas, which would cost them more and possibly result in higher food prices passed along to consumers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates honeybees annually pollinate more than $14 billion in crops nationwide, Weiss said.
“So many people don’t realize that a third of what goes on their table is pollinated by bees,” Weiss said.
Compounding the situation is that the packaged bees sold to many beekeepers arrived late due to unseasonably chilly, rainy weather that is delaying the growth of flowers and flowering plants from which bees forage for life-sustaining pollen.
“Everything is late (in terms of growth) and there’s nothing for the (bees) to forage on,” Weiss said.
Some pollen has come from maple trees but not nearly enough to sustain or expand the numbers of honeybees.
“There’s not a lot of pollen sources yet,” Weiss said.
Fields of sprouting dandelions offer one source of nectar for bees, but even they are being killed off by extensive spraying of chemicals designed to kill the yellow weeds deemed unsightly by many.
And, as if this past winter didn’t do enough damage, honeybee populations in Ohio already were depleted by disease, mites, pesticides and droughts.
Ironically, honeybees tend to live longer in the winter compared to their four-to-six-week lifespan in the summer due to foraging for water and pollen, Weiss said. “They wear themselves out flying.”
But this winter’s sustained periods of bitter cold killed off large numbers of bees that normally help clusters of enclosed bees survive.
“There weren’t enough bees to keep the others warm,” Weiss said.
Reporter David Knox contributed to this report.