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August 26, 2013
Article

Islands not immune from bee colony collapse

Hive abandonment seen on Fox Islands

by Eliza Drury

Doug Record smoking his hive, before checking the honey levels.
Doug Record smoking his hive, before checking the honey levels. ELIZA DRURY

One third of the crops grown in the United States for consumption are pollinated by bees. In Maine alone, the 60,000 acres of blueberry barrens are pollinated almost exclusively by bees, and make up a $250 million industry. Yet honey bees are suffering dramatic losses from Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), defined as a loss of greater than 30 percent of a colony quickly, and without obvious cause.

One such case has been reported on North Haven.

In 2006 a Pennsylvania beekeeper reported the inexplicable loss of a portion of his colony, the first reported instance of CCD. Since then, CCD has been experienced around the nation, mostly by commercial migratory beekeepers.

This dramatic death of bees has quickly bridged the supposed barrier of the ocean and found its way to the islands of Penobscot Bay. It has permeated rapidly and deeply to bee colonies nationwide.

John Wright, a beekeeper on Vinalhaven describes the phenomenon: "Colony collapse is very unpredictable. A quarter of your bees will leave in the middle of the night without any [apparent] reason at all."

Despite its initial prevalence in commercial beekeeping, and the isolation provided by life on Maine islands, an instance of CCD has been reported on the Fox Islands. Gil Foltz, a North Haven beekeeper, said a small swarm came into one of his hives, stayed there for three weeks and then suddenly left.

"They were making very little honey," Foltz said, and admitted he was at a loss to explain their sudden departure. "I have no idea. They had all the things they need, I don’t know if they lost their way or what."

Doug Record, a fellow North Haven keeper, recognized what happened to Foltz.

A swarm of bees arrived, "began to make honey, and then overnight they all left. That's colony collapse," he said.

It is common for hives to swarm and for half the colony to leave a hive, and Record has seen many hives die in the seven years he has kept bees. In large scale die-offs, starvation and disease are likely culprits. Record explained that he lost almost a quarter of his hives last year to a fungi called Nosema, which affects the bee digestive systems.

In these instances, there are always bodies or a portion of the bees that remain in the hive. Foltz reports that there were almost no bodies and no bees in his hive, just three weeks after they had arrived.

Colony collapse is hard to avoid. Bees seem to be more susceptible to changes in the environment. From a biological standpoint they interact with a very large portion of nature surrounding them.

Terry Goodhue, a keeper on Vinalhaven who kept bees before CCD began occurring and who at one time had 400 hives, explained: "They fly inside some plant's blossom, that's how they collect the pollen. If there is something wrong with the plant, it will make its way back to the hive."

Wright agreed. "The comb is so porous it is very easy for things to get into it, and pollute the whole hive."

The biology of bees and their interaction with their surrounding is the basis for one theory about the cause of colony collapse, which remains unresolved. The same Three keepers on Vinalhaven and North Haven exemplify this through a variety of possible causes. Each had a unique explanation about CCD, and theory as to the cause of the phenomenon.

One attributed CCD to GMOs (genetically modified organisms, such as plants), explaining that when a bee collects pollen from a genetically modified plant the pollen is also genetically modified and different from organic pollen and the potential side effects remain unknown.

Another theory is that CCD is simply caused by traditional pesticides being sprayed on agriculture to which bees are exposed.

An equally simple cause could be the introduction of Varroa Mites, a parasite that sucks the blood from adult bees and can be found in larvae causing defect. They are commonly found in hives across North America, and add stress to the bees, in some cases, a large infestation can kill a colony.

Record believes that the commercial bee industry is more to blame.

"Backyard beekeepers don't get the massive colony collapse. When you're trucking bees from California to Maine to Florida, you're pushing the bees pretty hard. That's when you get colony collapse."


click to enlargeJohn Wright holds the comb from his Top Bar Hive.
John Wright holds the comb from his Top Bar Hive. ELIZA DRURY

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