A battle for the bees | SteamboatToday.com

A battle for the bees

Local keepers combat disease, parasites and mysterious disappearances

Blythe Terrell

— In 2005, John Fetcher’s five beehives produced 14 gallons of honey. In 2007, they produced zero.

“Something happened,” said Fetcher, who raises bees with his son Bill at the family’s ranch near Clark. “The queen, maybe she quit laying. I don’t know. So we started over.”

It’s a strange time to be a beekeeper.

Masses of honeybees started dying off around the world in late 2006. The phenomenon is called colony collapse disorder, when adult honeybees leave the hive and die. The cause is unknown.

Scientists are looking into diseases, parasites, environment stresses and management stresses, which include nutrition problems. And they’re looking hard, because the honeybee population isn’t just about pretty flowers. Bees are crucial for agriculture pollination.

According to an article from the Public Library of Science, “In 2000, the value of American crops pollinated by bees was estimated to be $14.6 billion.”

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Fetcher doesn’t know whether colony collapse disorder is what left him without honey last year. But for him, honeybees are a hobby, and he typically gives much of his sweet supply away.

Beekeeper Pat Shalks is another story. He owns Bear River Apiary, which provides most of the local honey sold commercially in Steamboat Springs. His honey goes to locations such as Sweet Pea Market and is used at restaurants including Soda Creek Pizza, Beau Jo’s Mountain Bistro and Double Z BBQ & Bar.

“I really haven’t been hit hard by whatever this is that’s going around,” Shalks said. “But I’d venture to guess that I have been affected.”

An odd mystery

Shalks keeps more than 800 hives in about 20 spots across Routt County. When he makes his rounds, Shalks keeps an eye out for abandoned or weak hives. He’s nervous about diseases such as the pathogen Nosema cerana and parasites such as the Varroa destructor, which prey on honeybees.

Colony collapse disorder is an odd mystery. One day, a hive will be just about empty. Shalks has seen it, so he knows Routt County isn’t immune to the disorder.

He can tell “by the way some hives have died out full of food, and other bees didn’t come in and rob the food, which they normally do. : You can tell even without a microscope.”

One theory is that Nosema cerana causes colony collapse disorder.

“If they get that Nosema cerana, it really shortens their life and energy,” Shalks said. “They go out to forage and don’t make it back to the hive.”

The cold spring also added to the challenges of beekeeping, Shalks said. With the frost and snow, the queens weren’t eager to mate. Bears have taken at least six of his hives, and Shalks said he has had to increase prices.

“It’s the cost of fuel,” he said. “Costs are going up for jars, packaging.”

Shalks saves money by bottling his own honey. The real cash in honeybees, he said, comes from packing them off to California in winter to pollinate almond orchards. He does OK, but Shalks doesn’t live off Bear River Apiary – he has worked at City Market for 28 years.

Shalks was buzzing from one hive to another Thursday afternoon, starting a mile east of Milner. He works alone and is struggling to keep his operation small enough to be manageable.

“It’s a challenge,” Shalks said. “I enjoy it, but I’m overworked.”

And the dangers to honeybees are just one battle to fight.

“There’s a whole lot to it,” he said. “It’s not just bees. It’s bees, equipment, painting, collecting honey. I also collect pollen off the bees.”

He stood in the sun and gestured to his old black pickup and a couple of other trucks: yet another cost.

“Sometimes I can afford an auto mechanic,” Shalks said with a laugh. “Sometimes I have to be one.”