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The buzz: Bad winter for bees

A cold, harsh winter affected more than just the average snowfall.

Area beekeepers are struggling to replenish their hives after an unusually cold winter killed roughly 30 percent of the managed hives in Virginia.

“This past winter was extremely cold for long periods of time,” Suffolk beekeeper Steve Black said. “I lost five hives. They actually starved to death.”

Worker bees, Black explained, will cluster around their queen to protect her from cold temperatures. So great is their loyalty to her that they will remain in the cluster until a break in the weather or until they die of starvation, even if there is honey mere inches away.

“We had extremely cold weather about 17 days in a row this winter,” Black said. “It was just too much for them.”

Black has been keeping bees at his Lake Prince-area home for nearly a decade. He has had as many as 20 hives, but now only has nine, including the five hives he recently had to replace.

The good news for apiarists — beekeepers and bee enthusiasts — is that the state was not hit quite as hard as the U.S. average. Nationwide, about 34 percent of managed hives died this year, according to statistics from the Virginia Farm Bureau.

“If we keep having these different things attacking our bee population, our food stores will dry up,” Black said.

Beekeepers in Virginia already were in a rebuilding mode after several years of pests and a mysterious syndrome called Colony Collapse Disorder hit the state’s hives hard. As many as 90,000 hives existed in Virginia in the 1980s, state apiarist Keith Tignor said, but hive numbers dropped to about 20,000 a few years ago because of the disorders and pests. The numbers now are back up to about 35,000 hives.

Colony Collapse Disorder occurs when bees simply abandon a hive for no apparent reason, leaving behind their honey and their queen. Pests including mites, moths and the hive beetle also can destroy a hive.

Despite the bee’s natural enemies, humans are their best friends. Interest in beekeeping continues to grow statewide, as more organized beekeeping groups — like the Tidewater Beekeepers Association, to which Black and about a dozen other apiarists in Suffolk belong — form and more amateurs become interested in the hobby.

“There’s tremendous interest in becoming a beekeeper,” said Tignor, who works with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “There’s more demand [for beginner classes] than we have space.”

Beekeepers in Suffolk are a vital part of the city’s agriculture. Pollination from honeybees is necessary for about a third of all food production in the country, including every fruit and vegetable crop. Black’s bees primarily pollinate a 10-acre cotton field nearby, but also visit tulips, poplar, holly and clover.

In addition to playing a vital role in food production, bees also produce honey — a substance that, when purchased raw from local beekeepers, helps calm seasonal allergies and hay fever and provides a number of health benefits.

“It builds up your immune system to the plant residues that are flying around,” Black said.

Non-apiarists can help promote the honeybee population by not killing bees, Black said. Most commonly, people panic when they see a swarm on their property and use chemicals to break up and kill the bees. However, Black encouraged people who spot a swarm to log on to the Tidewater Beekeepers Association’s Web site, www.tidewaterbeekeepers.net, and refer to the list of local beekeepers who will remove the bees, sometimes for no charge. Swarming is a good thing, Black explains, because it means a particular hive got so large that half of the bees left to create a new hive. They will not hurt anyone in a swarm unless severely disturbed, Black said.

“Those worker bees are full of honey [when swarming],” Black said. “The only thing they want to do is get as much honey as possible to their new home.”

For more information on bees in the area, visit www.tidewaterbeekeepers.net.