Insect “apocalypse”?

Michael Smice

Michael Smice relocates bees to a new hive. Smice, who lives in rural Princeville, started beekeeping about six years ago. He has planted thousands of dollars of wildflower seeds to provide food for his hives. (PHOTO BY KRISTIN SNYDER)

An “insect apocalypse” could jeopardize plant life. Farming in the 1990s increased use of neonicotinoid insecticides, the neurotoxins that collect in pollen and nectar –– causing paralysis and death for bugs, including bees.

However, there’s doubt about bees’ current state, so beekeepers remain hopeful and vigilant.

“It was about 2006 when it pretty much went south,” says Janet Hart, who with her husband Danny have been beekeepers for 25 years. “They were harder to keep with colony collapse and the emergence of varroa mites.

“The varroa mite has been around since around 1990,” she continues. “Colony Collapse Disorder is what they called the 2006 devastation where commercial bees lost thousands of hives. You don’t hear that term much anymore [and there’s] still no smoking gun on what is to blame. Neonicotinoids is a possible cause as well as viruses vectored by the varroa.“

Besides those threats, changes in climate and habitat hurt bees, too.

“There’s not the ‘smorgasbord’ for them there used to be,” Danny says. “They don’t have the hay fields, the clover, or fence rows with brush and other plants. Right now, we’re waiting for the willows to bloom.”

A century ago, times were different, with some similarities. Besides a worldwide pandemic then, there was unrest over race and labor issues, and in 1921 beekeepers saw hives decimated by the Isle of Wight Disease tied to tracheal mites. That year, studies started helping, permitting beekeeping’s growth. Now other research offers context.

A recent paper by Matthew D. Moran and 11 colleagues, which reviewed about 5,000 sets of data on arthropods across North America, found no change in insect population sizes.

“These results don’t mean that insects are fine,” said Moran, a biology professor at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. “I believe there is good evidence that some species of insects are in decline and in danger of extinction. But our findings indicate that, overall, the idea of large-scale insect declines remains an open question.”

For centuries, the bee has been part of human culture, from ancient Christianity that saw bees as representing tireless activity to Napoleon in the 18th century using the bee as the symbol of his empire to Burlington, Iowa’s minor-league baseball team having bees as its name.

Now, in central Illinois, concerns about bee health and effects from climate change add to beekeepers’ usual spring, when milder, longer days rouse bees. After winters when weather stresses even sheltered hives, before summer when bees become almost self-sufficient, autumn’s honey harvest and winter preparation, spring means keepers check their bees and, if necessary, clean hives, feed or medicate colonies, and get new bees.

“You look for any broods that are stressed, or missing queens, or temperature kills,” Danny says.

Temperature extremes are linked to climate change, which also contributes to droughts, more frequent and severe storms, and more rain and flooding, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

February’s sub-zero cold snap was brutal, Danny says.

“Surviving that was a 50-50 deal,” he continues. “Bees vibrate to keep warm, [and] they can starve if the hive has to eat its reserves.”

Members of the Heart of Illinois Beekeepers Association and retired, Danny, 67, and Janet, 62, still run Hart’s Honey from their home west of Kickapoo, with hives here and at a nearby orchard.

There, the bee process follows an age-old pattern. From trees or plants, bees gather nectar, a sugary juice flowers produce even before blooming. Bees take the nectar to hives, where it’s passed bee-to-bee, as their enzymes and the transfer reduce moisture content until nectar becomes honey. That’s placed in storage cells capped with wax and dried more by bees’ flapping wings, and it becomes a stockpile of food.

Twelve ounces of honey takes about three weeks for 300 bees to make; hives have an average of 40,000 bees.

Meanwhile, moving from plant to plant, bees pick up and leave behind grains of sticky pollen, a vital interaction that passes material key to the reproduction of flowering plants, from fruits, vegetables and nuts to raw materials and fibers. Bees – along with butterflies, birds, etc. – are invaluable pollinators.

Invaluable to beekeeping for the Harts was interacting with others. Beekeeping in Illinois has grown in the last 20 years, according to the state Department of Agriculture, which said registered beekeepers increased from about 1,100 to more than 4,000.

Michael Smice, from rural Princeville, is a relative novice.

“I learn as I go,” says the 43-year-old contractor, who started some six years ago. “The first year, we lost all the hives. I learned how to winterize.”

Smice tries to help make up for the loss of what Danny calls Nature’s smorgasbords.

“Bees have a range of miles [so] I’ve planted thousands of dollars of wildflowers around here,” he says, grinning.

He also adds colonies from broods he rescues from places where they’re unwanted, and orders some.

“I like the Italian Saskatraz bee,” he says. “I got a queen from Iowa; that variety is pretty gentle.”

A good honey producer, the Saskatraz fights off mites and other vermin, and also resists viral and fungal problems.

But Smice likes feral bees, too.

“I like the wild ‘mutts,’” he adds. “They’re pretty docile.”

Like the Harts, he’s learned from others, but COVID-19’s isolation has meant less opportunity to network.

Oddly, the pandemic has also had a modest positive, said Eugene Makovec, editor of the American Bee Journal in Hamilton in western Illinois.

“Everybody wants to buy honey,” he said. “Last year I sold primarily around the holidays. This year, the stores I sell to went crazy in honey sales. I’m going to run out of honey. Honey is comfort food.”

Janet agrees, saying, “It’s a little like gardening, or baking bread. There’s a lot of home products.

“We are sold out now until July, when the new harvest will be available,” she adds. “We had our large harvest in the early 2000s, before 2006, averaging 140 pounds/hive [per season]. Our target was 100 pounds/hive, but now it seems that a good harvest is about half that.”

Inspected by the Peoria City/County Health Department, Hart’s Honey sells for $9 or $10 a pound.

Whether wanting to sell or to help bees (and flora) survive and thrive, entrepreneurs or hobbyists need interest and time, plus gloves with high wrists, face veils, a hive tool and maybe a smoker to calm bees if necessary; for honey production, other gear such as extractors are needed.

Asked if it’s worth it, Danny leans against the tailgate of his pickup truck and sighs and smiles: “It’s up and down.”

Michael Smice

Wearing protective gear, Michael Smice rescues bees from a hive in a collapsed tree. (PHOTO BY KRISTIN SNYDER)

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