BKEEP abuzz over colony disorder

Posted: Monday, December 03, 2007

When they've exhausted their honey supply for the season, most Alaska beekeepers opt for a clean slate, starting new hives in the spring, but not Steven Albers. Rather than purchase one of the 600 or 700 packages of insects brought into the state each year, his honeybees brave the cold.

Albers currently serves as president of BeeKeeper's Educational Exchange on the Peninsula, or BKEEP. Every winter his bees feed on 60 to 80 pounds of honey and form a tight cluster to keep warm. Occasionally, Albers said, he will stack weaker colonies on top of stronger ones to help them generate additional heat, gearing them up for next season. Wintering his bees is difficult, and apart from bears, one of the greatest challenges for beekeepers on the Kenai Peninsula. But after approximately five years of beekeeping here, Albers has been largely successful.

"The problem we have is that they need to take cleansing flights through the winter and that means they have to have warm enough temperatures," he said. "It is complicated, but it is viable. Some people are better at it than others, it depends on the season."

More people here on the Kenai Peninsula are attempting to winter over their bees, which makes for a more sustainable honey yield, but a disease called colony collapse disorder threatens hives across the United States and has many beekeepers and farmers worried. In order to keep each other and the public informed of the extent of the disease, BKEEP will show the PBS special "Silence of the Bees" at 6 p.m. today at the Soldotna Middle School library. Updates to the disease also will be provided and beekeepers will be on hand to answer any questions the public may have on the activity itself.

Albers said the numbers of colonies are largely decreasing due to colony collapse disorder. The disorder itself is a symptom, he said. A lot of colonies across the country are dieing off as a result, and although there's been some research done, scientists haven't been able to pinpoint a cause.

"(There are) some vectors that are weakening the immune systems of the hives," Albers said. "On some colonies that means (the bees) no longer take flights and they don't return. There's not enough heat generated in the colony for it to continue so it shrinks in size, it can't exist on its own heat."

When colony collapse disorder first began to show itself, Albers said there wasn't enough funding for any kind of research in order to pinpoint the cause. Now, he said, thanks to widespread media coverage, the public has found out about the disorder and more research has been done.

While there haven't been any reported cases of colony collapse disorder showing up in Alaska yet, BKEEP publicity chairperson Rosy Thompson said beekeepers in the state should still be concerned. Without honeybees, she said, Alaska wouldn't have any fresh fruit. Also, with the majority of beekeepers refreshing their stocks every year with new bees that come from Outside, there is a definite possibility the disorder will show up here, she says.

"If we don't have our honeybees, we wouldn't have our fruit," she said. "We would have to rely on the wild populations and that wouldn't work as well. The populations aren't honeybees, they're bumblebees and other miscellaneous pollinators."

Thompson said a few beekeepers lost hives last summer and blamed it on colony collapse, but because of the weird weather, the bees might have starved. Since it wasn't inspected by someone who could tell for sure whether or not the bees died due to colony collapse disorder, there's no way of knowing, Thompson said.

Thompson said she hopes that by seeing "Silence of the Bees" her fellow beekeepers are aware of the conditions in which colony collapse can occur as well as what to look for in a colony that is about to collapse. For the general public, a greater awareness of bees and the benefits gained from them might make them less afraid. Thompson also hopes that by learning more about bees, the public will take think twice about using certain fertilizers in their yard and garden.

Albers said today's meeting would be a perfect chance for a beginner or someone who's interested in setting up their own hives to meet with more experienced beekeepers who may be able to advise them on equipment to buy, the types of bees and different techniques when gathering honey.

"There are some diverse opinions on how to do things so it's nice to be able to discuss other alternatives," Albers said. "It helped me personally as a beekeeper."

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at jessica.cejnar@peninsulaclarion.com.

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