Dallas Amer cracked open a beehive and knew immediately that there was something wrong with the hive.
“This hive is queenless,” Amer said. “You can tell by the roar. See those queen cells? They’re just recently out of their queen. You still have brood in the frames.”
It was 1971 when Amer, 14 at the time, started working for a first-generation Irish immigrant beekeeper in Southern California. He made a nickel per frame on a farm that had 9,000 frames spread out between about 1,800 beehives.
“It used to be, you had to give the bees room, and you had to make sure they had stores,” Amer said. “Now, you’re constantly checking the bees for viruses, for parasitic loads. The lifespan of your queens are not nearly as long as they used to be — the stressors on the bees are so much greater now.”
The numbers for the 2018-2019 winter have not been processed for each state yet, but the Bee Informed Partnership survey preliminary results estimate that bee colony loss is 37.7% nationwide, up from 30.8% the prior year and 28.8% from the 13-year average winter colony loss rate. This year’s estimate is the highest level of winter losses reported since the survey began in 2006-2007.
Ramesh Sagili, an associate professor in the horticulture department at Oregon State University, works specifically on bee health and nutrition. He started at the university shortly after commercial bee operations started reported significantly higher colony losses in 2006.
“At the time there was no real clue,” Sagili said. “People were thinking maybe there was a new virus or a bacteria that probably had taken over the colonies. But all of the research done over the last 13 years since then hasn’t shown there is one single factor that is responsible for colony declines.”
He attributed the loss to the use of pesticides and insecticides, the practice of monoculture in farming, moving the bees for pollination, urbanization, diseases and parasites like the varroa destructor.
In the 1980s, the varroa destructor from Southeast Asia started to spread around the world. Sagili said the department is working on several studies around the mite, but they still don’t have a solution to that particular problem.
“It’s stressing the bee, not just by feeding on the bee, but it also transmits at least six or seven different viruses,” Sagili said.
He said beekeepers have about four or five products to kill the mites, but some are toxic to the bees as well. He said he is also studying those products.
“We think there’s some degree of resistance, we’re trying to test,” Sagili said. “It’s still working, I’m not saying it’s not working. But that’s the challenge; any product that you bring, after a few years, there is a good chance that it might be not working because the mites can develop a resistance to those miticides.”
Amer said the mite has been his biggest issue since it arrived in the ‘80s. He compared it to giving smallpox to the Native Americans.
He said the more people learn about bees, the better. In the meantime, his frustration with the mites lies between the way the commercial operations treat bees, effectively creating better mites with a resistance to all of the pharmaceuticals and the backyard beekeepers who don’t know or intentionally don’t check or treat their bees for mites, which allows them to spread.
“You see those big commercial guys running 10 to 20,000 colonies — they don’t have time to treat each hive individually,” Amer said. “We’re not big enough to do that. We have to treat everyone individually. Then there are guys who just don’t care. They are here to make the money and they just don’t care. Those are mostly pollinators. They want to get through as many hives as they can in a day.”
Amer agreed that nutrition is key to bee health, and he tries to rotate his honey frames from farms that use pesticides to organic farms like one near Sutherlin that he calls “a little oasis.”
“Most farms, they would be just a moonscape between those rows,” Amer said. “You go out and look at the hazelnuts and stuff and it’s just a moonscape. They just mow and water and it comes back, so there’s constantly forage here for our bees.”
From 2017 to 2018, Oregon beekeepers had a winter loss of 24.8%, the 13th lowest out of 48 states, multi-state operations and the District of Columbia.
“I think Oregon is more diverse in terms of forage,” Sagili said. “At least Oregon has more diverse crops, but I think that is one reason why bees do a little bit better in Oregon.”
Most of the colonies in the U.S. are managed by multi-state operators. After that, California, North Dakota and Washington have the most bee colonies. Oregon has the 14th most beekeepers and the 14th most colonies per beekeepers, including multi-state operations.
“When it was me and the Irishman, we took care of bees by the frame. We took care of each colony as an individual, not an outfit. That’s the difference. If you can tend to each one of them individually, they will be healthy and the whole will be healthy.”