A friend mentioned to me the other day, referencing a “Local Honey for Sale” sign I’d recently staked out on 21 Highway, there seemed to be more beekeepers today peddling their hive products than he could remember seeing in the past. He was certainly spot on and here is a little background.
Beekeepers back in the 1970’s and especially in the 80’s recognized they were facing some challenges when it came to keeping bees healthy. Individual hive production was down and the rate of colonies not making it through the winter slowly began to edge up above the 10-15% we had come to expect. Then, in the 90’s, the entire North American beekeeping community was stunned by the devastating affect of an import, designated by the scientific nomenclature as Varroa destructor. This mite, an external parasite historically confined to the Asian honey bee (Apis cerana), changed everything when it adapted to a new host, the European honey bee (Apis mellifera). This species is the backbone of the world’s honey production.
The varroa mite was devastating to beekeeping. Many commercial beekeepers lost everything. Most hobbyists too, were impacted and gave up after their bees died. Many will remember the term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) from the media reporting a massive die-off of bees across the country. When I first heard this in late October, 2006 I walked out to my apiary and checked the six colonies I had at the time. All were gone, dead-outs, in beekeeping lingo. They had been very active when checked weeks before.
What happened that fall in Southeast Missouri happened all across North America. To this day the event is not fully understood but most of those who know the most agree it was a perfect storm of conditions with varroa mites contributing the bulk of the issues.
For about ten years, as a kid, I was able to experience about a decade of successful beekeeping, from about the mid 1960’s to the mid 70’s. That was such a hoot!
I loved working with bees so much that stubbornness kicked in when things got tough. Starting colonies back up in the spring of 2007, I vowed to become a master beekeeper so I could solve these problems. I experimented with a whole host of theories and management efforts but failed miserably, losing many colonies in the process. Fortunately, thousands of other people in this world with a similar passion for bees were researching and experimenting and some were making great strides. Now we find ourselves at a point where it is not the challenge it used to be to keep bees. The number of successful beekeepers is growing as varroa control is being fine-tuned. It takes commitment, we can’t completely eliminate the varroa mites in our colonies but we can consistently keep them at low levels allowing our bees to thrive.
Beekeepers are having success again. That’s why local honey is seen offered for sale at more and more locations these days. And, for those old enough to remember Paul Harvey, “That’s the rest of the story.”
Gregg Hitchings is a certified Master Beekeeper through the University of Florida. Starting beekeeping in 1966 in Iron County, he assists others learning the craft through belleviewvalleyapiary.com.