Bees

The much-publicized decline of the nation’s honeybee population is greatly exaggerated, according to the organizers of a new local beekeeping organization. Paradoxically, the biggest threat to bees is people who want to help the insects flourish.

Behind the headlines about the bees’ plight are national studies that focus on how many of the insects perish each year, not the net population, which leads to wildly inaccurate counts, said beekeeper Michael Scott, who helped form the group Indiana PA Honey Bee last year.

Since the government stopped subsidizing beekeepers in the 1940s, many people stopped registering their colonies as is required in Pennsylvania, prompting researchers to determine that a

significant number have died off. But because these surveys are sent only to those who register their hives, the method is faulty, Scott said.

“Everybody thinks bees are in trouble. They’re not,” he said.

Beekeeping has been increasing in popularity, thanks largely to the misconception that the honeybee population is in danger, Scott said. But inexperienced beekeepers have unwittingly been a detriment.

Most novices who buy colonies get them through the mail from the South — usually Georgia — but they are warm-weather bees that often can’t survive Pennsylvania winters. The starter packages that come from warmer climates have an 80 percent failure rate here, he said. Hundreds of thousands of packages are sold this way, at a big profit.

Early on, longtime beekeeper David Varney himself fell victim to this common practice. He lost his colonies for the first six years before meeting an experienced mentor who helped him figure out what he had been doing wrong. Today, Varney has about 480 colonies in various counties in western Pennsylvania.

Last year in Indiana Borough — where keeping hives is not even legal — Scott estimated there were 30 colonies, and it’s likely none survived last winter. But with such a large number of the insects in that relatively small area, there was not enough forage to sustain them, he said, and they encroached on other bees’ habitats while looking for food. It was the first time, in fact, that Scott lost a hive in White Township.

“It’s a ripple effect,” Scott said, so he and others in the group recognize the importance of educating others.

And there are a number of factors that can determine if a colony thrives.

“Beekeeping is easy if you’re doing everything right, but doing one thing wrong is like doing everything wrong,” Scott said.

People have to realize, he said, that bees are not pets; they’re part of agriculture, and it’s important to help, not hinder, them.

“Bees know how to be bees. We’re just learning how to be beekeepers,” said Scott, who maintains a dozen hives.

Indiana PA Honey Bee is meant to be a resource for novice beekeepers. The members are happy to help anyone get started, and can donate bees that are used to this climate, plus advice on what to do — and what to avoid.

“The best thing you can do is find a mentor,” Varney said.

Members of the group also have been invited to give talks at the annual May Mart, 4-H clubs and farmers’ markets.

The group’s next meeting is at 7 p.m. Wednesday at St. Andrew’s Village in White Township, where they will discuss basic terminology. A class planned for the fall will help get newbies ready for their new colonies in the spring.

For more information, call (724) 465-2416 or visit the group’s Facebook page.

 Bet you didn't know ...

• Beekeeping is not cheap. The total cost to get started — with bees, a box, smoker, suit and tools — is about $1,200.

• A strong colony contains about 100,000 bees.

• The lifespan of a honeybee is 36-40 days. Queens live 3 or 4 years.

• Besides honey (which never spoils), everything bees produce can be used, including the wax and a resinous anti-bacterial mixture called propolis.

• A single pound of honey requires visiting 2 million flowers, flying 55,000 miles and the lifetime work of 768 bees.

• Despite bees’ close association with flowers, plants and trees (especially fruit-bearing) are actually much more beneficial to the insects.

• Bees can fly 15 miles an hour but usually stay within a half-mile of a hive.

Sources: Michael Scott, Utah County Bee Association