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Cold causes additional problems for bees

Norwalk Reflector Staff • Oct 28, 2015 at 3:52 PM

CLEVELAND The late reappearance of snowy winter weather is taxing Ohio's honeybee population, already struggling with a lack of food storage and an ailment that has killed off tens of thousands of honeybee colonies in 24 states.

Northern Ohio hasn't experienced a real shortage yet, but if things continue as they are, there could be a problem here in pollinating next season's crop, Ohio State Extension agriculture agent Mike Gastier said.

Local fruit farmer Joe Burnham Sr., of Burnaham's orchard, said they don't yet know whether they'll be affected. They rent their bees from a man in Lima, but he keeps his bees in Florida for the winter.

Bee expert James Tew said the cold could contribute to a 40 percent to 70 percent death rate.

"Bees just can't get a break," said Tew, a specialist at Ohio State University's Honeybee Laboratory in Wooster. "We were already facing a large bee kill because of a lack of stored food and now this lengthy cold snap is endangering the rest of the hives. If the temperatures dip into the teens, the die-off will be even worse."

Tew said he worries about the effect on the estimated 4,000 backyard beekeepers, whose bees are responsible for much of the fruit and vegetable pollination. Farmers rely on honeybees to pollinate at least 70 crops in Ohio.

The cold weather hit after a warm spell that allowed the bees to lay eggs, gather food and make wax. The cold meant the bees couldn't leave their hives to get food.

"The bees were so focused on gathering food for their young and making wax that you could have walked naked into a hive and not been stung," said Kim Flottum of Medina, editor of Bee Culture magazine. "The queen was laying eggs, it was exciting and then boom, a kick in the face."

The bees will need the blossoms to survive the cold and provide the food they need to feed their young and pollinate the trees when spring weather returns, Tew said. The young bees will die if the blossoms are gone and then fewer will be around to pollinate cherry, plum and other fruit trees, hurting the crop.

The bee population already has been hurt by bees not storing enough food for the winter, Tew said. Some beekeepers found in the past few weeks that entire colonies had starved.

Other bees have been affected by colony collapse disorder, an ailment that has baffled researchers.

Disoriented bees seem to be simply unable to find their hive, Gastier said. It's "quite a mystery," he said.

The disorder hasn't hit Ohio as hard as other states, but some beekeepers reported losing half of their hives.

"We've had scattered reports of colony collapse in Ohio, but not as many as we feared," Tew said. "Now, we're more concerned about the weather."

Ohio's apple crop should escape the effects of the cold snap because the trees don't bloom until early May. In a few weeks, beekeepers from the southern United States are expected to arrive in the state to rent out their hives to orchards.

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