They’re not quite has-beens, as last year’s 80-percent die-off in Clark County might make us fear.
But there’s little question that being a honey bee in Ohio isn’t what it used to be.
Barbara Bloetcher, whose initials seem tailored to her work as Ohio’s state apiarist, has good things to say about the growth of bee population in recent years.
“We’re up to 43,000 colonies for 2019.”
That’ nearly triple the count of 2007, a year in which bees worldwide were lost to colony collapse disorder.
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But the Ohio Department of Agriculture’s bee expert, Bloetcher expects the growth to level off. And she can’t imagine Ohio’s soon approaching the 113,000 colonies the state recorded in 1970.
Bees “have a lot of stresses,” she said.
Chief among the stresses are tiny parasites called mites that feed on bees in the pupae and adult stages. The damage means many pupae fail to develop properly; and those that do are more likely to be stunted by infections from mite bites, which transfer diseases like mosquitoes do to humans
Weakened bees mean weakened hives that are more vulnerable to other natural enemies: ants, wax moths, cockroaches and skunks. There’s also damage done by pesticides, use of which rose sharply after World War II and continue to present problems.
Clark County Apiarist Jim Lyons said the devastating losses in the county bee population from 2017 to 2018 were due to the same problem that this year is plaguing Clark County farmers: “The weird weather.”
Bees typically are at their busiest and most productive when flowers are in bloom: in spring and fall. Nectar converted to honey during those seasons sustains hives through the nectar scarceness of the dry summer season and the lack of nectar in winter.
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Lyons said an early freeze in the fall of 2017 brought an early end to honey production. Things were worsened by the long, hard winter, which drained the colonies’ limited reserves. Then an early freeze the following spring robbed the bees of resources they needed to recover or to survive the relative drought of summer.
In increasingly tough times for bees, Lyons has been giving his own a wing up by taking them south for the winter to recover. But his travels for bees have taken him much farther afield.
As a delegate to U.S. Department of Agriculture trade missions, Lyons has visited bees and seen their circumstances in Egypt, Indonesia, Brazil, Japan and China.
The story overseas is the same or worse than in the United States, he said, and the political and business climate isn’t always bee-friendly. An entrepreneur wanting to sell honey to customers in, say Germany, might run afoul of regulators in Egypt who are not thrilled about European bees replacing Egyptian bees already in the hive.
As a bee entrepreneur, Lyons grouses about the same problems in the United States, where he has a sense of being hamstrung by overlapping or conflicting federal, state and local regulations.
“There’s no rule of thumb,” he said.
It may be more accurate to say that the stressors on bees have made beekeeping a thumbs-down environment for investing - the driver in Bloetcher’s assessment that Ohio will not return to 1970 levels of honey production.
“We don’t have as many commercial beekeepers as we used to,” she said. And that’s something she says Ohio has in common with the rest of the Eastern United States.
Bees, in short, are not good enough business to attract investors.
But hobbyist beekeepers persist, whether for love of honey, of bees or awareness of the challenges facing them.
In Clark County and around the state, those who have one hive tend to have four or five. That’s far from the number needed for a commercial operation but a boost nonetheless.
The beekeepers have other allies as well, people who plant bee-friendly flowers - as many in the city as in the county.
Ohio Department of Agriculture statistics identify Franklin County, home of Columbus as having the largest number of beekeepers at 309. (Clark County has 75).
Bloetcher also credits Wright-Patterson Air Force Base for planting bee-friendly flowers of the sort that can make urban areas more bee-friendly than the country.
Bloetcher said that although bees can help increase soybean yields by up to 20 percent, neither soybeans nor corn provide anything of nutritional value for bees.
This means, of course, that if bee populations are not sustained by other countryside plants, soybean yields are at risk. A PBS News Hour report said the same dynamic threatens yield potential of crops around the world.
Clark County’s Lyons puts it this way. While honey bees are not the only pollinators in the sky, they are among the most efficient and prolific.
“What bees create is a bigger abundance,” he said, “a greater bounty” - the loss of which is likely result in less bountiful harvests in a world with a growing number of human mouths to feed.
P.S. For those interested in supporting bee colonies, Bloetcher recommends the website Beeinformed.org.