Vashon beekeepers troubled by a rash of bee deaths this spring

Steve Rubicz examines a frame with bees and honey while Bob Dixon, another beekeeper, looks on.   - Leslie Brown/Staff Photo
Steve Rubicz examines a frame with bees and honey while Bob Dixon, another beekeeper, looks on.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/Staff Photo

Members of Vashon’s growing beekeeping community are expressing mounting concern over the state of their hives after a tough spring that saw the number of honeybees dwindle in several colonies and other hives die off completely.

Emails have been flying, with some blaming pesticides for the demise of their hives. Others say a cold, wet spring and insufficient nectar sources may be behind the deaths; some bees have simply starved to death, they say.

Honeybees have also been weakened over the years by a mite that bores into the insects, making them vulnerable to disease and viruses. Inexperience among a crop of new beekeepers could also be a factor, some say.

Donna McDermott, a new beekeeper on Vashon, called it “a perfect storm.”

“It’s really sad,” added McDermott, who had several bees die in one of her three hives. “You come to love the girls and watch them work so hard. And then you go out one day and they’re acting funny, and the next day, they’re dead.”

Bob Dixon, who’s been keeping bees for 15 years, recently lost one of his six hives — a new one that he purchased in February. He’s had bees fail to survive the winter, he said, but it’s unusual for him to lose a hive in the spring.

“We don’t have the answers,” he said. “We don’t know what’s killing the bees.”

As a result of the deaths, some beekeepers are calling on Vashon’s two hardware stores to stop selling certain products, particularly Sevin, a widely used insecticide that contains carbaryl, known to be fatal to bees. Concern is also growing about a family of insecticides called neonicotinoids, commonly used by large-scale farmers to control pests on corn, cotton and sunflowers.

Others are working on educational materials that could be displayed at local stores or are pushing for the creation of what they call bee-friendly gardening displays.

“There are a lot of unknowns, but there’s a growing body of evidence that pesticides are likely playing a role in bee colony collapse,” said Michael Laurie, who is working on an educational campaign focused on the environmental effects of pesticides. “I think we’ll find over time that there are multiple factors, and pesticides are likely one of them.”

But some of Vashon’s most experienced beekeepers say it may be wrong to assume that pesticide-use on the Island is the leading cause of honeybee death.

Steve Rubicz, who’s been keeping bees since 1971, said Vashon doesn’t have the kind of wide-scale pesticide-use some parts of the country experience, where agriculture occurs on an industrial scale. Used incorrectly or at the wrong time of the year, some insecticides can be quite harmful to bees, he said. “It’s true that bees are killed by pesticides,” he added.

But he believes weather — particularly a lot of rain, which leads to damp hives susceptible to fungus and pathogens — is hard on an insect that originally hailed from the Mediterranean.

“Weather quite often is the problem in the Northwest. It’s amazing how many hives disappear in the spring for that reason,” Rubicz said.

“It’s never been easy (to raise bees) in the Northwest,” he added.

Elizabeth Vogt, a Ph.D- level entomologist who used to do forensic dissections of honeybees for a living, said she, too, believes “our cold springs” have taken a toll on bees. But despite a beekeeping community on Vashon with an active listserve, information about what’s happening to Vashon’s honeybees is anecdotal and incomplete, she said.

As a result, she hopes to work with other beekeepers to gather information about the situation on Vashon — how many hives, where they’re located on the Island and what kind of losses, if any, they’ve experienced.

Vogt sees a kind of alarm sweeping Vashon’s beekeepers, which is understandable in light of the deaths many are seeing, she said. “What if chickens were getting wiped out?” she asked. “Chicken owners would be panicking.”

“That’s where we are,” she added. “And that’s why we need more information.”

Concern about honeybees has been growing over the years as a result of a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder, first identified in 2006 and now thought to be responsible for the death of a third or more of the nation’s honeybees. The collapse is cause for alarm in large part because of the role honeybees play in agriculture: The insects pollinate about one-third of the nation’s crops, including more than 130 different kinds of fruit and nuts; in the case of almonds, the nut would not persist were it not for bees pollinating almond trees.

Theories have abounded about the cause, from viruses to stress to a cell-phone signals, alleged to interfere with the bees’ navigational abilities. A writer for Scientific American, in a post on the magazine’s website in April, wrote that three new studies have implicated neonicotinoids — commonly used by farmers in some parts of the country — as one of the leading culprits.

In one study, researchers found that 94 percent of the hives whose bees had been fed the pesticide died within six months, according to Scientific American. Researchers believe the bees ingest the pesticide not only after it’s sprayed on crops but from corn syrup made from insecticide-treated corn; some beekeepers use corn syrup to feed their bees when their honey stores are not sufficient.

Dixon, a Dockton beekeeper concerned about pesticide use, said he was prepared to introduce a motion to the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council calling for Vashon to become “a pesticide-free zone.” The motion — advisory only, since the community council doesn’t have the power to enforce such a zone — was scheduled to be voted on next month.

But Dixon said he’s withdrawing the motion because others in the beekeeping community believe a better approach is to work cooperatively with Vashon’s hardware stores.

“A number of people have been working on this pesticide problem. They think my motion might upset the apple cart,” he said.

John Yates, the owner of True Value, said he’s been struck by the number of Islanders who have come into his store wanting to discuss the issue. Just last week, he said, five or six people brought up the sale of pesticides at his shop.

Yates said he’s hesitant to stop selling products that some say may be linked to bee deaths, since those who want the products will simply get them elsewhere. But he said he’s willing to put out brochures or other materials that could educate consumers.

“We’re very happy to help in the educational process,” he said.

As for identifying certain products as bee-friendly, Yates added, “That has been suggested, and we’re quite open to that idea. We’re open to people who are willing to present the information, to provide it in a non-confrontational manner.”

At least one beekeeper said he’d oppose any effort to ban the use of certain pesticides. Bob Norton, an orchardist and gardener who has both mason bees and honeybees, said he believes people have to be very careful in their use of pesticides. He has Sevin for his crops, though he rarely uses it. “I have healthy bees, and I have for many years. I use pesticides when I need them,” he said.

It’s imperative, he added, that people read the labels and follow the directions. “Bees aren’t interested in leaves,” he said. “They’re interested in nectar in flowers. Don’t spray anything that blooms; if you avoid flowers, you’re not going to harm pollinating insects.”

Others, though, worry that neither science nor consumers can stay abreast of the new pesticides coming onto the market — and that as a result it’s best to avoid them, especially insecticides, considered more toxic than chemicals aimed at noxious plants.

“There are just thousands and thousands of chemicals coming out on the market,” said Laurie. “They’re coming out faster than detailed studies can keep up with them.”


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