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Whidbey hives collapse

A scientifically baffling and poorly understood phenomenon causing bees worldwide to drop like flies has made its way to Whidbey Island.

Tom Schioler, Greenbank beekeeper and the only commercial pollinator on the island, recently lost at least two hives to what is widely referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder.

The story began more than two months ago when the local beekeeper, despite his most fervent efforts to save the bees, lost a hive to the unicellular parasite Nosema.

“Nosema is basically bee diarrhea,” Schioler said. “Bees don’t poop in the hive unless they’re really sick. I noticed brown spots on the hive and knew something was wrong.”

After two treatments and an attempt to revive the hive by moving a bottom screen board from one hive to the top of the struggling hive to use the residual warmth, Schioler was forced to write off the colony.

“When I first opened up the hive, the bottom brood box was just filled with dead bees,” he said.

Nosema has a name and a face. What happened next was less discriminating and really stung. Following the recommendation of a colleague from the coast, Schioler tried using an antibiotic on two hives as a precautionary measure.

“It didn’t work,” he said. “They died.”

Both hives had never been used for pollination and were thus never exposed to diseases.

“I just used them for honey,” the pollinator said. “I thought the second hive three weeks ago was gangbusters and then Thursday I look in there and all the frames are empty.”

The bees he found were black and wet-looking, consistent with Colony Collapse Disorder. At the bottom of the box, the queen was half the normal size and only she and young, attendant bees remained. The hive was full of honey and nectar, leaving Schioler puzzled, as other bees will generally swoop in and loot if the opportunity is presented.

“They stayed the hell away from it,” he said. “There were no older bees.”

Schioler divides his time between producing honey and commercial pollination. At last Sunday’s Ballard Farmer’s Market he met a beekeeper who lost 20 of his 22 hives. Another beekeeper in Tenino had it much worse, losing all 350 of his hives.

Whether a person shares Schioler’s passion for bees is irrelevant in the face of what he claims is a potentially catastrophic harbinger. From 1971 to 2006 approximately half of the U.S. honey bee colonies have vanished. Theories for the cumulative loss range from environmental change-related stresses, to malnutrition, to mites, to pesticides, to electromagnetic radiation, such as cellular phone signals. More recently the rate of attrition was alleged to have reached new proportions, according to Wikipedia, and the term Colony Collapse Disorder was proposed to describe the sudden rash of disappearances.

“Einstein predicted that if bees were to die, humans would starve within four years,” Schioler said. “If this continues, we could starve in two generations. People need to decide if they want a beautiful lawn or if they want to eat in the future.”

In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote the book Silent Spring, which has been credited with launching the environmentalism movement in the West. The book claimed detrimental effects of pesticides on the environment and ultimately facilitated the ban of the pesticide DDT in 1972 in the U.S.

“We’ve known the problems were there for a long time,” Schioler said.

The decline of bee populations in the U.S. prompted the importation of 1.5 million hives from Australia.

“That’s how short we are,” the beekeeper said. “And they fear that will bring problems of its own in the form of small hive beetles.”

With a relatively modest 39 hives in Greenbank and 10 more in California, Schioler makes the most of his resources. His colleague and mentor Jim Malsch of Arlington manages 700 hives. The seasoned bee veteran has not been affected by CCD and is loath to predict doom and gloom.

“If you’re a beekeeper, the healthier you can keep your bees the better they’re going to be for pollinating and over-wintering,” Malsch said. “If you can keep good, healthy bees, they’ll survive.”

The longtime beekeeper and pollinator has had his battles with mites. In 1993, he was left with just 160 of the 400 hives he sent to California for almond pollination. Varroa mites had irreparably weakened the hives. In the end, he said, the onus falls on the beekeeper.

“You have to be diligent about keeping on top of it,” Malsch said, adding that some attrition is to be expected. “If you lose 20 percent of your bees in the winter, you can live with that.”

Malsch said mites have been the biggest problem since they appeared in the late 1980s.

“I kept bees before we had mites here and it was a lot easier to keep them and over-winter them,” he said. “You have to keep the mite population down. You’re never going to totally get rid of them.”

Waxing theoretical, Malsch postulated that Colony Collapse Disorder is a result of bees becoming weakened by mites and rendering them helpless to mites and parasites.

“I believe the viruses have always been here, but when the viruses come along with the mites, the bees get in a weakened condition through stress or mites or whatever and they’re more susceptible,” he said.

Whidbey Island is a microcosmic example of what is taking place nationwide. Ohio alone has lost nearly 90 percent of its hives.

“There’s virtually no bees left on the island,” he said, imploring people to stop using pesticides and to cease cutting down blackberry bushes and wildflowers. “Honey is emergency food. Nectar and pollen are what bees need.”

Bees are often mistaken for oft-maligned hornets, which are carnivorous. Schioler said the role bees play in helping the food chain from humans on down is crucial to survival.

“People have to change their attitude toward bees rather than arbitrarily kill everything that they think looks like a bee,” he said. “You have to physically crush a bee to get stung.”

Schioler, because he pollinates, is able to produce 14 different kinds of honey. His breed, however, is a rare one.

“Twenty years ago there were about 3,000 pollinators in the U.S.,” he said. “Today there are less than 400. We probably have four commercial pollinators in a 100-mile radius who can do over 50 hives and maybe five to ten who can do 50 to 100. There is not enough pollination on Whidbey.”

Schioler is looking to do his part to help in the pollination process. He is always looking to park hives on property with large amounts of blackberry bushes and other types of flora.

“If people are willing to let me put hives there, they’ll get some very good honey,” he said.

Schioler can be reached at 425-299-1135.

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