Bee losses cause concern for local beekeepers

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FAYETTE - Marty Comstock, a resident of Fayette, has been beekeeping as a hobby since 2009.

While he enjoys the activity, his sixth year maintaining five hives in his backyard hasn't been easy.

"I've had ups and downs," Comstock said. "Some years, I've gotten through with all my hives, but other years like this one, I've had about a 50 percent loss."

While he's relatively new to beekeeping, he's not alone in his struggles to maintain his hives. 

According to The Nature Conservancy, honey bee colonies around the U.S. have decreased by nearly 40 percent since the 1970's. 

For an insect that is worth about $15 billion each year for contributing to many foods like apples, blackberries and blueberries through pollination, the sudden drops in numbers are concerning for farmers and consumers. 

These recent widespread losses of honeybees reported around the nation have led the government to take action to investigate probable causes of the deaths of these valuable pollinators. 

Earlier in April, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, issued a restriction on new uses of neonicotinoids, a pesticide believed to be linked to bee deaths. 

"They are a pesticide that is there to kill pests, and bees are an insect," Comstock said. "So, I can definitely see that there could be a link between neonicotinoid pesticides and the problems we've been seeing with bees."

While it's unclear how great of an effect these pesticides have on bees, the EPA said in its letter in April it needs time to wait on more data to see the risk neonicotinoids pose to pollinators. 

"I think it is worthwhile that the agency is studying it," Comstock said. "It is something that needs to be looked at."

But because pesticides are so crucial for a farmer's success, the topic of their use is one that is very complicated.

Boone Regional Beekeepers Association President Jim Duever, who also sells chemicals for a living as Vice President of Hummert International, says the pesticides themselves aren't to be blamed for these problems. 

Rather, he said it's the way these chemicals are misused by people who buy them over-the-counter at stores instead of from commercial farmers.

"A lot of times the homeowners are more abusive with the chemicals than commercial applicators," Jim Duever said. "If you're worried about bees, do your chemical spraying at night when the bees aren't flying."

Many beekeepers say other factors are more responsible.

Jim Duever's wife, Missouri State Beekeepers Association President Valerie Duever, said lack of sufficient food could be the biggest stressor to bees, especially in Missouri. 

"There are a lot of places in Missouri where all you can see is corn for acres and acres and acres," said Valerie Duever. "These have taken out a lot of fields with native forbs that would have been food sources for the bees."

She also said varroa mites, a type of parasite that has affected bees since the 1980's, play a large role in decreasing bee populations. 

"It attaches to the bee and passes a virus to the bee which causes a wing deformity," said Valerie Duever. "If not treated at all, a hive will probably die in two to three years."

She said with these two stressors affecting populations, pesticides like neonicotinoids worsen the effects of colonies with already weakened immune systems. 

"If you have a weakened immune system and you're exposed to something that is not good for you, chances are you're not going to have a positive outlook," said Valerie Duever. "It's the same thing with the honeybees. Any exposure to chemicals is going to cause problems. But neonicotinoids are not the sole problem."

Just how big a problem these neonicotinoids are remains to be seen. 

But for beekeepers like Marty Comstock, they are one of several worries that could have serious consequences for honeybees, and the agriculture industry as a whole.

"It's a concern to me," Comstock said. "It's expensive to keep replacing your bees. So, we're trying to find a solution."