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Tough winter decimates bee colonies statewide

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Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM



Mark Hovanec started keeping honey bees about five years ago.

The Hobart resident has a farm stand, raises and sells vegetables and also works construction.

“This is the year my beekeeping was supposed to expand so I can do less of the construction and more of the beekeeping,” said Hovanec, president of the Northwest Indiana Beekeepers Association, which has about 160 members.

Those plans are on hold now because like other beekeepers, he found the hard winter took a toll on his honeybees, though he lost some bees in the fall.

“I had a 100 percent loss, and I’m not the only one. I know other beekeepers had (70-some) colonies ... and lost them all,” he said, adding beekeepers he knows who’ve been at it for 30 years lost around 50 percent of their colonies.

According to a recent report released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, total losses from managed honeybee colonies nationwide were 30 percent for this past winter, roughly similar to total losses reported in the past four years.

The situation appears to have been tougher locally. A poll by the Michiana beekeepers in the north central region of Indiana and part of Michigan revealed 52 percent of 660 hives were lost during the winter, according to Greg Hunt, a professor at Purdue University West Lafayette’s entomology department.

“Some guys have lost a lot, some have lost a little. It’s about 30 percent (statewide),” said Kathleen Prough, chief apiary inspector for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

European honeybees are a non-native species, and their biggest role is pollination, because directly or indirectly they pollinate one-third of what people eat, including the alfalfa used to raise beef cattle, Hovanec said. Honey, he said, is just a by-product of what the bees do.

The loss of honeybees can affect the cost of food and, of course, honey, Prough said.

“It has an impact in some ways because the cost of pollination goes up,” she said, adding many growers pay for bees for pollination.

Fewer bees means higher prices for that service, which is crucial for apple growers and vine crops, such as pickles, she said. The demand for honey is going up, too, but the supply is lower, so the price for that may go up as well. The cost of bees has risen steadily, too, from $25 for a pack five or six years ago to $75 a pack now.

Hovanec put the blame for the losses squarely on the weather.

“We had a long, cold winter and didn’t have the January thaw like we normally do,” he said.

Bees can hold their waste for a few months but need sunny, windless days in the winter for what Hovanec called “cleansing flights,” when they can leave their hives to release waste.

The winter didn’t provide that kind of break, he said, causing the spread of disease and death in bee colonies.

For now, Hovanec has replaced half of his bees. A 3-pound pack of honeybees, which includes about 10,000 bees and queen in a starter kit of sorts, costs $75. An established hive at the peak of summer will have more than 50,000 bees, he added.

“I had to replace a lot of bees, and that was costly,” he said.



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