Virginia’s honeybees are dying. Last year, state beekeepers lost about 60 percent of their bees.
But Andy Westrich, who keeps bees in Hampton, hardly lost any hives.
Beekeeping is not a science, it’s a 9,000-year-old art. Like many things, when beekeeping was commercialized, it became more about the beekeeper than the bees, Westrich said.
Nothing about it is guaranteed — that’s why you’ll almost always find him in the bee yard.
“It’s like learning how to swim,” he said. “You learn how to swim in the shallow end of the pool. Take a year. Get the knowledge, then get the bees. It’s so much easier not to kill them when you know what you’re doing.”
And he’s been a professional “swimmer” for almost 15 years. Westrich is president of the Colonial Beekeepers Association and a Virginia State Master Beekeeper. He keeps about 24 hives and is the primary beekeeper for the St. George Brewing Company in Hampton.
Westrich is a semi-retired Navy engineer and a master at figuring out how things work. But really, to be a successful beekeeper, you have to take the time to learn, he said.
“I can take the time and I can take the effort,” Westrich said. “It’s past a hobby and it’s more of a passion. I like to tell people, there are no hobby beekeepers like there are no hobby gardeners. They’re just gardeners. It’s the same thing. It’s something we do. We’re just beekeeping to beekeep.”
While honeybees make up a resilient, somewhat complex ecosystem, nature can be fickle, and new techniques may help remedy the modern challenges they face.
But to develop these techniques, you have to get back to the core of the art of beekeeping: you have to care about the insect, Westrich said.
Every winter, Virginia’s honeybee population experiences colony losses, according to a report by the Virginia Farm Bureau. Over the past five years, those losses have grown to more than one-third of the statewide population.
But last year, the state’s honeybees took a larger hit.
Why are the bees dying?
There’s no single answer as to why honeybees are dying, but many possible factors contribute: shifts in land use, over-use of pesticides and parasites such as mites that transmit viruses harmful to bees.
The Virginia Farm Bureau said the most recent losses may be attributed to Varroa mites and Nosema infections. The infections were once treated with antibiotics, but with new FDA regulations, those medications are only accessible through a veterinarian.
In addition, the manufacturer of the antibiotic Fumigillin, which treats Nosema, closed in 2018.
But Westrich said Varroa mites have been a problem for 30 years, they just haven’t been handled properly.
“The federal government and commercial beekeepers have thrown chemical after chemical and every single time the mite ends up being resistant to the chemical. A lot of time those chemicals are very harmful to the bees,” he said. “And we’re back at square one now.”
Westrich has almost no colony loss each year, and attributes it to a few things he’s learned.
After building his own colonies for the first five years, he started to purchase bees from outside the area. Often times, purchased bees were raised in factory farms, doused with chemicals and moved around frequently, he said.
He stopped buying bees two years ago when he had a 40 percent loss. He started to raise his own hives by making his own queens and building his own colonies. Last year, he lost only two of his 24 colonies.
“When I look back at my records two years ago, what I noticed is that the first five, six years I was beekeeping my losses were near zero,” Westrich said. “When I started to buy bees and I was buying to see what other people were bringing in, what I noticed was those bees didn’t survive.”
If you’re not a commercial beekeeper, you have options, he said. You can build your own colonies and treat mites through a drone trapping technique. He also uses a solar hive at St. George Brewing Company, which regulates the temperature in the hive and kills mites.
“Fighting this mite is an important issue, doing nothing is not an option. Especially in an area like this where we have a lot of beekeepers,” Westrich said. “You should be thinking outside the box.”
Williamsburg’s Wildwood Farm Owner James Ewell has kept bees for three years. He hasn’t had problems with mites, but he has lost several colonies to wax moths.
“My opinion (is) the bee problem is due to lack of food, pesticides, herbicides and genetic modification in plants. So much land is being used for residential with everyone keeping their grass short and sprayed to look nice instead of letting the clover and wildflowers grow and bloom,” Ewell said. “Not to mention the food that is available is, again, sprayed with chemicals that the bees pick up and bring back to the hive. (It) can produce genetic issues.”
But he said he thinks bees are getting stronger, and more backyard beekeepers are becoming organic in their habits.
And it’s this learning curve that could be contributing to the losses, as well, Westrich said.
Williamsburg’s Silver Hand Meadery Founder Glenn Lavender started beekeeping a couple of years ago and lost all three of his colonies: one from cold winter temperatures and another to Colony Collapse Disorder, a situation characterized by an exodus of an entire hive.
“We’re all learning still. It’s agriculture, so there’s always going to be a loss,” Lavender said. “There’s a lot more people keeping bees in their backyards, which is great. I think it helps everybody understand better. (If) somebody comes around and sprays for mosquitoes and all your bees die, you figure out really quick, ‘oh, that actually has an impact.’”
In 2006, beekeepers reported losses of between 30 percent and 90 percent of their hives. Most beekeepers had the same experience: a dead colony with no adult bees and no dead bee bodies, but they had a live queen. The problem has been named Colony Collapse Disorder and is now widely known, but there’s still no definitive scientific explanation for it.
There have been reports of similar honeybee disappearances in the 1880s, 1920s and 1960s, but it’s unknown if the cause is the same, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. There also have been several cases of sudden significant bee loss with no known cause.
But the problems honeybees face today may be less mysterious.
Helping the bees
The Virginia Department of Agriculture estimates there are about 5,000 individual beekeepers in the state, but because reporting hives is voluntary, there’s no way to know for sure.
But they have noticed a growing interest in keeping bees.
In the Tidewater region, there are multiple beekeeping groups: Colonial Beekeepers, Norfolk Beekeepers, Nansemond Beekeepers, Tidewater Beekeepers, Beekeepers Guild of Southeastern Virginia and others.
And even people without hives can help, said Tony Banks, senior assistant director of the Agriculture, Development and Innovation Department at the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.
People can create foraging honeybee habitats throughout the year and make pollinator gardens and window boxes.
“(People can) incorporate flowering plants in their landscape that can serve as a food source for honeybees and other pollinators throughout the entire season,” Banks said. “They eat 11, 12 months out of the year even though we may not see them quite as often in November, December, January — they are out and about.”
Honeybees are highly dependent on their environment for survival, and it’s important to pay attention, Banks said.
“I’m sure there are folks in Williamsburg and James City that may have a hive or two in their backyard. Certainly, and follow the best management practices for maintaining their beehives,” Banks said. “Making sure if there’s a really hard cold snap that they take precautions to protect the bees inside the hive, make sure they’re kept warm and if need be, provide supplemental feeding.”
And although the Virginia Farm Bureau doesn’t attribute the most recent round of honeybee losses to pesticides, they do agree it’s a problem.
As homeowners, Banks said, people need to be mindful when using pesticides. In Virginia, the pesticide label is the law. The labels have specific instructions on safe use and if honeybees or other species are at risk from coming in contact with the material.
“The biggest thing a normal citizen can do to help the bees and help pollinators is watch their use of chemicals and insecticides. Any type of mosquito control that’s going to be a long-lasting control, that’s going to use a pyrethrin or some type of chemical that’s going to be sprayed on vegetation, can be a problem with a pollinator,” Westrich said. “I tell people all the time instead of spending money spraying chemicals on your lawn and on your shrubs, just wear Off, wear Cutters — use a mosquito repellent.”
Why do we care?
About one-third of all food Americans eat is directly or indirectly cultivated from honeybee pollination, according to the American Beekeeping Federation. Honeybees are the most valuable pollinators and $20 billion worth of annual U.S. food production relies on them.
They pollinate a variety of crops such as cucumbers, avocados and apples. Blueberries and cherries are 90 percent dependent on honeybee pollination and almonds depend on them entirely.
“It does have an impact on the fruit and vegetable supply. There are other pollinators that have roles with various crops but honeybees are kind of like the workhorse of the pollinator species. That’s why we rely on them so much here in this county but also elsewhere,” Banks said. “And of course, without honeybees you wouldn’t have honey, either.”
Ultimately, honeybee losses will affect everyone, College of William and Mary biology professor Randolph Chamber said.
“For the amateur beekeeper, the sudden collapse of a well-maintained colony is disturbing. For professional apiarists, the loss of bees is a big economic hit,” Chamber said. “For agricultural crops that depend on bees for pollination, fewer bees means poorer production, so farmers and the rest of us are affected.”
The Farm Bureau said pesticides are not the reason for the most recent decline, but they are still a concern. Virginia, along with three other states, created a Pollinator Protection Plan in 2017 to develop active communication between pesticide applicators and beekeepers.
BeeCheck, a Virginia apiary registry, was created as a voluntary communication tool for beekeepers and pesticide applicators to protect apiaries with a mapping program which can be found at va.beecheck.org.
The state VDACS encourages people to become new beekeepers and current ones to add more hives.
And there is a Virginia Bee Law that regulates the sale of honeybees and their movement into the state. Honeybee colonies must have a certificate of health and commercial hives and beekeeping equipment are all subject to inspection.
Keith Tignor, state apiarist, said he expects healthier and stronger bees in 2019 with losses under 30 percent. Because of the significant loss last year, beekeepers will have to repopulate their hives with new, healthy bees.
“As an insect that we keep, a honeybee is kind of like a canary in a coal mine. The condition of the environment is directly proportional to the health of your honeybees,” Westrich said. “If it can’t live, there’s a problem with your environment… I would not want to be in an area where bees couldn’t survive.”
Honey bee fun facts
» Honeybees live for about 45 days. However, queen honeybees can live for years.
» Honeybees are not native to the United States. They were first introduced to the country in Jamestown by European settlers.
» There are over 4,000 different species of bees that contribute to pollination
» There are about 2.7 million bee colonies in the U.S. today.
Information from the American Beekeeping Federation.
Martin can be reached at (757)-243-3685, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SaraRoseMartin.