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State program to study honeybee decline

Dan Winter of Wolcott-based Winter Apiaries checks on bee hives used for honey production and pollination Thursday on land off of Erron Hill in Locke.

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Dan Winter of Wolcott-based Winter Apiaries checks on bee hives used for honey production and pollination Thursday on land off of Erron Hill in Locke.

Sweet: New York honey production is up 9 percent in the past year.

Sting: Pollinator colonies — the number of bees, moths and other species — have dropped 50 percent in four years, and migratory pollinators have dropped 70 percent.

There’s a certain irony there, said beekeeper Al Saracene of Homer: The basic honeybee is an invasive species in North America; introduced from Europe. “It’s being attacked by another invasive species, the mite,” he said.

More than that, said apiarist Dan Winter, who runs hives in Locke. Other factors come into play, maybe pesticides, maybe genetically modified organisms, maybe something else. Nobody’s really sure, but the danger is real. No bees, no pollination. No pollination, no crops. No crops, no food.

It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder, and it wipes out hives.

“The problem is not solving itself,” said Winter, who has 2,500 hives across Central New York. He supplies beer makers and ham producers, even some of the small producers who frequent farmers markets.

Last week, Pollinator Awareness Week in New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo authorized a $500,000 plan developed by a task force created by the departments of environmental conservation and of agriculture and markets to address the problem. The pollination is a $350 million industry; the food it creates is worth $29 billion, including apples, grapes, cherries, onions, pumpkins and more.

The New York State Pollinator Protection Plan was developed by an advisory group — Winter was an early member — including farmers, apiarists, pesticide applicators and environmentalists. Its recommendations:

– Develop standards for best practices by beekeepers, growers, land owners and state agencies.

– Increase efforts to protect and revive pollinator populations.

– Continue research.

– Develop an education plan to stress the importance of bees and other pollinators, including butterflies and hummingbirds.

And that’s what has Winter worried. Saracene is right: Mites are a big problem. “But if mites are the big problem, why are there no butterflies? Why are there no moths?” Winter asked. “It’s not just bees that are dying. It’s a big complex problem with the ecosystem.”

Beekeepers today typically lose 40 percent to 45 percent of their hive population each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — 54 percent in New York. That’s up from 32 percent a decade ago and less than 25 percent 20 years ago, when declines were first noticed, Winter said.

Understanding why that’s happening is the goal of at least some of the state-sponsored research, examining the effects of pesticides, pathogens, parasites and bee husbandry.

“While more research needs to be done, we know that the key to reversing the trend of a declining pollinator population in New York is a comprehensive approach that looks at a variety of issues that may be impacting bee health,” said Richard Ball, the state agriculture and markets commissioner, announcing the state effort. “The Pollinator Protection Plan serves as a best, first step.”

But Winter remains skeptical. “All these people believe the beekeeper is the problem,” he said. “It’s not the beekeeper; it’s something else.”

He can only speculate, but does note that the decline in the pollinator population coincides with the widespread use of the herbicide atrazine. It coats virtually all seed corn and 88 percent of seed soybean in America; it takes years to break down in the soil, leaches into water supplies and was banned in Europe in 2004.

He also suggests the increased use of genetically modified corn is a place to examine. It was first introduced to fields in 1994, and whatever its benefits to the crop and human nutrition, he’s uncertain how nutritious its pollen is for bees.

These are problems Saracene doesn’t typically see. He’s a small producer, selling honey at the Cortland Downtown Farmers Market. His hives don’t move and he can more easily insulate them from the pathogens, parasites and problems that plague the commercial beekeepers, like Winter.

But what hits the commercial producers can hit him, eventually. The industry works like a hive.

“You have to view a hive not as individuals, but as one unit,” Saracene said.

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