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Beekeepers at a loss after hard winter piles on trouble

Bob Ellis/staff photographer

Honeybees cling to their honeycomb as beekeeper Al Saracene checks their progress. "Usually when I get stung, it's my fault," he said.

Being associated with other insects that can sting can build a bad reputation. Yet standing a foot away from a new hive, while dozens of bees buzzed in one ear and then the other, not a single sting.

These bees were more focused on building the hive and establishing a class order, said beekeeper Al Saracene. “Usually when I get stung, it’s my fault.”

Three other hives were buzzing just like the one he stood next to Tuesday afternoon. They were new to his property on East River Road in Cortland as of Saturday. At the end of winter, he had lost 80 percent of his hives, eight of 10, Saracene said. “It was a bad winter.”

Saracene wasn’t the only beekeeper to lose bees, Matt Kemak lost all his hives, six in total. By December Kemak noticed the declining population in three of his hives. In January he still had bees, but by March all were gone.

Plant a bee garden

• Plant bee-friendly flowers — daisies, marigolds, crocus, aster and goldenrod. Avoid double-headed flowers such as double impatients, which produce less nectar.

• Plant at least three different types of flowers in your bee garden to ensure blooms through as many seasons as possible, such as crocus, hyacinth and borage in spring; bee balm, snapdragons and hosta in summer and zinnias, asters and goldenrod.

• Leave a patch of the garden in a sunny spot uncultivated for native bees that burrow. Some native bees also need access to soil surface for nesting. For wood- and stem-nesting bees, this means piles of branches, bamboo sections, hollow reeds, or nesting blocks made out of untreated wood. Mason bees need a source of water and mud, and many kinds of bees are attracted to weedy, untended hedgerows.

• Skip the herbicides and pesticides. They can be toxic to bees. Ladybugs and spiders will help keep pest populations down.

• Fill a shallow container of water with pebbles or twigs for the bees to land on while drinking. Make sure to maintain the container full of fresh water.

SOURCE: The Honey Bee Conservancy

Both Saracene and Kemak had heard last summer’s drought was to blame.

The drought damaged pollen quality, making it harder for bees to make honey they can survive on through the winter, Kemak said. “The bees were entering winter malnourished,” he said.

Hindsight is 20/20. Kemak, a member of the Southern Tier Beekeepers Association, said if he had known his bees were malnourished, he could have given them supplemental food.

The hard winter exacerbates a years-long problem with declining bee populations. In North America, 49 bee species are declining, and seven are rare or endangered, says the Pollinator Network at Cornell University.

Pollination is a $500 million industry; the food it creates is worth $29 billion, including apples, grapes, cherries, onions, pumpkins and more. Bee die-offs can seriously hamper business, particular in agricultural economies like Cortland.

Last year, 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.

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.

In 2015, New York saw a 9 percent increase in honey production, but beekeepers continued to lose bees, according to the governor’s office. Research last year also indicated managed pollinator colonies declined more 50 percent while some migratory pollinators declined more than 70 percent over the past four years.

While keepers are losing bees to a number of different factors, people can help.

“Use pesticides responsibly,” Saracene said. “A lot isn’t better.”

The pesticides can transfer to plant pollen, Saracene said, and after so many years can build up within the hive. It’s recommended to change the hive’s comb every five years.

Certain plants can help the bees as well. Goldenrod, apple trees, buckwheat and white clover are all good pollen producing plants for bees, Saracene said. However, while bees like most flowers, tulips are poisonous to them. “I don’t know why,” Saracene said.

Also don’t mow the lawn. Dandelions, wild flowers and clovers are best source of pollen and not mowing the lawn provides more pollen sources, Kemak said.

People shouldn’t freak out if they come across a swarm of bees either, both men said. Most of the time when bees swarm they are docile, engorged on honey and looking for a new home, Kemak said.

The best thing to do is either leave the bees alone or call someone to safely move the bees, Saracene said.

For both Saracene and Kemak, losing their bees is like losing pets. “It hurts… you just lost pets,” Kemak said. “Just in the tens of thousands.”