Honeybee numbers are on the decline and their absence is becoming more and more noticeable.

The insect pollinates nearly one-third of the agricultural crops that make up our diet in Unites States. Farmers rely on honeybees for their pollination that increases their yields and improves the size and shape of the fruit or vegetable. Naturally, farmers are some of the first to notice the affects of a declining honeybee population.

“I get comments from farmers all the time, these vegetable producers that come in and say, ‘I’m not seeing honeybees like I used to,’ and that’s true,” Phillip Carter said. “You’re not seeing them because they have been kind of disappearing since the early nineties.” Carter is an urban regional extension agent in Houston County who has experience with honeybees. He said the biggest pests to the bees are the tracheal and the varroa mites. “They’ve been wreaking havoc on the bees,” Carter said. The tracheal mite gets into the honeybees’ esophagus. The mites have the ability to detach from the transfer bee. A bee may pick up one of the mites and spread it from one colony to another as they migrate into other hives and rob honey.

If you look closely enough you can see the mites on the bees. “They’re a real light brown color and dish shape. They attach primarily on the back and get into the brood, meaning their larvae, as the bees develop in the cells,” Carter said.

There is also the small hive beetle that affects hives especially towards the end of the summer.

“Old timers could throw a hive out in the woods, let it go and generally not have to worry about things too much. These days you can’t do that, you throw it out there and you might come back three or four months and it may be all slimed out from beetles. There are maintenance things that you have to do now if you want to keep some bees,” Carter acknowledged.

The Alabama climate produces an ideal climate for the mites and beetles. The moist soil and humidity combine to make what Carter called, “a big incubator for these pests.”

Some dire reports have honeybees disappearing altogether in 40 to 50 years. “That’s probably kind of a gross picture, but they are steadily declining in the environment,” Carter said.

While mites and small-hive beetles are the main bee antagonists in Alabama, colony collapse disorder (CCD) is affecting honey bees in the United States and around the world. The cause of CCD, in which the worker bees from a hive strangely disappear far, is unknown. Alabama has had no real problem with CCD at this time.

Carter called the current declining bee trend “bleak” and said farmers continue to complain about declining yields. Those most affected are farmers with several acres. Smaller gardens are not as affected.

“If you have a little backyard garden, you’ll have bumble bees and what they call native bees that’ll come in and take up the slack of the honeybees,” Carter noted.

“But if you have acres and acres of [Cucurbitaceae plant family], squash, cucumber, cantaloupes, watermelons (vine-growing types) without honey bees and adequate pollination you don’t get the yields that you should.”

Farmers with many acres will often times rent bees from a beekeeper. Generally two hives are placed per acre to aid in pollination.

Honeybees also pollinate wildflowers and trees, along with agricultural crops and are the only insects that produce food for humans.

Feral bee colonies in Alabama are usually made up of two different types of bees, the Italian honeybee and the Black German honey bee. “They’re both pretty docile compared to the Africanized honeybee, but that’s a whole different ball game,” Carter said, referencing the aggressive bee that has been making its way across the southeast in recent years.

Scientists continue to research the dwindling honeybee population in hopes of slowing the falling numbers, mites and CCD.

“I remember growing up north of Dothan and not being able to walk through the woods without seeing four or five colonies in a tree, and anymore you can’t find one,” Carter said. “I hear that from more and more people, that’s pretty good evidence to me.”

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