Honeybees in their hive Credit: Credit: Andy Lawson

In the coming months, Central Virginia’s beekeepers will be closely monitoring their hives to see if honeybee populations rebound from this past winter’s significant loss.

Farmers, some of whom are reporting a decline in the population of honeybees in their pollination workforce, are also monitoring the situation carefully.

According to Virginia state apiarist Keith Tignor, the 45 percent death rate experienced in the commonwealth was the same as the national number, and more than twice the previous winter’s mark of 20 percent loss.

While the scientific debate continues over what causes some honeybee colonies to collapse, Tignor attributes the recent population dropoff to a range of better- understood factors, including weather and pests.

“This past year, the population of bees in the winter hives was less prepared to survive the winter because of the August drought and stress from various pests … such as the small hive beetle, varroa mites and other diseases,” Tignor said.

A lack of rain also led to a lack of pollen sources for the bees, which resulted in decreased nectar production in the hive and egg production by the queens.  

“If [new larvae] aren’t being raised, then the population going into the winter isn’t high enough to survive,” Tignor said.

Despite the spike in honeybee loses, Tignor remains enthusiastic about the pollinators’ and beekeepers’ ability to recover.

To rebuild colony numbers, Tignor said beekeepers have three options: purchase package bees, which is a box including a queen and a few hundred worker bees; purchase a nucleus colony, which is a small version of a hive; or split existing hives in two.

Glen Clayton, who keeps between 175 and 200 hives at Hungry Hill Farm in Nelson County, has chosen to implement all three options.

“I bought package bees out of Georgia, I made splits with existing colonies and I [purchased] nucleus hives,” Clayton said.

Clayton lost 70 percent of his bees over the winter and noticed that, within many of his hives where the bees gather, the clusters that can grow to the size of a basketball were closer to the size of a softball.

“They hang out in there, where it’s 90-plus degrees year-round,” Clayton said, “but once the cluster shrinks up they can’t generate enough heat to survive and a cold snap freezes them.”

While Clayton has been quick to take what measures he can, Tignor said it will take time for new hives to establish themselves.

“With each of [the options], you’re starting with a smaller worker population that has to stay home to manage the hive to keep it warm,” Tignor said. “The effects of honey production and pollination [from the new hives] won’t be seen until the next year.”

Among those highly dependent on bees for pollination locally are orchardists. In Albemarle, Chiles Peach Orchard owner Henry Chiles faces the challenge of finding commercial beekeepers that can provide a large amount of hives.

“There’s not near as many beekeepers as there used to be,” Chiles said. “We get some local, but we can’t get enough to supply our needs.”

Ninety-two percent of all beekeepers in the United States, Tignor said, are hobbyists who have only a few hives.

To deal with this, commercial orchards like Chiles have been contracting commercial beekeepers who transport bees around the country, a practice that Tignor says is not new.

“Hives have always been moved around,” Tignor said. “Modern beekeeping in boxes began in the 1800s, but you could only move them a short distance by horse and buggy.”

“With modern transportation and the combustion engine, we can transport those bees hundreds of miles to get them where we need them,” Tignor added. “It does put a little bit of stress on the hives, but the bees are very good at adapting to that new location.”

This year Chiles had to make more calls than usual to locate an adequate number of bees. He ultimately contracted with a company from Florida. However, while beekeepers were able to deliver enough hives, the honeybee populations within those hives were down noticeably, Chiles said.

“They weren’t as good as I thought they usually were,” Chiles said. “I’m watching the action in and out of the hive in good weather, and there weren’t as many bees in these hives.”

“I think we got sufficient pollination, but there were [fewer] bees than we would like to have,” Chiles added.

Even though Tignor remains optimistic about returning to a sustainable number of hives, he recognizes that the honeybee population numbers are the key metric.

“The right number of hives doesn’t mean you have the right number of bees,” Tignor said. “We’re still apprehensive of the numbers of bees in those hives, of the workforce that is going out and pollinating.”

“We can replace the numbers of hives, but getting the bees replaced is going to be a little more difficult,” Tignor added.