Pests and climate change are major contributors to decreasing Long Island bee population

By Gabby Pardo

Beekeepers Moira and David Alexander walked through Stony Brook University’s campus and felt like something was missing – there were no honey bees flying around.

Her husband, Dave, persistently wrote letters to people who could place beehives on the campus, and educated the local community about the importance of honey bees. After Dave died from cancer in 2012, Moira wanted to honor him. She decided to team up with Alaina Claeson a landscaper coordinator, to get honey bees flying across the campus in 2016.

Bees pollinate $15 billion worth of crops in the U.S. according to the National Resources Defense Council. Bee populations have been decreasing due to nutrition/forage (lawns), mites, pathogens, pesticides and genetics, Christopher Logue, the Plant Industry Director at the N.Y. State Department of Agriculture (USDA), said at the Long Island Beekeepers Club Inc. on Sunday, April 28.

“These are kind of the things covered in the pollinator protector plan,” Logue said.  

Beekeepers in New York are protected by the New York State Pollinator Protection Plan, which helps the state increase pollinators’ population. A part of the plan is informing communities about the importance of bees so humans can find better ways to protect them.

“Bees can fly in a two mile radius which means they can pollinate up to 8,000 acres,” Alexander said. “We live on an island and whatever we spray [pesticides] onto the land is going into our water system and it’s on the soles of our shoes and on our pets’ feet. People need to take responsibility for what they’re doing to the land.”

The plan also includes Best Management Practices (BMP) that help beekeepers minimize pesticide usage and prevent mites, such as the common varroa mite, from killing bees.

“It’s the mites causing the decline and what was mentioned before with the [effects] between the pesticides and fungicides and all the different cides that are out there,” Martin Rost, a beekeeper from Islip, said after attending the meeting on Sunday. “They are hydrocarbon based so they are absorbing that beeswax.”

Beekeeper, Wally Blohm, has maintained 45 hives since 1980, and currently working with a professor and students at Old Westbury University to maintain hives there. He blames varroa mites for the loss of hives.

“Mites feast on the fat of the bees and kill them and feast on the hive,” Blohm said. “Varroa mites means no bees.”

In all his 28 years of beekeeping, mites have been his worst enemy, Al Gruenthaler, retired beekeeper, said.

“I sold organic honey, mostly privately, and to a organic farm in Bethpage,” Gruenthaler said. “Mites were the biggest challenge, because you can’t let them take over or else the whole hive will die.”

Some master beekeepers, such as Grace Mehl, believe climate change might affect bee populations in the future, but her main concern right now are mites and pesticides.

“All of these things make it more difficult to keep bees now than it was 40 years ago,” Mehl said. “Native bees are also affected significantly by loss of forage and habitat, as well as the use of pesticides.”

At their Sunday meeting,  the Long Island Beekeeping Club , demonstrated how to combat mites through mite checks, which beekeepers should complete around this time of year.

Although Mehl feels climate change will make a bigger impact in the future on the beekeeping community, 40 percent of U.S Beekeepers hives died unexpectedly last year, according to Bloomberg. A scientist who conducted an insect survey, according to Bloomberg, predicts part of the decline might be due to erratic weather patterns.

“As the climate gets warmer, the current forage available will change and the bees will have to adapt or perish,” Bill O’Hern, a honey seller and beekeeper from East Setauket, said. “These bees do not have anyone to care for them. They are affected by humans more in suburbia with the lack of forage.”

The USDA Plant Hardiness Map indicates high and low temperatures for any specific region, for growers to see where plants will thrive best. Long Island is at level 7a on a scale of 3b to 13b, with 3b being low average temperatures, and 13b being high average temperatures. This level will soon move to level 7b, or 8a soon, meaning average temperatures are getting warmer,  O’Hern said.

“So those plants and therefore forage that need the cooler temperatures will gradually disappear and those that desire warmer temperature will move in,” O’Hern said. “This also applies to insects as well, for competition and predation.”

Going from winter temperatures straight into summer temperatures can disrupt the bee’s flow, the process of a bee collecting nectar and producing honey. During the summer months, bees gather enough food for the winter, according to O’Hern. The shortened flow means less honey to harvest later in the season and beekeepers needing to acquire more sugar syrup to feed them in the winter.

“Bees don’t hibernate,” Steve Chen, a hobby beekeeper, said. “They’ll keep the inside of the hives super warm and to do this they need energy. So a lot of bees don’t do anything after October. Our honey flow is between May and the beginning of July. After that we don’t really have any nectar sources.”

When colder temperatures roll around, bees cluster around the queen to keep her warm. But when temperatures rise unexpectedly, they come out of the hive with the instinct to find nectar.

“When the temperature goes above fifty five degrees they come out of the hive for cleansing flights since they do not defecate in the hive,” Conni Still, a beekeeper who makes lip scrubs and soaps from her honey, said.  “But when the temperature drops precipitously as it did many times this winter they don’t get back into the cluster and some die. Eventually, there is not enough to keep the queen alive and the hive is gone.”

Long Island Beekeepers Club Members, including Alexander, expressed frustration about hive inspections form the Department of Agriculture at their April meeting. The said that their hives need to be checked more frequently to help them tackle specific issues causing their hive populations to decline.

“If anything here happens disease-wise, it could be catastrophic because we are so densely populated with bees and beekeeper,” Alexander said. “Not having somebody close at hand so if there is a situation, we can take care of it immediately.”

Gabby Pardo

Gabby Pardo is a sophomore, journalism major and creative writing minor at Stony Brook University. Gabby is a Managing Editor for The Root Issue and the Opinions Editor at The Statesman, the university's newspaper, and the Vice President of Alumni and Heritage for her sorority, Alpha Sigma Alpha. Gabby believes journalism is a way to communicate important stories that need to be heard, and loves having an impact on people. In her free time, she loves playing with her pug, Eli, hanging out with friends, and trying new food.

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