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Buzz about ‘murder hornets’ adds to woes of beekeepers

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Bees gather on a panel of fresh honey at Wakefield Apiaries in Deer River on Wednesday. Emil Lippe/Watertown Daily Times

Just as we were turning the corner on this coronavirus thing and flattening the curve, news came from out west this month that flew in on sensational news reports: “murder hornets” have arrived on our shores.

“And that’s probably as bad as it sounds,” a May 4 headline in this paper noted.

With our added anxiety, social media buzzed about the insects, actually named Asian giant hornets. Memes for the things, which attack bee hives, broke out. One meme showed “Bees prepare for the murder hornet” as a line of honey bees headed to their hives carrying whiskey, toilet paper, Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer. A hero emerged when a video of a praying mantis devouring a “murder hornet” went viral.

The alarm about the insects, first reported last year in Washington State, was mostly targeted at beekeepers. According to the Washington State Department of Agriculture, Asian giant hornets attack and destroy honeybee hives. A few hornets can destroy a hive in a matter of hours.

The hornets, which grow up to 2 inches long, kill bees by decapitating them and then defend the hive as their own, taking the brood to feed their own young. They also attack other insects but are not known to destroy entire populations of those insects.

The New York Times reported May 2 that Asian giant hornets kill up to 50 people a year in Japan. The Washington State Department of Agriculture says they do not generally attack people or pets, but could when threatened.

A bee collects pollen from a dandelion at Wakefield Apiaries in Deer River on Wednesday. Emil Lippe/Watertown Daily Times

“In Washington State we have collected two specimens,” said Karla Salp, spokeswoman for the Washington State Department of Agriculture. “In British Columbia (Canada), they eradicated a nest on Vancouver Island and they confirmed an additional sighting in White Rock, British Columbia, which is not far from our detections in Blaine.”

Entomologists at Cornell University are monitoring developments. Jody L. Gangloff-Kaufman, senior extension associate for Cornell’s department of entomology, said that if Asian giant hornets get a serious foothold across the U.S., it could devastate the honey bee population.

“As an entomologist and someone who does outreach, we have to cover all these emerging and sensational topics,” Ms. Gangloff-Kaufman said from her home on Long Island. “The West Coast, especially California, relies so heavily on honey bees. If they get established, and if they’re anywhere near farmland with bees, you’re going to have a definite loss of honey bee colonies and it will affect agriculture if it gets too bad, or out of hand.”

The cold of a north country winter is no defense against Asian giant hornets.

“In general many insects do not live through 20 below,” said Ms. Salp. “However, overwintering (Asian giant hornet) queens select protected areas. Successful ones will choose overwintering sites that never get that cold, even when the air outside is. An earthen chamber or isolated cavity will offer protection. That said, there does seem to be a range limitation in its native land.”

But humans could expand that range.

“If a queen, for example, was somehow transported to the East Coast by humans through cargo or whatnot, they could easily be established here in a short amount of time just like they were established in Washington from East Asia,” Ms. Gangloff-Kaufman said.

All of this is certainly intimidating news on the giant insect front, but for now, north country beekeepers have enough to worry about without having to worry about the Asian giant hornet. Threats include mites, pesticides, fungicides, weak bees and “transshipped” honey.

Rich Wakefield tests his smoker before checking out his hives at Wakefield Apiaries in Deer River on Wednesday. Emil Lippe/Watertown Daily Times

“We already have enough concerns,” said Amy Wakefield, who with her husband, Richard, has been operating Wakefield Apiaries full time in Deer River, Lewis County, since 1981. “We’ve known about these (Asian giant hornets) in Japan. I’ve read about them for a long time. My husband was just reading me all the details from Wikipedia about how they love to eat bees and everything.”

“I agree with Amy Wakefield,” said Daniel Winter, president of the Empire State Honey Producers Association, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation and who is also on the New York State apiary advisory committee of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

“There’s a lot of other problems with bees right now that are far more pressing than the hornet deal,” he said.

In a good year, Wakefield Apiaries produces 50 tons of honey, 90% which is sold to wholesalers in barrels or 5-gallon containers. This year, the Wakefields are tending about 400 hives, down from about 800 last year.

“Our numbers will go up and down a little bit year to year depending on the winter and everything,” Mrs. Wakefield said. “It’s a lot of physical work and we’re just trying to cut back.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, United States honey production in 2019 totaled 157 million pounds, up 2 percent from 2018. There were 2.81 million colonies producing honey in 2019, down 1 percent from 2018.

Rich Wakefield tests his smoker before checking out his hives at Wakefield Apiaries in Deer River on Wednesday. Emil Lippe/Watertown Daily Times

For New York State, honey production for 2019 totaled 3.4 million pounds, USDA reports, up 27 percent from one year earlier. This estimate included honey from producers with five or more colonies.

That may be sweet news, but last June, the nonprofit group Bee Informed, led by the University of Maryland, reported that from the fall of 2018 to the spring of 2019, 37% of managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. were lost, up 7 percent from the previous year. Bees surviving winters is a sign of good bee health.

Earlier this year, the journal Science published a study showing that the bumble bee population dropped nearly 47% in North America from 2000 to 2014 — “consistent with a mass extinction.”

“We’ve had good years and we’ve had bad years,” Mrs. Wakefield said. “I like to tell people, we have new problems, but we still have all the old problems, like bad weather, bad honey crops. Bees can starve, bees can be too cold. There’s all sorts of things that can make winter survival difficult. But mites now are the number one thing.”

The mite that beekeepers are most concerned about is the parasitic mite Varroa.

“The mites are pretty much present in all bee colonies,” said Ms. Gangloff-Kaufmann. “Beekeepers try to use chemicals and other tactics to get rid of the Varroa mite that feeds on the bees’ fat body, which is like an organ.”

This gives the bees less energy to survive winters.

“You can imagine surviving a winter, especially one up in the north country or Canada, takes a lot of health,” Ms. Gangloff-Kaufmann said. “It takes a lot of energy. If they’re at a loss going into winter, often the hive can just die because they can’t maintain the warmth of the colony.”

“They deplete their internal stores,” Mrs. Wakefield said. “In this climate, what usually happens is that the hive becomes overcome with mites and dies in the fall. You need to have a critical mass, or you don’t have a hive.”

“Bees might look dormant to us in the winter, but they’re actually active and the hive is warm,” Ms. Gangloff-Kaufmann said. “If it gets warm outside, they can break that huddle that they make and they can feed on the honey in the colony and they can even go outside to poop, which they like to do.”

Pesticides can’t be used on the mites, Ms. Gangloff-Kaufmann said, because it would kill the bees the mites are attached to.

But she said one treatment is the use of formic acid; the vapors of which from a formulated compound dissipate throughout the hive.

“I used to keep bees,” Ms. Gangloff-Kaufmann said. “It smells terrible, but the bees can survive and the mites succumb to it. There are some treatments that work, but they don’t work wonderfully. And because honey bees mix with other bees in the wild, they can pick up those mites once again.”

Rich Wakefield stands outside at Wakefield Apiaries in Deer River on Wednesday. Emil Lippe/Watertown Daily Times

Mrs. Wakefield said her apiary has used formic acid and also oxalic acid.

“It works quite well, but it’s expensive and time consuming,” she said.

Mrs. Wakefield was interviewed during one of this month’s unseasonably cold days.

“If it was a nice day, they would be gathering nectar and pollen from the dandelions,” she said. “This time of year, they’re making a little bit of honey, but they’re eating it up as fast as they make it.”

Mr. Winter said that “unsustainable agricultural practices” are also challenging the health of honey bees, especially the use of pesticides and fungicides.

“Fungicides are more of a problem than we originally thought,” Mr. Winter said in a phone interview from his home in Wolcott, Wayne County.

“Cornell is doing a lot of research on that. Some of the issue there is when you mix fungicides and pesticides together. It might not necessarily kill the bee, but it weakens down their immune system so the mites and stuff like that affect them differently.”

‘A lot of people think they have sub-lethal effects,” Mrs. Wakefield said. “It doesn’t kill the bee, but maybe there’s a long-term erosion of health that’s harder to quantify.”

It’s not just the use of agricultural pesticides that have a negative impact on honey bees. The desire for a pristine lawn, especially this time of year, can eliminate a source for honey bees.

“A lot of things that people do for lawns are definitely not beneficial to any pollinator in general, managed or native,” Mr. Winter said. “Dandelions are weeds and they’re frowned upon, but in reality they are the first good pollen and nectar source the honey bee can get in the spring. They do get other pollens first, but dandelions are kind of the go-to in the spring for bees.”

Rich Wakefield takes a peek into a honey box at Wakefield Apiaries in Deer River on Wednesday. Emil Lippe/Watertown Daily Times

Mr. Winter is also closely watching the development of “insect growth regulator” chemicals that break the life cycle of an insect, disrupting how they grow and reproduce.

“That’s going to be a big thing for pollinators and beekeepers,” Mr. Winter said. “What that’s designed to do is to make the queen of a colony, be it ants or bees or whatever, infertile. That’s going to become a big problem. It targets beneficial insects as well and it’s going to be bad for everybody down the road.”

Mr. Winter would like to see a statewide registration process for all New York beekeepers.

“Without a general consensus, like how many hives we start with in New York State and how many hives we end the year with in the state, we have no way to know how many hives actually die in the state,” he said.

That info, Mr. Winter said, could be used by institutions such as Cornell to apply for federal grants.

“They have to prove need for a grant and how do you prove need when you don’t know how many bees are dying?” he said.

The USDA records data from only commercial beekeeping operations. The Empire State Honey Producers Association is open to all beekeepers in New York, from the hobbyist with one hive to the commercial migratory beekeeper with thousands.

“The beekeeping registration law is a way the state can know how many hives are located within New York for the given season, among all bee keepers,” Mr. Winter said. “If a census is done twice a year then the state can accurately know the honey bee mortality rate for New York State.”

As vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation, Mr. Winter has lately been addressing honey prices.

“As far as business is concerned, wholesale honey prices are at an all-time low right now,” he said. “That’s not helping our industry at all.”

Honey combs are visible on a panel at Wakefield Apiaries in Deer River on Wednesday. Emil Lippe/Watertown Daily Times

The problem, he said, is the high volume of imports coming in at very low prices. Particularly, he’s concerned with “transshipped” honey, which is shipped to disguise its true origin.

The honey, Mr. Winter explained, is commonly produced in China and Vietnam.

“And then it’s ultra-filtered, which means they take the pollen and proteins out of it,” he said. “Therefore, they have no way to prove what plants created what honey.”

China could sell such a product to Vietnam, Mr. Winter said, or vice versa.

“Vietnam gets around the tariffs by going through other countries,” Mr. Winter said. “When that honey gets here to the U.S., it doesn’t have any pollen or protein in it. The honey packers buy that and then they mix it with U.S. honey. And if you test it, what do you have? Now, you have pollen from our honey that’s mixed with this imported honey. It can be sold at lower prices even though the honey packers are making more money and the producers are making less money.”

Mr. Winter said a consumer could purchase honey with a label that says U.S. Grade A, “and it’s not even from the U.S.”

“We’re looking at trying to get some truth in labeling laws,” he said.

The American Beekeeping Federation, Mr. Winter said, has begun a “know your beekeeper” campaign when it comes to honey.

“If you know your beekeeper, you know where it comes from,” he said.

And if you know your beekeeper, you may be the first to know when, and if, the murder hornets come knocking.

“I haven’t been able to find anything too convincing on it yet,” said Mr. Winter.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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