Local beekeepers are having mixed results as their hives weather the winter.
The petite pollinators’ providence has been a concern worldwide in recent years since the winter 2006-2007 mass disappearance of bees termed “colony collapse disorder.” Because the bees pollinate a third of America’s crops, their health is important to growers of almonds, apples, various berries, cherries and more.
Sierra Foothill Beekeepers Association President Lorinda Forrest, of Tuolumne, said reports from club members have not been alarming.
The club overwhelmingly consists of hobbyists, keeping honey for their own use or selling in very limited quantities. It is weathering its first winter since its formation and winter is the time when more bees die off than any other season. A club seminar on fall and winter preparations for hives guided members into the cold months.
Bees are much less active in the winter, clustering together for warmth, taking flight less often and taking turns being on the colder outside edges of their clusters.
Forrest said she has heard from just a trio of foothill beekeepers who said they have experienced significant losses. She does not think colony collapse disorder is the culprit as the bees have all died in the hive and not disappeared as is the case with CCD. In each case, bees started swarming in the fall — too early — often an indication of disease, she said. Those bees then mixed in with larger populations come winter and likely infected them. The die-offs occurred with a Tuolumne and two Jackson-area keepers.
A small number of foothill beekeepers have significant commercial operations, including Peet Apiaries in Valley Springs and Gold Country Honey Farms of Jamestown.
Jim Peet, Peet Apiaries’ namesake founder, has been hosting an apiary since 2003.
“It will be a couple more weeks before people start digging into their hives really hard,” Peet said, but he has not seen big die-offs thus far in his colony.
Peet performs pollination services for almonds, blueberries and cherries primarily around the Lodi area. He said he lost “quite a few bees” in the 2006-2007 epidemic but experienced no more loss than usual since then. He emphasizes the importance of using more pollen substitute and higher-nutrition pollen to keep the bees well-fed throughout the winter.
The reduced bee population shot up the price for farmers to rent a colony in 2006 and the improved feed needed to keep colonies up has kept it high, according to Peet.
Dave Pish, whose family operates Gold Country Honey Farms, said he has been less fortunate, experiencing about a 25 percent disappearance of bees likely attributable to the mysterious CCD.
Pish said research is pointing to a virus caused by mites as a cause behind the disorder but “so many factors are involved, there’s not just one thing they can pinpoint.”
He said a friend took heavy losses last year but is thriving this year while Pish’s experience has been the exact opposite.
His bees are used to pollinate almonds from Merced to Turlock.
Pish spent Christmas Eve adding pollen patties to supplement his hive.
“I’ve lost them but I will regain them back in the spring by rebuilding,” he said.
Forrest said her club is “hoping to build a good local genetic stock” of bees and encouraging organic practices to keep bees healthy.
“If our bees can make it through the winter (strong), that will be really good for us,” she said.
The ideal situation might be one like last year’s, when Forrest said a rainy winter led to an early and “amazing bloom, particularly of manzanita,” allowing for honey as early as February.
“It was mind-blowing,” she said.