ASHE COUNTY — One in every three bites of food is dependent on bees for pollination, and backyard beekeepers across the High Country are working hard to ensure honeybees carry out their mission successfully, according to local beekeeping educator Jim Rash.
“It’s a challenging time for beekeepers right now,” Rash said. “In 1947, there were close to 5 million managed colonies in the United States, and in 2018, we had less than 2.5 million.”
Rash works as a backyard beekeeper and also teaches introductory and intermediate beekeeping courses at the Ashe campus for Wilkes Community College. He was first introduced to the job in 2014, when he enrolled in the introductory beekeeping course at WCC, and now focuses heavily on education, saying it is critical to protecting the honeybee.
“We’ve seen a significant loss in number of colonies here in the United States,” Rash said.
Those losses can be attributed most closely to pests, disease and pesticide use, he said. In order to help protect the bees from these threats, beekeepers work with honeybees in a variety of ways.
Of their many responsibilities — such as maintaining hives, raising and replacing queen bees and dividing colonies — Rash said one of the beekeeper’s most important duties is to protect colonies from disease.
“There have been 26 different viruses that have been isolated that are present in bee colonies,” Rash said. Although some diseases appear as a result of stressors in the bee colony, such as weather and food supply, certain viruses can be closely linked to infestations from pests, Rash added.
In the High Country, the largest of these pests are bears that come looking for honey. Protecting colonies from bears can be as simple as installing an electric fence around the bee yard, as Rash has done with his, but smaller pests, such as the varroa mite, which was introduced to the U.S. in the 1980s, can be more difficult to handle, Rash said.
“If you have one varroa mite in the colony in January, by July you’re going to have 14,000 varroa mites,” Rash said. “They can decimate a colony of bees if you don’t try to keep things under control.”
Varroa mites are tiny, external parasites that feed on honeybees, typically leading to the introduction of viruses within the colony. Deformed wing virus, which causes underdeveloped or crumpled wings in honeybees, is one of the more deadly viruses that is linked with varroa mite infestations, according to a study from the American Society for Microbiology.
“Once that bee emerges with wings that are not functional, that bee is going to live maybe two or three days and contributes absolutely nothing to the colony,” Rash said.
With the constant risk of varroa mite infestations in colonies, Rash said that catching infestations early is critical in order for the bees to survive the High Country’s long winters, largely because a colony’s population determines its chance of survival in cold temperatures.
Rash referenced the Bee Informed Partnership’s 2017-2018 colony loss survey, which reported a 42.2-percent loss of colonies during the winter months for North Carolina’s beekeepers. Though winter is still several months away, Rash said that beekeepers in the High Country have to start planning during summer to guarantee a healthy population for their bees before winter’s arrival.
“When it gets below 60 degrees, the bees will form a loose cluster,” Rash said, adding that the temperatures at the center of these clusters can reach anywhere between 70 and 95 degrees. “If you’ve got a large population of bees, you can do that, but if you go into winter with just a handful of bees, they can’t withstand the cold.”
To raise awareness, the Ashe County Beekeepers Association held its monthly meeting to discuss the threat these mites pose to bee colonies on Thursday, July 13, at the Ashe County Agricultural Center.
The ACBA is made up of more than a dozen beekeepers working to promote healthy and sustainable beekeeping practices in Ashe County, as well as educate the general public on ways to protect and care for honeybee populations.
During the meeting, Jim Miles from 7 Stands Bee Farm in Wilkes County gave a presentation on ways to identify and treat varroa mite infestations. Archie Griffith, who started beekeeping earlier this year, attended an ACBA meeting for the first time on July 13. He said that the meeting taught him a lot about ways to protect his bees from the varroa mite.
“The timing of it was fantastic,” Griffith said. “(Miles) definitely expressed the need to keep an eye on your bees, especially starting this month.”
During the presentation, Miles showed tools and methods to use when treating varroa mite infestations, and Griffith said that Miles urged everyone at the meeting to test for the mites now during summer to ensure that colonies can go into winter with a healthy population.
Griffith got his start in beekeeping while taking Rash’s introductory beekeeping course at the WCC’s Ashe campus. He said he initially heard about the course from Shelley Felder, owner of The Honey Hole in West Jefferson.
Griffith wasn’t the first person to be introduced to beekeeping by Felder. In 2014, Rash was Felder’s student at WCC for her introductory beekeeping course. The course that Rash now teaches was originally taught by Felder.
Felder has been involved with beekeeping in Ashe County for about a decade. Her shop sells an assortment of beekeeping supplies and honey-related products. Felder said that eight local beekeepers provide honey for The Honey Hole, including Rash.
After opening her shop in 2011, Felder was approached about a year later by someone interested in having her teach an introductory beekeeping course at WCC’s campus in Alleghany County.
“Because I was so surrounded by beekeeping all day long, every day, I really did have a good storage of knowledge,” Felder said.
During the years, Felder said she has seen many improvements in honeybee protection and awareness in Ashe County. In the past, Felder said that pesticides from Christmas tree farming were devastating for beekeepers in the county — specifically, the pesticide known as dimethoate.
Felder said that in the early 2010s, Ashe County beekeepers had several instances where bees were being killed by dimethoate.
“That is the only Christmas tree spray that is known to kill honeybees outright,” Felder said.
At the time, beekeepers were unaware of the risks of the pesticide. Felder said that beekeepers are now aware of the use of the pesticide and can communicate with farmers to ensure the protection of their colonies.
“Through communication with the Ashe County Christmas Tree Association, they have done a wonderful job with educating Christmas tree growers,” Felder said.
Now, Christmas tree farmers only spray the pesticides at night when bees have returned to their hive for the evening. Beekeepers in the county are also urged to inform any Christmas farmers in their area that they have bees. That way, farmers can give beekeepers advanced notice when they are going to spray pesticides so that beekeepers can take necessary precautions to protect their bees.
In addition, pesticide use for Christmas tree farming in Ashe County dropped 21 percent from 2013 to 2018, according to Ashe County Cooperative Extension Director Travis Birdsell. The drop in pesticide usage follows a downward trend for the county. From 2000 to 2013, pesticide use decreased by 71 percent.
Despite the drop in pesticide usage for the county’s Christmas tree farmers, Rash said that common pesticides used in lawn maintenance, such as Roundup, still threaten honeybees.
These home pesticides affect bees in two ways: Bees either die upon coming in contact with the pesticide, or bees carry pollen and nectar laced with pesticide back to the colony, which jeopardizes the health of the entire colony, according to a report from the Honey Bee Program at the University of Georgia.
Rash said that education is key in preventing the general public from carelessly spraying these pesticides in their yards.
Though the honeybee faces a number of challenges in their pollination efforts, Felder said that this year has been remarkably successful for honey production in Ashe County compared to previous years. She attributed this success to a lack of rainfall during the month of May.
“The last three or four years, it’s been almost impossible for (honeybees) to make honey because the rain has just destroyed all the nectar,” Felder said.
This year, record-setting May dryness struck Ashe County, with 1.09 inches of precipitation falling during the entire month. This dryness allowed honeybees to forage throughout the month of May, which is now yielding heavy honey production, Felder said.
Felder added that despite a successful spring and summer for honeybees in Ashe County, winter still poses a unique risk for bees in the High Country.
“The problem with Ashe County is we have such a long winter,” Felder said. “Our bees have to get by on what’s in their hives from October until May, whereas most, like in the Piedmont — they only have December and January.”
With winter’s inevitable arrival, beekeepers in the High Country must work hard to make sure that their bees are healthy, free of disease and foraging pesticide-free food so that they have a healthy population and food supply once temperatures start dropping.
Despite the challenges, Felder said the future of Ashe County’s honeybees is looking positive.
“A lot of good things have happened in the eight years that I’ve seen,” Felder said. “Plus, we’ve got a lot of really good beekeepers here.”