One of the hardest winters to hit Ohio in years did a number on the state’s honeybees.
Agricultural officials have estimated beekeepers across the Buckeye state lost 50 to 80 percent of their honeybees, which pollinate more than 70 crops including apples, strawberries and pumpkins.
Valerie Weiss, a trustee with the Lorain County Beekeepers Association, can attest to the cruelest winter she’s experienced as a beekeeper.
“We’ve been beekeeping 14 years and for us it was the most severe winter,” Weiss said.
Owner of Honeybee Treasure in New London in Huron County, Weiss lost 27 of 34 bee colonies.
“Our bees had honey in their boxes, but when it was so cold, they couldn’t physically get to the honey and they literally starved to death,” Weiss said.
Each colony holds 60,000 to 80,000 bees.
Some members of the county beekeepers group reported losing 75 percent of their colonies, while others lost all of their bees, Weiss said.
And these devastating losses come on top of the 30 percent to 60 percent of bees lost by many a year ago.
“We just picked up and installed 15 packages (of bees) at a cost of $105 apiece,” Weiss said.
The packaged bees are purchased from bee supply businesses such as one operated by a fellow beekeeper in Spencer, and are used to jump-start badly depleted bee colonies for the coming growing season.
Each package contains an average 10,000 bees and weighs three pounds, Weiss said.
For people who have a honey business, like Weiss, the packaged bees keep those ventures going.
“People are still looking for bees, but there’s none to be had,” Weiss said.
Ohio producers of apples, strawberries, melons, pumpkins and other fruits and vegetables may have to buy bees from outside their local areas, which would cost them more and possibly result in higher food prices passed along to consumers.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates honeybees annually pollinate more than $14 billion in crops nationwide, Weiss said.
“So many people don’t realize that a third of what goes on their table is pollinated by bees,” Weiss said.
Compounding the situation is that the packaged bees sold to many beekeepers arrived late due to unseasonably chilly, rainy weather that is delaying the growth of flowers and flowering plants from which bees forage for life-sustaining pollen.
“Everything is late (in terms of growth) and there’s nothing for the (bees) to forage on,” Weiss said.
Some pollen has come from maple trees but not nearly enough to sustain or expand the numbers of honeybees.
“There’s not a lot of pollen sources yet,” Weiss said.
Fields of sprouting dandelions offer one source of nectar for bees, but even they are being killed off by extensive spraying of chemicals designed to kill the yellow weeds deemed unsightly by many.
And, as if this past winter didn’t do enough damage, honeybee populations in Ohio were already depleted by disease, mites, pesticides and droughts.
Ironically, honeybees tend to live longer in the winter compared to their four-to-six-week lifespan in the summer due to foraging for water and pollen, Weiss said. “They wear themselves out flying.”
But this winter’s sustained periods of bitter cold killed off large numbers of bees that normally help clusters of enclosed bees survive.
“There weren’t enough bees to keep the others warm,” Weiss said.