The Bees Of Belle Center: Saving Ohio's Honeybees
Cooler temperatures are here and Ohio honeybees are heading indoors—into their hives where they’ll spend the next few months keeping their queens safe and warm.
The winter alone will be challenge enough, but when the bees emerge again in the spring, they’ll face other challenges. Pesticides, and monoculture are hard for bee populations. And another problem for them arrived on the scene in the mid-nineties—the Varroa mite.
To contend with all of this, beekeepers and apiarists in Ohio and Indiana are working on a surprising solution.
The Belle Center Bees
At the Miller Dairy Farm in Northern Logan County, groups of cows and sheep walk by and head to grazing pastures. This was mostly a dairy until farm five years ago when bees were introduced into the animal husbandry operations that take place here.
“I like to work the bees in the morning as it’s their most relaxed time to be out. It’s cooler. In the afternoon the bees can become a little more grumpy,” says 23 year old Marlyn Miller. He tends to the 125 hives established here five years ago, and says since their arrival, the bees have changed the landscape.
“There’s sweet clover popping up everywhere, bunch of wildflowers along the fence rows and tree lines and it increases every year.”
So, the bees help the farm—but the farm is also breeding them for a specific purpose. Dwight Wells is with the Heartland Honeybee Breeders Cooperative. He says the Varroa mite, an invasive Asian insect, spreads viruses to bees.
“It’s been ruthless on the honey bees. The Varroa mite bites the bees, viruses gets into the bees body and then the colony gets a major attack of viruses.”
Wells says in just a year, from spring of 2014 to spring of 2015, Ohio lost about 50% of its honeybees.
So his cooperative helped establish the Miller Farm hives to breed a pest-resistant queen. And what they’re doing sounds a bit like science fiction. They’re breeding a trait into the bees to get them to bite the mites back. Wells says it’s working.
“We have a video showing a bee attacking a mite and chewing the legs off. It’s pretty neat to watch.”
Looking Down The Road
Purdue University researchers have been working on the Varroa problem since the mites first arrived on the scene, and they're now helping the Miller Farm breed mite-eating queens with other hearty queens that have done well in Ohio.
Marlyn Miller pulls up a panel from one of the hives, and points to one of their breeder queens, surrounded by countless worker bees. It’s marked with a blue dot—the color changes every year for beekeepers who are tracking the life spans of their queens. Dwight Wells says some of the Miller Farm queens are three years old, which is closer to their original life-spans before invasive pests and pesticides became a problem.
These bees on the Miller farm are thriving but others aren’t faring so well around the state. These days, lots of the bees, imported in packages from the south, can’t survive the winters because of all the other stresses.
"I get phone calls all the time from people that get packages, and the package colonies are dying," he says. "It’s sad. You really can’t do much. It gets to the point where it’s too late. And the colony is almost dead when they call me. It’s sad to see that happen."
Wells says it could take a few more years before any real success can be claimed. But the mite-eating queens they’re producing on the Miller Farm are now being shipped to beekeepers in Ohio and other states.