At the end of the day at Awald Farms, the busiest workers head for home – by the thousands.
The honeybees wait their turn to enter the colony’s hive on the southern end of the 75 acres of strawberry, blueberry, raspberry and blackberry fields in North Collins.
All day long they have flown to hundreds of flowering plants gathering and carrying nectar – and spreading pollen – just as bees have done at Awald Farms for 100 years.
But now Jamie Awald and other farmers worry about the future of these bees under constant threat from mites, chemicals and loss of habitat.
“The bottom line is if we don’t have the bees on the farm, we have no berries – berries don’t exist,” Awald said.
With 23 percent of the nation’s honeybees wiped out over the winter, farmers, beekeepers and scientists worry about the long-term sustainability of the insect so crucial to raising crops.
So they have taken steps – like leaving more honey in the hive, keeping bees indoors during winter months, and even manually supplementing their nutrition – to protect the bees and add to their numbers. Others are raising their own bees as a way to help.
On Friday, President Obama directed federal agencies to take steps to protect and restore populations of pollinators, including honeybees, birds, bats and butterflies. The agencies were directed to use research, land management, education and public/private partnerships to protect the pollinators and their habitats.
There are some 2.5 million managed honeybee colonies in the United States today, down from 4 million in 1970, according to a White House release.
“The worry is not that bees are going to go extinct,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant professor for entomology at the University of Maryland and one of the nation’s leading bee researchers. “The worry is that beekeepers are going to go out of business.”
The loss of beekeepers would create a void for farmers.
John Gibbs of Gowanda-based Gibbs Apiaries ranks among the region’s most prominent professional beekeepers.
His bees – from almost 3,800 hives – pollinate everything from the berry bushes at Awald Farms to the Eden Valley Growers’ annual produce crop and the apple orchards near Olcott.
“It’s definitely a concern,” said Gibbs, a 30-year-plus commercial beekeeper.
He can remember years when he lost 7 percent of his bees. The annual losses have ballooned to between one-quarter and one-third in the last decade.
Finding dead bees or losing them by the millions isn’t just discouraging for Gibbs. It’s costly.
So he’s doing everything he can now to stem the losses.
That includes housing hives near wooded areas away from pesticides, putting them inside in temperatures between 40 to 42 degrees, supplementing hives with sugar syrup and “shortening the winter” by taking them cross-country to forage on almond trees in California.
“It’s our business,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently reported that a yearly survey of beekeepers revealed fewer losses in the United States over the winter of 2013-14 than in recent years.
But beekeepers say losses remain higher than the level they consider to be sustainable.
According to survey results, total losses of managed honeybee colonies from all causes were 23.2 percent nationwide. That number is above the 18.9 percent level of loss that beekeepers say is acceptable for their economic sustainability. But it marked an improvement over the 30.5 percent loss reported for the winter of 2012-13 and over the eight-year average loss of 29.6 percent.
Exact causes of the massive bee die-offs aren’t known.
Scientists suggest three main culprits: mite infestation, nutrition deficiencies and poisonous pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
The bees fan out from their hives every day, flying up to two to three miles, to forage for food on flowering plants, bushes and trees. In the process, they pollinate that vegetation. The bees bring the food they have gathered back to their hive every day, where it’s converted to honey supplies – the bees’ main source of food to survive the winter months.
When enough of them don’t make it back – whether from infection, stress or disorientation – the food supply eventually runs out, and the hive, with its thousands of inhabitants, dies.
“A certain percentage are going to die of natural causes,” said Mike Masterson, a beekeeping hobbyist and owner of Masterson’s Garden Center in East Aurora. “The big thing is we’re killing these bees, and that’s a big problem.”
The threat of insecticides
The invasive varroa mite feeds on the larvae of bees inside the hive and also attaches to and sucks the blood from adult bees, weakening them and leaving them susceptible to infection.
Beekeepers can use chemicals to control the mites, but that can cut into bee populations. VanEnglesdorp, who likened the mite control treatment to chemotherapy, called the mite the leading threat to bee populations.
Poor nutrition because of changes to bees’ native habitat exacerbates the problem.
Preliminary studies indicate bees have suffered in states where drastic changes in the landscape have resulted in fewer native wildflowers and other plants. In Midwestern states, bees are having a tough time because corn and soybean crops – which don’t require bees for pollination – have exploded and replaced wildflowers or other plants where bees could forage.
Last year, 26.5 percent of bees died in New York, which was below the 30.6 percent national average but still well above the acceptable winter mortality rate of 18.9 percent.
Since the annual surveys began in 2006-07, between 22 percent and 36 percent of honeybees have been lost annually.
With changes in land use, over development and suburban sprawl, bees must travel even farther to forage.
Along the way, the bees are encountering more poisons.
“Today, the pesticides are a little more insidious in a lot of ways,” said Geri Hens, a professional beekeeper.
“Farmers are pressured into doing things that aren’t always in the best interest of pollinators,” Hens said. “People want perfect produce, but you have to strike a balance.”
Nowadays, insecticides are not just on farms.
Studies show some chemicals used for lawn control as well as herbicides and fungicides are interfering with the “built-in GPS system” that bees have to guide them back to the hive.
“The bees fly out into the field to collect food and seem not to be able to find their way back home,” said Paul Cappy, the state’s official apiculturalist, or beekeeper.
Decades ago, when beekeepers found piles of dead bees, Cappy said, they were usually right outside the hive. They got sick on insecticides and, rather than bring it back inside the hive, they died on the colony’s doorstep.
“With today’s insecticides, you don’t have any evidence. The bees just disappear from the colonies,” Cappy explained. “To compile the evidence is hard, because it’s disappeared.”
The pollination bees provide also allows for the growth of plants that provide fruits, nuts, seeds and berries in the wild that are foraged by birds and other wildlife.
In short, as the bees go, so goes the ecosystem.
“They are a keystone species,” said vanEngelsdorp, who also acts as a project director for the Bee Informed Partnership, a national collaborative initiative between government, science and industry. “The bees and flowering plants do the most amazing evolutionary dance. Without bees, there are no flowering plants, and without flowering plants we don’t have bees.”
On Friday, Obama created a Pollinator Health Task Force to be led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Department of Agriculture “to promote honeybee and other pollinator health,” expand federal efforts and take “new steps to reverse pollinator losses.”
Estimates show about one-third of all foods consumed in the country – mainly plants, fruits and vegetables – are the products of pollinators like bees.
The consequences of massive bee losses could prove catastrophic.
“There’s not going to be a quick fix,” Hens said. “You can’t buy insects.”
Cappy remains more optimistic long-term solutions can be found to help bees – but there’s little time to dither.
“This is still solvable,” Cappy said. “Honeybees are a renewable resource.”
Saving the bees
They’re called the “backyard beekeepers” – gardeners, retirees, organic food followers or just concerned citizens – who establish and tend their own hives. They might have up to five hives.
The numbers of backyard beekeepers are growing.
“I’d roughly say it’s doubled in the last five years,” Cappy said.
Masterson, whose Olean Road store stocks everything from smokers to kids’ beekeeping suits, was lured into beekeeping after becoming concerned about the reports of distressed bees.
Now, his whole family is involved. And the garden center has helped some 80 people become beekeepers over the last two years.
“We do our little part,” Masterson said.
So, too, do Town of Boston residents Mike and Jennifer Baglio, officers in the Western New York Honey Producers Association. They started with a couple backyard hives. Now they have 27 spread across their yard as well as those of family members and neighbors.
Baglio, an avid gardener, said her flowers and produce are not only healthier, but more bountiful, because bees live in the area.
“The bees,” Masterson said, “are going to be saved not by commercial hives, but one backyard at a time.”