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The Buzz About Honeybees

By Linda Kush of The Lowell Sun, May 10 2007

Beekeeper Rick Reault carries a metal contraption resembling a watering can fitted with a bellows. He directs a plume of gray smoke rising from the spout into a white wooden hive. The smoke helps calm the bees before he lifts the lid and gently pulls out a black frame covered with squirming black and gold insects.

The queen stands out from the workers, her golden, glistening body about twice their size. With a special pen, Reault applies a small dot of yellow paint to her back, marking her as a 2007 queen. It makes her easier to spot and identifies her age for future reference. He uses a different color each year.

Reault is tending his six honeybee hives at Strawberry Hill Farm in Andover, checking bees he put in this spring when the colonies didn’t make it over the winter. These bees forage in Andover and North Tewksbury. The Tyngsboro resident keeps more than 200 colonies scattered from Fitchburg to Methuen, with the next one to be installed in Tewksbury. He knows of no other professionally maintained hives in Tewksbury, but he estimates that the town has 25 to 50 backyard hobbyists.

“I get stung at least once a day,” said Reault, “but they say it’s good for you.”

The 48-year-old former contractor has kept bees for 12 years and learned the art from his uncle. He took the plunge from part-time to full-time bee man last year when his homebuilding business went flat. He sells honey and beekeeping supplies and raises queens. He also takes care of hives for other people, removes bees from houses and teaches beekeeping classes.

Hive issues

Lately, he has spent a lot of time on the phone with jittery beekeepers worried about Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious phenomenon that has wiped out honeybee colonies in 27 states.

“Right now, anybody has a problem with their hive, they think they have CCD,” he said.

But the disorder has distinctive symptoms. Adult bees fly off and simply don’t come back. Even more troubling, the usual scavengers, neighboring bees and wax moths, leave the abandoned hives undisturbed. So far, the cause is unknown. Speculation includes environmental toxins, mites and global warming.

Some commercial beekeepers have lost up to 90 percent of their bees, especially in the Mid-Atlantic States and the Northwest. Losses have also been reported in Europe and Canada.

And there is much more at stake than the price of honey.

“Every third bite of food we take is attributed to honeybees,” Reault said. Their role is essential in pollinating crops. The bees at Strawberry Farm pollinate blueberries, raspberries, melons and pears in Tewksbury and Andover.

But he does not believe CCD has arrived in Massachusetts. The problem here is climate. Most honeybees are imported from the South, and a lot of them don’t make it through their first New England winter. He urges beekeepers to ventilate and insulate their hives carefully, and he is breeding bees that survive the winter to create a hearty New England stock.

Wipe out

The hive collapse comes on the heels of the varroa mite infestation that wiped out the wild honeybee population in the 1990s and has also attacked domestic hives. Reault eschews pesticides in favor of organic mite control. He applies ordinary powdered sugar to the bees, and the mites simply fall off and die on the ground. After their treatment, the bees look like ghosts buzzing around the hive.

For all the attention CCD is receiving from government and the media, Reault thinks something is missing in the dialog.

“Everybody is talking about CCD, but what about the bees?” he said. Replacing them will be very expensive. He has invested tens of thousands of dollars in operation that is modest compared to hard-hit crop pollinating services that maintain thousands of hives.

He calls for the federal government to step in with an aid program to replace lost colonies, just as it does for other natural disasters.

“Every year, there are less colonies than there were before, and CCD is just the latest part of a bigger problem,” he said.

And according to Nancy Mangion, owner of Beekeepers Warehouse in Woburn, the number of commercial producers is also on the decline. The backyard beekeeper, she says, may be the salvation of the honeybee.

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