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Plight of the bees

Beekeeper Cary Therriault inspects one of his thriving hives at Full Circle Farms in Carnation. While this colony is buzzing, stress, disease and other factors are putting a dent in bee populations. - Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record
Beekeeper Cary Therriault inspects one of his thriving hives at Full Circle Farms in Carnation. While this colony is buzzing, stress, disease and other factors are putting a dent in bee populations.
— image credit: Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record

The sun is shining, the birds are singing, but Snoqualmie resident Julia Benson’s beehive is strangely silent.

Where there would normally be several rows of healthy nests of mason bees atop her woodpile, there’s just one quiet nest with only seven occupied cells. There’s not a single adult bee to be seen.

Benson picked up a matchbox full of mason bee cocoons. In a normal year, the cocoons would have hatched long before. None of them appear to be alive.

“These guys are DOA — this is not good,” Benson said. “I have probably one one-hundredth of the mason bees I had before.”

Benson’s lack of bees is part of a trend in the last several years, in which bee populations are dwindling, their vitality sapped and their colonies apparently in crisis.

“It’s common knowledge that there’s a lot less bees than there used to be,” said Cary Therriault, a Bellevue beekeeper with a small honey business who maintains hives at Carnation’s Full Circle Farms.

Therriault used to catch 30 swarms a spring. Now, he only snags a handful.

“I’ve lost half my hives every winter for about the last three years,” Therriault said. “It’s emotionally devastating.”

Therriault’s father was a beekeeper who overwintered plenty of healthy hives.

“Now, it’s very infrequent to have a hive that’s well-populated, busting out,” he said. “The vitality of the bees, the vitality of the queen, it all seems depressed.”

Bees have gone through more than a decade of decline, in Therriault’s observation.

Why? “It’s a toxic world,” he said. Faced with mite parasites, viruses and a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder, “it’s really difficult to keep them alive.”

“Honeybees are in trouble,” said Evan Sugden, a beekeeper and professor of entomology at the University of Washington. “We’re looking at several long-term problems layered on each other.”

Bees are overworked and face natural predators, diseases and viruses as well as a pesticide-laced environment.

Colonies are plagued by two different mites, both from Asia. The Varroa mite is parasitic on baby bees, while tracheal mites are tiny creatures that get into adult bees’ breathing tubes.

Colony collapse disorder is when worker bees leave the hive, but for some unknown reason, don’t return. Speculation of the cause includes viruses or other disease, or perhaps a culmination of stress factors.

There are no immediate solutions to colony collapse on the horizon, and scientists still don’t know what is causing the disorder.

The best solution is genetics, Sugen said. Bee breeding is very advanced, and has a diverse gene pool.

Beekeepers are working to breed resistance to mites and other parasites and diseases into their swarms.

Farmers encountered a pollination crisis starting last year. Growers in the southern parts of the country could not get enough bees to pollinate their crops.

Almond growers, for example, need bees in February. With fewer bees overall, more migratory beekeepers are needed, and the value of their services are rising, as is the price of honey.

Locally, the crisis is less severe. Sugden said that a lot of the concern about vanishing bees is based on people’s perceptions, not on science.

“What I see is a very late spring,” Sugden said. “The re-emergence of many insects has been delayed. Up until recent days, there really have been fewer insects around.”

Healthy, well-managed hives are doing well, Sugden said.

But bees in general have been in decline due to pesticides and habitat deterioration. According to Sugden, there’s now fewer bees, fewer butterflies, “fewer everything.” But in general, these are long-term changes, not obvious from year to year.

Even with a late spring, honeybees can catch up. Their numbers are rapidly increasing with warm days and more flowers.

Solitary bees, such as bumblebees or mason bees, are less resilient and have a harder time catching up.

“Late springs can really cut badly into their populations,” Sugden said.

Most of the bee species in the region are solitary. They live in twigs and holes in the ground, and are a an important part of the pollination scene.

For Benson, her bees are a sideline, a source of “fun money.”

But the dearth of bees this spring is troubling, not least for ecological reasons.

“I’ll see if I have apples or not,” she said.

With recent good weather, she’s seen more bees.

“There’s been a sudden surge,” Benson said. “But they should have been out there before.”

Benson doesn’t know why there were so few bees this spring.

“There’s so much going on that we don’t know about,” she said. “It could have been a bad year. But it’s been two years in a row.”

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