Hungry bees rob hives as their keepers try everything to save them

Arcadia, Florida

Their busy, buzzing business partners pollinate everything from almonds in California to blueberries in Maine, so few understand the state of American agriculture like Florida beekeepers.

But the collision of climate crises has left few people so sad and worried.

22 storms and droughts had already wreaked havoc on crop yields and a parched Mississippi was obstructing harvest shipments when Hurricane Ian swept through the nation’s apiary epicenter in central Florida. The storm drowned or crushed hundreds of thousands of hives, killing bees by the hundreds of millions – and those that survived are starving.

“Our whole ecosystem is upside down and twisted like a blender,” Keith Councell told CNN as he picked up piles of broken, soggy hives at his farm near Arcadia, a bit north and inland. of Fort Myers.

“It was really bad because we were at the height of the Brazilian pepper bloom,” he explained. “It’s our main source of nectar in the fall.”

Much of America’s beekeeping industry overwinters in the Sunshine State to catch the reliable bloom of the Brazilian pepper tree before shipping fresh bees to California for the February almond harvest, then to some 130 fruit and vegetable seasons in across the country.

But just as hives were filling with honey and young bees in late September, the Category 4 storm raked the shore, not only tossing and flooding tens of thousands of bee boxes, but ripping flowers and leaves from hundreds of square kilometers of fodder. “Some of those trees were sandblasted,” Councell said. And in another cruel twist, some trees produce “stress flowers” as they die, which attract hungry bees but carry no nutrition.

Emergency rations began to be trucked in when hungry bees began stealing from other hives.

Councell tapped a garden shed-sized plastic jug of sugar water next to another full of corn syrup. The hope is that putting jars of these treats will be enough to keep the bees alive for now.

“Ideally, they would collect different pollens from different plants, for all of their amino acids and nutrition,” Councell said. “You can’t give bees a candy bar and expect them to survive on it. They need that full meal, but right now our environment…” He pointed to the broken pepper and orange groves. “There is nothing there.”

Bees come in and out of one of Councell's farm hives.

The next day, a dozen beekeepers gathered around Mann Lake Bee and Ag Supply, swapping stories of loss and filling out federal aid forms, while Greater Good Charity’s Casey Paholski stood by pallets of food for bees, free for mourning to take.

“This is part of our hurricane relief efforts,” he said, describing an effort to donate 500,000 pounds of pollen substitute. “We donated meals to food pantries for humans and animal supplies to animal shelters and now we donate to bees. We can’t forget what helps bring all the other food to the table.

Prior to the storm, there were approximately 650,000 managed hives statewide, each containing tens of thousands of bees and their brood. Experts say the extent of the damage may not be known for months. “These beekeepers lost equipment, they lost their bees,” said Amy Vu, a bee scientist at the University of Florida. “There’s so much they’ve lost that will eventually impact the food production that we have nationally. When it comes time for beekeepers to fulfill those pollination contracts, they’ll have a better idea of ​​how many colonies they have left.

Casey Paholski of Greater Good Charities.

One in three bites of food comes from pollinators like bees, a USDA stat that Andrew Wagner likes to recite during a visit to the Mann Lake warehouse. As an agency director, he supplies beekeepers of all sizes at a time when the natural world has been so profoundly altered that bees can no longer survive without human protection.

“Urbanization, drought, lack of natural fodder, cars, pesticides,” Wagner ticked off the threats. “If every beekeeper in the country just released all their bees into the wild, we estimate it would take about 2-3 years before the bees collapsed. And that’s why we need the whole public to be aware and involved in bees. A few backyard hives have a big impact.

But while homesteaders and backyard hobbyists can add vital pockets of pollinators to even the most urban landscapes, Florida professionals are worried about the next climate disaster on the calendar – the mega-drought in the west. .

“If you don’t have California almonds, the commercial beekeeping industry is probably going to collapse,” Jeremy Ham told CNN. His Old Florida Bee Company has lost over 2,700 hives and he is feeding his survivors by the gallon, nonstop. “You have to make that tough decision: is it worth trying to save him, or do you just have to go and take your medicine? There are only a limited number of places to do medicine. honey. It’s not a pretty picture. I’m not a gloomy, unhappy guy, I think that’s just the reality.

Jeremy Ham's Old Florida Bee Company lost more than 2,700 hives in Hurricane Ian.


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