Lane County is leading the nation in its treatment of bees. With recent local and state legislation and a growing interest in backyard hives, local bee advocates are in position to steer the national discussion.
Misuse of a category of insecticide called neonicotinoids was found to be the cause of massive bumblebee deaths in Wilsonville last summer. The bumblebees are only part of a nationwide story. Starting in 2006, keepers of honeybees across the country noticed unusually high die-off rates. Termed "Colony Collapse Disorder," or CCD, yearly losses of one-third or more have become the new normal.
Bill Bezuk is owner of the Eugene Backyard Farmer:
Bezuk: "There's no absolute one smoking gun. But it does appear to be a combination of the over application of herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, as well as a loss of a diversity of diet for the bees"
Gary Morgan started keeping bees about five years ago. He says the CCD losses scared him:
Morgan: "And then I read a story about parts of China where they have lost all their bees, and now they have to go out with paintbrushes and pollinate their own pear trees."
Many locals are on the same wavelength as Morgan. Katharine Hunt is president of the Lane County Beekeeper's Association. She says the hobby is declining nationally, but new members have been swarming to her group:
K. Hunt: "We just trained 58 new beekeepers on Saturday."
Bezuk says you won't make a living from the three hives allowed in a Eugene backyard:
Bezuk: "I harvested two colonies last year, and I got about 35 pounds of honey."
That was enough for his family for the year, with some left for gifts and a batch of mead. Bezuk says, because it contains local pollen, backyard honey helps fight allergies.
According to the USDA's website, one in three bites in the American diet, or 51 billion dollars in crop value, is the result of honeybee pollination.
As is the national trend, most local beekeepers suffered losses over the winter. And it wasn't necessarily from the cold. Bees form a cluster around the queen and can keep her at a steamy 90 degrees even when it's below zero. Morgan lost both his hives, one to Varroa mites and the queen died in the second:
Morgan: "Now a lot of people want to blame it on Monsanto and Bayer. And I'm sure they have a lot to do with it. But I'm sure that's not the only thing. And I just wish they would find out what that's all about."
Dr. Dewey Caron is working on the issue. He's a researcher with Oregon State University.
Caron: "We've been doing a survey of the beekeepers now going back, gee, seven years, in terms of how bees are faring during the over-wintering period, which is a period from October roughly to April."
The questions dig deeper into the problem, asking about things like the physical build of the hives and what percent of losses were colonies less than a year old.
Caron says just as there is no one cause of CCD, there also won't be one cure. He's looking for correlations between reduced deaths and management practices.
Caron: "Individual jurisdictions such as counties, cities, and the state of Oregon particularly as well have pushed out ahead and have adopted a more proactive approach.”
In early March, the Oregon legislature enacted a law requiring those who attain a pesticide applicator license to pass a course on pollinator health. And the City of Eugene has banned the use of neonicotinoids on city-owned property. These are the first rules of their kind in the country.
Chuck Hunt has been a beekeeper for over 40 years. He says he got into it as a way to escape from 1970's politics and live a simpler, nature-based life. He says it's different now:
C. Hunt: "We have bee diseases and viruses that have been transported, parasites. You can't get away from pesticides and herbicides and pollution, and lack of genetic diversity. It's all sort of in the bee yard now. If you're going to be a conscious beekeeper, you're in the world."
Oregon beekeepers have an opportunity to provide data for the rest of the country. After a year or two of changes in pesticide use, researchers will compare colony health here to places with no modifications. It may not solve the problem, but the information will help guide future beekeeping practices.