LINESVILLE — “Don’t do this at home,” Steve Repasky says as he gently plucks a queen bee from the brood frame he is holding. The frame is full of bee cells containing larvae, or brood, and is crawling with what looks like hundreds of adult bees.
Repasky, a certified master beekeeper and vice president of the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association (PSBA), wears a beekeeper’s veil and jacket over his upper body, but he holds the fragile queen between the thumb and forefinger of his bare hand. After a moment he returns the queen to the frame and continues with his demonstration of how to inspect a honey bee hive. As he returns each of the frames to the larger box that contains them, he jokes with the crowd. “If you hear a lot of squishing, you know you did it wrong.”
Repasky and the audience of nearly 100 beekeepers are having fun at the Northwestern Pennsylvania Beekeepers Association (NWPBA) Field Day event held Saturday at Vorisek’s Backyard Bee Farm in Linesville, but the reason they’re here is no laughing matter. Charlie Vorisek, PSBA president and owner of Vorisek’s, explains that since the varroa mite arrived in the U.S. in the late 1980s, honey bees have struggled to survive the impact of the tiny, tick-like parasite.
“I lost 45 percent of my bees last winter,” Vorisek says. Since Vorisek keeps about 200 hives, he knows how much work it takes to replace the bees that are lost each year. “It’s become typical to lose 45 to 55 percent over the winter.”
Statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirm Vorisek’s claims and show they are part of a potentially calamitous larger trend. From 1947 to 2006, according to the USDA, the number of managed honey bee colonies in the country declined from 5.9 million to 2.6 million.
The NWPBA Field Day encourages people to help stave off this decline by offering demonstrations of how to collect a swarm, how to inspect a colony and how to make bath products using honey. They even have honey-flavored ice cream to sample. But the real goal is to improve the genetic stock of as many hives in the region as possible in order to increase the bees’ survival rate. Vorisek has raised queens with hardy winter survival traits and others known as “leg biters.” These bees have a genetic tendency to bite the legs off of varroa mites, thus eliminating the threat posed by the parasites and perhaps serving the vampire-like bugs a bit of well-deserved revenge in the process.
Repasky emphasizes the urgency of mitigating the threat posed by these parasites. “Honey bees play a crucial role,” he says. “They pollinate 80 percent of fruits and vegetables and one-third of the food we eat is pollinated by bees.”
Vorisek cites apples, cucumbers, pumpkins and squash as the crops most dependent on bees in Crawford County. “I have 70 colonies on Ernst Farm for their wildflowers,” he adds.
Many of the people swarming Vorisek’s farm on Saturday brought queenless bee boxes with them so that the worker bees within can be acclimated to one of the genetically superior queens that Vorisek is distributing. Each box receives a queen and will remain in a field beside Vorisek’s farmhouse for a few weeks to give the newly hatched queens a chance to mate and begin laying eggs after the workers become used to them.
The mysterious phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder — in which the vast majority of a hive’s worker bees disappear, leaving just the queen, a few other bees and plenty of food — has received a great deal of media attention in the past decade. The varroa mite, however, is a less well known but more significant threat today, according to Cathy Vorisek, Charlie’s wife and also part of the family bee business.
The mites depend exclusively on honey bees for their survival, attaching themselves to bees in order to suck their blood. Not only do they injure and weaken the bees in the process, they often transmit one or more of the dozens of diseases they can carry, leaving the affected bees even more vulnerable. After feeding on adult bees, the mites lay eggs in brood comb cells where they mature along with the bee larvae before emerging to continue the destructive cycle.
Pesticides can be used to control the mites, but chemicals bring their own problems, says Tim Heeter, who maintains 30 hives near Jackson Center in Mercer county. Heeter brought several boxes with him to be fitted with the queens who can hopefully pass along stronger survival characteristics.
“I don’t have a lot of faith in the pesticides being healthy for the bees,” Heeter says. “Some of the treatments that I’ve used on my bees have weakened the queen. I don’t want to put poison in my hives. You’re trying to kill a bug on a bug, and that never works out good for the host bug.”
“This is the long-term solution for mite control — the bees taking care of themselves,” Vorisek says. “If we can accomplish that, it would be a huge improvement. It’s a matter of monitoring and selecting for these traits that enable them to survive. Nature over time would sort itself out, but it might take 50 or a hundred years. We’re trying to jump the evolution cycle a little bit.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.