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Yuba-Sutter beekeepers abuzz on research
Valeri Severson's bees are busy working three jobs, including a new one that could bear fruit for Yuba-Sutter farmers.
Honey bees' main job is collecting pollen and nectar before churning it into food they eat. Humans, like Severson and her Yuba City company, Strachan Apiaries, have piggybacked on both the front-end of the process, by using bees to pollinate their crops, and the back-end, by pilfering their honey.
Beekeepers and scientists are adding a third job — research subject — to save the massive amounts of bees that are dying each winter and the human endeavors that rely on them, including at least $150 million worth of Yuba-Sutter farming.
Fueled by a $5.5 million federal grant, the Bee Informed Partnership is working with 17 Northern California beekeepers, including Severson and her 10,000 hives, and surveying others from around the nation to collect data on colony populations, diseases, parasites and toxic residues with the ultimate goal of finding out how to keep bees alive, said Katie Lee, a partnership researcher and employee of the Butte County University of California Extension.
"Honey bees are extremely critical to our health, to the way we eat," Lee said. "If honey bees were to disappear, a third of our food would be affected."
Many are disappearing. Bees are dying in "large" and "unsustainable" numbers, according to the partnership's website, with one quarter of all beekeepers losing more than half of their colonies each year.
On average, beekeepers have lost nearly one-third of their colonies each year since 2006, Lee said. The range of losses was wide. Some beekeepers lose 55 percent of colonies during the winter, while others shed less than 15 percent.
Losing hordes of bees is not good for Yuba-Sutter, which is at the southern end of bee country. Beekeeping brought in about $3.9 million to area beekeepers in 2010, the last year for which data is available.
That number likely skyrocketed last year as dwindling colonies drove higher prices. A shrinking supply of vibrant hives nearly doubled the price of a colony, from $33 to $58 between 2009 and 2010, according to the Sutter County Crop Report. The price nearly tripled again and is holding at about $150 a colony, said Eric Mussen, an apiculturist with U.C. Cooperative Extension at U.C. Davis.
"It just shot up," he added.
It's not just the bees themselves. Some of Yuba-Sutter's biggest crops depend on bees, including prunes and almonds, which pulled in nearly $100 million for area farmers last year.
"(Almond farmers) need honey bees to produce any type of crop," Lee said.
Local beekeeper Jeremiah Farrell hopes the project discovers a way to deal with verroa mites, a parasite affecting 10-20 percent of his 140 hives. The mites eat bee larvae, causing them to hatch deformed and live shorter lives.
"They essentially have a vampire eating its blood," Farrell said. "It's a constant battle to treat verroa mites."
He has a mix of tricks he uses to battle the mite, including specially-designed doors and powdered sugar, which he sprinkles on his bees, forcing them to clean it off along with any mites.
"It's whatever you can do to keep the mites at bay," he said.
The partnership started last May but has data stretching back to December 2010. Researchers need at least two years to start to tease out any sort of trend.