by Terry Kramer
SHOULD YOU BE FORTUNATE ENOUGH TO SEE honeybees in your garden, chances are they are rather docile and belong to a professional beekeeper like those in the photo above. The wild ones are just about gone.
"There used to be all sorts of wild honeybees up here," said Paul Holzberger, a senior inspector for the Humboldt County Agriculture Department. "They were often a lot darker and often a lot meaner. A wild bee will have a tendency to be a little nastier, a little more aggressive."
Disappearance of feral honeybee populations is not caused by loss of habitat or pollution, but because of a predatory mite infestation.
In recent years the Tracheal and Varroa mites have caused a precipitous decline in honeybee populations, both wild and domestic. Tracheal mites invade a honeybee's respiratory system. Varroa mites attack the outer body, much like fleas and mites do to mammals. Cold, wet weather, in addition to certain bacterial diseases, exacerbate the problem.
However, domestic populations of honeybees are kept relatively safe by professional beekeepers with the use of miticide strips, menthol crystals and antibiotics. Feral honeybees died off because natural controls of the mite do not exist.
Agricultural Inspector Richard Spadoni said that because many amateur beekeepers did not maintain hives properly the mites spread to feral honeybees. Most lost their hives to the mites, which could be considered fortunate, according to Spadoni.
"In a way it was kind of good because it eliminated those people who didn't take care of their bees and it eliminated all these feral bees out there. So the reservoir for the mites has started to dwindle."
Even though domestic honeybees will leave man-made hives and swarm to wild areas, they do not survive for long.
"They are not receiving any treatments and so I think they will swarm periodically as long as a maintained hive is being taken care of. But once they are out there on their own it is just a matter of time before they fizzle out," said Holzberger.
The honeybee is an exotic species, non-native to North America. Settlers brought bees here from Europe in the 17th century. Honeybee populations reached their zenith after World War II when the United States had more than 6 million hives. Today there are less than half.
The honeybee's importance to agriculture and gardening is not in the honey produced, but the efficient way of pollinating food crops. Farmers depend on honeybees to pollinate almonds, blueberries, cranberries, squash, apples, cherries and alfalfa to name a few. Professional beekeepers rent their hives to farmers so these cash crops can be adequately pollinated.
But just because there are no more feral honeybees around, doesn't mean there are no wild, native bees. Many species of native solitary bees, those that don't form colonies or produce honey, can pollinate fruit trees, grains and vegetables. And they are resistant to the mites.
While honeybees are the most efficient at pollinating plants, there are several other pollinators out there that can do the job, including hummingbirds, butterflies and bumblebees.
"Even though the feral honeybees are getting knocked out, the other bees -- like bumblebees, solitary bees and the like --Ýwill do some of the pollinating. They are probably not as efficient as the honeybees, but they are some help," said Spadoni.
Whether feral honeybees can make a comeback depends on breeding and genetics.
"The University of Tennessee is working on a honeybee that is going to be resistant to the mites, and I think if that occurs it will benefit everybody," said Holzberger.
According the California State Department of Agriculture, 99 percent of professional beekeepers place pesticide strips inside the hives to deter mites. Using pesticide strips along with antibiotics as preventative measures to deter pests and diseases makes the term "organic honey" untrue, according to Holzberger.
"By the definition of organic you cannot use antibiotics as a preventative measure. You can only use it to cure a problem. ... But you look around any store and you'll see 'organic' honey out there.
"The state at this point is reluctant to enforce the organic label on honey because there are Food and Drug Administration regulations involved and with it there is a little bit of turmoil as far as the terminology," said Holzberger.
Local food stores that feature organic products, such as the Co-Op, Wildberries and Eureka Natural Foods, do carry honeys labeled organic, but those are products from out of California.
One professional beekeeper, David Reed, who rents hives to growers in the valley and sells local honey, said he medicates his hives to prevent pests and disease. "I don't ever sell mine labeled organic because you could never win the fight. There is too much hassle," he said.
Reed points out that the medications he uses are not applied when there is honey flow. "As soon as I yank the honey off I'll put both the medications in and leave them in for only a certain amount of time," he said.
"I'd say that any bees raised with crops that have been heavily sprayed, like alfalfa, citrus, cranberries, is not organic. But I think if you get out in the wild locally and put bees in Willow Creek, up in Orleans and down in the Ferndale bottoms, it's pretty clean," he said.
Terry Kramer is a Bayside free-lance writer and owner of Jacoby Creek Nursery.