Ohio's Bee Colonies Suffer Tremendous Losses, Troubling Beekeepers And Scientists

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Outside the small northeastern Ohio city of Hiram, Joel Leachko – clad in a heavy protective suit and hood -- pries open one of his beehives….carefully.

“It looks like…quite a bit has hatched out," he says, lifting a frame out gingerly. "The dark spots in the center, here…is the brood. These little white spots, those are larvae…”

The bees teem all over a frame Leachko’s examining, many spilling onto his gloves and suit. He nods approvingly.

“This hive might have 30,000 or 40,000 at this point. This is a fairly strong hive.”

By August, Leachko hopes to have the hive up to at least 80,000 bees. The insects alone in Ohio pollinate more than 70 crops, including strawberries, pumpkins, and apples.

The buzzing bugs play an essential role in the grand scheme of things, says Cynthia Druckenbrod. She’s Vice President of Horticulture at Cleveland Botanical Garden.

“To eat is made possible, because these bees…honey bees of course in particular, are responsible for pollinating plants. We rely heavily on bees for our very survival.”

The USDA says nationally, bees pollinate more than 14 billion dollars in crops annually. It’s uncertain how big a whallop will come to those same crops if bee populations keep falling.

Scientists have a name, if not a specific cause, for the problem: Colony Collapse Disorder.

Back at the Leachko home in Hiram, Ohio, Sally Leachko, is hoping their bees manage okay this year.

“When we first started beekeeping, probably about 25 percent loss, which was average," she says. "Now we’re averaging 50 percent of our hives.”

Mrs. Leachko is founder of Meadowlake Farm Products. It’s stayed profitable by using bees’ honey and wax for skincare products. She says beekeepers everywhere are struggling to keep their apiaries stocked and healthy, and turn a profit.

“It’s worldwide and it’s certainly is nationwide. People take their bees to California, for pollination….particularly almonds. I want to say about 80 percent of those bees were lost.”

Sheila Dicken, President of the Stark County Beekeeper’s Association, is among those feeling the loss.

“We had about 125 hives going into the winter, and we come out with about 20.”

Dicken’s husband, Jeffrey, is an apiary inspector. He says it’s easy to blame the exceptionally brutal and long winter this past season, but he can’t help but wonder if there are other factors.

“We’re suspecting one or two pesticides, but you….I can’t be sure, y’know. Are they breeding a weaker bee?”

Dicken says many beekeepers stock their hives with bees bred in the South, so perhaps they’re not up for Ohio winters.

The couple wants a forum with beekeepers, farmers, and ag officials to find ways to save bee colonies. In the meantime, they’ll gather what honey they can, but with diminished supply comes higher prices.

As to what everyday people can do to help, some bug experts urge greater care in using pesticides, whether it’s farmers crops or home gardens.

“We’d rather that if you got plants that are in bloom or expect to bloom within the next weeks or so, to try to keep from applying pesticides to those so it doesn’t end up into the nectar and the pollen,” says David Shetlar, an entomologist at Ohio State University.

Many beekeepers -- including the Leachkos and the Dickens -- say a type of pesticide – known as neonicotinoids – are especially dangerous. An Italian study suggests they affect bees’ immune systems. The European Commission has enacted a two year ban, though the debate is far from over as to what’s behind the steady dying off of bees.

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