Published on 10/08/07

Georgia honeybees close rough production year

By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia

It's not the best year to be a Georgia beekeeper.

On top of worries about colony collapse disorder, a newly detected virus, varroa mites and hive beetles, Georgia honey producers have had to deal with south Georgia fires, drought and poor honey flows.

University of Georgia Cooperative Extension entomologist and honeybee researcher Keith Delaplane expects numbers to be down this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Statistics Service reported 2006 honey sales at $5.4 million. Delaplane doesn't expect 2007 to equal that.

"The mountains did well," he said. "I think we got a decent sourwood honey crop."

But smoke from the forest fires hurt south Georgia.

"Some growers say they didn't get good fruit-set because the smoke was happening right when they needed the bees to be pollinating," he said. Beekeepers use smoke to disorient bees and calm them. The forest fires acted as an unanticipated deterrent to bees' flight.

Despite the many problems, one bad thing is missing from the worry list for most Georgia beekeepers. The Israeli acute paralysis virus hasn't affected the state's bees the way it's hit U.S. states.

Scientists have pinpointed the virus, new to the United States via Australia, as one of the causes of colony collapse disorder, which was first found in fall 2004. CCD's symptoms were disappearing bees that fled normal-looking hives without leaving dead behind to autopsy.

The researchers who identified Israeli acute paralysis virus in the U.S. are "very careful to call it a marker" of colony collapse disorder, Delaplane said. "But the stats are very convincing, with literally every colony showing symptoms of CCD also harboring the virus. We don't find data that plain usually."

IAPV hasn't been much of a problem in Georgia, thanks to the state's status as a queen bee producer. "We don't have a lot of Australian queens coming into Georgia," he said.

But that doesn't mean the virus isn't going to spread.

When the embargo was lifted on bee imports in 2004, it was the first time Australian bees had entered the U.S. since the 1920s. With no signs of problems, Australian colonies were presumed safe. And they were, even with IAPV, because the varroa mite hasn't made it to Australia.

"There's evidence that the virus doesn't express symptoms until the varroa mites feed on the bees," Delaplane said. The varroa mite first showed up in the U.S. in 1987.

With no vaccines for IAPV and no cure for varroa mites, the next best thing might seem to be to keep sick bees separate. But for some beekeepers, that would spell economic death.

"The tail that wags the dog is the California almond industry," Delaplane said. "It's a huge mixing pot."

Tractor-trailers cart beehives to acres-wide parking lots, allowing billions of bees to mingle. Besides diseases and mites, the constant work that starts with the almond crop wears bees out.

And now that IAPV has been associated with CCD, "I think there will be some backlash from this," Delaplane said. "I think some beekeepers are going to say 'you can't keep sacrificing my bees at the altar of your almonds.'"

As beekeepers nationwide worry about what's next, the USDA is setting aside $4 million to study the problem. Delaplane is hoping it will allow entomologists to focus more attention on bee viruses and "bring us up to speed where we need to be with viruses," including other bee viruses.

"Old Israeli literature shows that some of their bees have a genetic resistance to IAPV," he said. "We always keep coming back to genetic resistance. It's a powerful tool the industry is slow to adopt because bee breeding is seen as neither profitable nor effective."

Delaplane and his U.S. colleagues are facing the 163-page USDA grant paperwork together. If awarded the grant, they'll divide their responsibilities according to expertise.

"Mine is treatment thresholds for damaging pests," such as varroa mites, he said, "and the impacts these parasites have on pollination."

Stephanie Schupska is the communications coordinator with the University of Georgia Honors College.