Published on 07/01/96

Mite News Not All Bad for Georgia Beekeepers

The news is abuzz with reports of "killer mites" wiping out the nation's honeybees. For Georgia beekeepers, though, the news isn't all bad.

"Most of the news is from crop and garden growers," said Keith Delaplane, an entomologist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"For beekeepers here, though, it's been a pretty good year," he said. "Honey prices are at a historic high, and the queen and packaged bee business is great. This is much more of a crop and grower crisis than a beekeeper crisis."

U.S. beekeepers have battled the microscopic tracheal mites, which feed on blood inside bees' breathing tubes, since 1984. The newer, more deadly killers are varroa mites.

"Varroa mites are external blood feeders and are much larger," said Delaplane, who specializes in bees. "You can see them with the naked eye. Colonies where you have varroa mites almost always die."

Beekeepers' losses this year have been high nationwide. The worst were reported in northern states, where the winter and mites both were brutal. Michigan, Wisconsin and New York each lost an estimated 60 percent of their bee colonies or more.

Delaplane figures Georgia losses at a more modest 15 percent. Other Southern states set losses from 20 percent to 50 percent. "I still think my figure is accurate for Georgia, though," he said.

Beekeepers' losses were partly offset by higher honey prices.

"A year ago they were lucky to get 50 cents a pound," Delaplane said. "Now the prices are 70 cents to 85 cents a pound. I've seen premium sourwood honey at well over a dollar. So prices have nearly doubled."

Honey prices are higher largely because varroa mites are a worldwide problem. For the first time in years, the global honey supply is low, and prices are likely to stay up in the near future.

Georgia's main bee product, though, isn't honey. It's bees.

"Georgia has mainly a queen and packaged-bee industry," Delaplane said. "And their business is booming."

As mites wipe out honeybees across the nation, the demand for Georgia queen and packaged bees grows stronger. U.S. beekeepers need replacements for their lost colonies.

And farmers -- mainly vegetable growers -- are having to look to beekeepers to replace the bees the mites are hitting hardest: the wild ones.

"There's no question we've had more honeybee losses in the wild," Delaplane said. Honeybees kept in hives can be treated for mites. Wild bees have no such protection. And their numbers have plummeted.

"Those were free pollinators," he said.

With honey prices high, beekeepers were reluctant to rent out their hives as pollinators, too. Most crop plants aren't good honey plants.

In Georgia, the crop hardest hit so far has been squash.

"I've probably had more calls from squash growers than I've ever had," Delaplane said. "They've had a hard time getting their crops pollinated."

The wild honeybees' decline will likely help beekeepers as the demand for pollinators grows in Georgia's $400 million vegetable industry.

"In California, almond growers have to have 100 percent pollination to make a good crop," Delaplane said. "Honeybee rent there is normally $40 to $50 per colony.

"In Georgia, though, growers have been very resistant to paying for pollinators," he said. "Now, though, they're starting to see that they might have to pay, and pay well. Honeybees as pollinators aren't free. In fact, they're very valuable."

The pinpoint-sized varroa mites attack honeybees. But they're causing the greatest concern among farmers whose crops need the bees. People who make their living from bees have had some losses, but they've had some good news, too.

"All in all, it's a good time to be a beekeeper," Delaplane said.

Dan Rahn is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.