Beekeepers' worry over hives' health intensifies

SACRAMENTO -- When beekeeper Dave Ellingson shook his head in frustration over the mystifying disorder that's struck his hives, he got sympathetic nods from a tightly packed audience of fellow keepers concerned about the health of their working insects.

"Hive after hive after hive -- and what did I do wrong?" he said this week at the American Beekeeping Federation's National Beekeeping Conference. "It's springtime in Texas, the best time for gathering pollen, and those bees went right down the tube."

It's something all keepers dread, especially at this time of the year when beekeepers sign contracts with farmers: opening up a previously healthy hive and finding it empty, the brood and queen mysteriously abandoned by the worker bees.

The phenomenon, a condition called colony collapse disorder, is striking hives nationwide and still stumping scientists, researchers and farmers.

Beekeepers nationwide lost 30 percent of about 2.5 million managed colonies last year, and some beekeepers were hit harder, Jeff Pettis of the U.S Department of Agriculture's Bee Lab in Beltsville, Md., said Thursday at the conference.

The extent of losses this year won't be known until February, when bees begin pollinating California's almond groves. About 1.2 million colonies will be for almonds alone.

"There's nervousness among growers and beekeepers," Pettis said. "There's a lot of concern about the health of bees right now."

Growers will pay about $150 per hive, about double the price of three or four years ago, to ensure the insects are in their orchards when their crops bloom. But they require strong hives and bees that are up to the job.

So far, losses have been sustained by keepers, who are having to invest more money in their hives to keep bees alive and to replace lost colonies. But if the situation worsens, agriculture generally could be severely affected, Pettis said.