They can detect land mines, mate mid-air, swoop into milkweeds and pollinate peaches. They are honeybees and they are in danger of being gobbled up by Varroa mites and viruses.
Just ask Wally Brown, a Beloit beekeeper of 30 years. Brown lost more than half his hives in the fall of 2005 and has struggled to rebuild his buzzing empire after mites devoured it.
Ailments have killed off tens of thousands of honeybee colonies in at least 21 states, devastating the beekeepers and farmers relying on them to pollinate their crops.
“Bees have been plagued in recent years by an increasing number of diseases. Currently the Varroa is the biggest and most deadly plague on honeybees. It was discovered in 1989 for the first time,” Brown said. “A lot of people have been put out of business. There used to be a lot of wild swarms of honey bees in hollow trees, but those have been destroyed.”
Colony collapse disorder has devastated California, where the bees are needed to pollinate the state's almond crop. About half of the nation's available commercial bees are transported to California each February for the task.
According to Bee Alert Technology Inc., a Missoula, Mont.-based firm surveying beekeepers, the first signs of illness may have popped up in Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa.
Brown never forgets when his crop was ravaged in 2005. The retired science teacher from Orfordville's Parkview School District was tending to his five different hive clusters on farms in southwestern Rock County, when he noticed some of the hives had gone dry. The entire region was dealing with a devastating drought as the mites attacked.
“The mites themselves were deadly. The mites sucked the hemoglift, or the body fluids, out of the bees. On top of it, the mites might have carried viruses which also affected the bees,” Brown said.
About 60 percent of Brown's hives, worth about $150 to $200 apiece, died out in the fall of 2005. He spent most of the summer of 2006 trying to rebuild.
Starting new hives, however, wasn't easy.
Each hive is composed of a queen, which then reproduces hundreds of male and female bees. Those bees only live about eight weeks in the summer, with the queen having to constantly lay eggs and replenish. Although the majority of bees are female, most are infertile and cannot become queen.
When a hive senses a queen is dying, it will provide special food to another female bee so she can develop fully functional reproductive organs.
To get new queens, Brown had to purchase 50 of them from a special breeder in California. He also bought 44 packages of bees.
Brown went from 150 successful hives down to about 90 in 2005. He has now built back up to the 115 hives. It's going to take him this summer and probably another summer to get the number of hives back up 150.
“If I get wiped out again, I just might hang it up and quit, I don't know,” Brown said. “It will take me two or three years to build back up and it's a lot of expense and an enormous amount of work.”
For now Brown will just try to apply treatments in the fall to prevent mite infestations. The only problem, however is that treatment can't be applied when the bees are gathering honey. That leaves only a window of six to eight weeks in the fall when the hives can be treated.
Because the damage is usually done in August or July, the hives are usually almost destroyed by the time the treatment is applied to them.
Despite the difficulties, Brown has accepted the mites are here to stay. The insects and viruses were probably carried over from other places due to a global economy. Researchers will now have to work on breeding strains of bees resistant to mites.
“The mites are never going to be eradicated. We just have to find a way that the bees can live with the mites; they can co-exist,” Brown said.
Fortunately for Brown, his hives seemed in good condition the last time he peeked inside.
“I think my bees last fall went into winter in very good shape. I'll know basically by the middle of March how they came through. The last time I looked at my bees was mid-November and won't look at them again until March. For four or five months they will be on their own,” Brown said.