Eric Mortenson/Capital Press
Although a veteran commercial beekeeper said “classic starvation” induced by inexperienced hobbyists killed thousands of honey bees in Clackamas County this summer, a retired entomology professor who examined the hives said the case isn’t that simple.
Dewey Caron, who has 40 years experience working with honey bees, said there’s no evidence to blame beginning beekeepers for the deaths, which prompted an intensive investigation and laboratory analysis by the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
“We do not know what happened,” Caron said. “It doesn’t completely fit starvation and it doesn’t completely fit pesticides. We no more know that it was the beekeepers’ fault than it was an accident, happenstance or one of the things that happen to living animals.”
Caron’s remarks countered the view of Harry Vanderpool, a longtime commercial keeper in Salem who Caron consulted during the investigation. Vanderpool concluded the hobbyists didn’t know what they were doing and “raised the red flag of pesticides” when their bees died. Each newly established hive should have been fed a gallon per week of sugar-syrup mix for the first month, he said.
“Don’t go throw a (hive) box in the backyard and run to the Pesticide Division when they all die,” Vanderpool told the Capital Press earlier this week. “That is beekeeper error, that’s what it is, 100 percent.”
Caron disagreed, and said the hobbyists tried to give the bees more food when they discovered the deaths. That often helps hives recover, but some of them didn’t.
The ag department announced Aug. 11 that it found no sign of pesticides in samples taken in mid-June from five hives belonging to four hobbyist beekeepers. Caron said the department’s protocol was sound.
In addition, followup examination at Oregon State University found “average” levels of varroa mites and nosema disease in the dead bees. The findings did not provide any evidence to explain the deaths, according to an ag department news release.
Department spokesman Bruce Pokarney declined to speculate on what killed the bees.
One of the hobbyists, Dena Rash Guzman of Sandy, Ore., acknowledged that starvation could be the answer, but questioned why multiple hives died off in the same area at the same time.
She said fed her new hives a sugar mixture for three weeks until they began foraging.
“If we are responsible for the deaths of these bees, it is not, as Vanderpool states, because we are amateurs who didn’t feed the bees,” she said.
“I’ve been told I’m responsible for the death of my hives because I’m inexperienced,” Rash Guzman said. “If that’s what happened I will have learned a big lesson. But I fed those bees until they stopped taking food.”
Rash Guzman, who lives on a 60-acre organic farm, said the ag department investigators were responsive and helpful, and she doesn’t question their findings. But she wishes more information was available.
“I’m very disappointed the case is closed,” she said. “I’m left with so many questions.”
Vanderpool, the commercial keeper, said bees require work and attention, and aspiring hobbyists should consult with the Oregon State Beekeepers Association for guidance. Vanderpool is the organization’s North Willamette Valley representative. The association is proposing an agreement with the ag department to do a “triage” evaluation when beginning beekeepers report problems, rather than waste the department’s time, Vanderpool said.
He’s been a commercial beekeeper for 24 years and has 420 hives. Like many other commercial keepers in the Pacific Northwest, he takes them on the road to pollinate crops, beginning with almonds in California and working his way north through cherries, meadowfoam and other crops.
With colony collapse disorder and pesticide concerns fresh on people’s minds, the ag department made the investigation a high priority when the Clackamas County residents reported bee deaths, said Pokarney, the department spokesman.
As part of the investigation, the department developed a screening process for 39 pesticide active ingredients used in Oregon and known to be toxic to pollinators. Creating the customized list of pesticides reduced the testing time, Pokarney said.
“If an average citizen noticed 10 dead bees we might not dispatch an investigator, but this was serious,” Pokarney said. “The numbers were high enough and these were (reported by) beekeepers. And it is a priority for us.”
Oregon has had notable bee die-offs related to spraying incidents involving neonicotinoid pesticides. In late June, the department prohibited the use of pesticides containing dinotefuran and imidacloprid on linden trees and other Tilia tree species.