By MATTHEW WEAVER
MILTON-FREEWATER, Ore. -- An Oregon beekeeper says he has found success using a combination of natural ingredients to maintain his bees' health.
Jeff LeFore, 44, is part of LeFore's Farm-Fresh Honey, with locations in Milton-Freewater, Ore., Big Timber, Mont., Rappelje, Mont., and Lodgegrass, Mont.
LeFore developed a combination of 14 all-natural ingredients that he uses to keep his hives going.
"It's not extremely scientific, but all I know is what we developed works," he said.
David Wick runs BVS, Inc., a virus detection laboratory in Florence, Mont., using rapid-detection technology. He screens bees for naturally occurring viruses.
Over time, when people apply essential oil products, it seems to affect bees' immune system, improving bee health and productivity, Wick said. That could translate to improved economics for commercial beekeepers.
"In my opinion, it appears to be a cost-effective method of maintaining bee health," he said.
Wick is analyzing the impacts of LeFore's product on bee health. He credits LeFore with having a well-refined formula.
"The school of hard knocks has probably applied very well with what Jeff has done," he said. "The people that use it have great results."
About 14 years ago, LeFore's family operation had trouble with the fungal disease chalkbrood.
Fungicides didn't work, so LeFore started experimenting with different combinations of natural compounds with antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial properties.
"Everybody was losing 20 to 75 or 80 percent of their bees in the winter time," LeFore said. "Our losses have always stayed in the 7 to 8 percent range. This year it was less than 3 percent as a death rate through the winter."
LeFore believes the medication reduces nosema, virus and bacteria levels in the hive and slows down Varroa mite reproduction. The mites transfer viruses and bacteria from one bee to another.
"I don't make any claims -- this is what works for us, and there's 26,000 hives of bees that have been running five generations now," he said.
Wick agrees essential oils are not a cure for any diseases the bees may be carrying, but work as a proactive, preventative measure.
LeFore doesn't advertise or sell in stores, preferring to let beekeepers spread the word about their experiences with the product. He sells about 500,000 packets each year, mostly to repeat customers. Packets are applied three times a year, twice in the spring and once in the fall.
LeFore said he doesn't have licensing plans for the medication. Nor does he particularly want to see the industry overcome all of its adversity, which he admits is a controversial opinion.
For years, the beekeeping industry struggled to make a living when keeping the bees alive was easy, LeFore said. Today, prices are higher because keeping them healthy is difficult.
"You don't have to be perfect in this business to make money, you just have to be better than average," he said. "If you can keep more than half of your bees alive, you will still make more money in today's marketplace than you did with all your bees eight years ago."
Contact Jeff LeFore via email at email@example.com