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News / Northwest

Troubled honeybees find friends in beekeepers

Published: January 25, 2016, 5:00am
3 Photos
Doug Penning gently picks up a very cold bee he found outside its hive Jan. 7 in Longview. He cupped his hands and blew warm air on it to revive it. After a night in his warm lab, he released it to fly back to its hive.
Doug Penning gently picks up a very cold bee he found outside its hive Jan. 7 in Longview. He cupped his hands and blew warm air on it to revive it. After a night in his warm lab, he released it to fly back to its hive. (Photos by Bill Wagner/The Daily News) Photo Gallery

LONGVIEW — On a snowy weekday, several bees lay still beneath a small strainer. Doug Penning, who tends to 20 bee colonies at his Coal Creek-area home, earlier had scooped up the bees, which were paralyzed by the cold. One by one, they slowly regained life.

Penning said he does this often. He warms the bees in his hands before taking them indoors. Inside Penning’s bee lab are the spoils of caring for the insects — large jugs brimming with amber-colored honey. But Doug emphasized he doesn’t keep colonies for the sweet stuff — he does it for the bees.

“I love bees. If they didn’t make any honey one year — fine. Maybe next year, girls,” he said, referring to the worker bees, which are all female.

Penning, now retired, has maintained hives for years and is president of the Cowlitz Beekeepers Association. In the late spring, he’s the familiar face many people call to collect buzzing swarms from their property. Unfortunately for Penning, though, there are a number of threats to the honeybee population to which he’s devoted himself. Among them is colony collapse disorder — a phenomenon that occurs when a colony of worker bees disappears. The exact cause is a mystery, making finding a solution complicated.

But despite the devastating impact the disorder has had on the honeybee population, Penning is optimistic that bees will survive.

“They’re going through a bit of a change, but I think that they’re going to overcome it,” he said.

Aside from producing sweet honey, honeybees are major agricultural pollinators. They are responsible for pollinating about $15 billion worth of crops in the U.S. each year, according to the Great Pollinator Project. However, 42 percent of U.S. bee colonies collapsed in 2015, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council — an increase from the average 31 percent of the past several years.

Penning suggested several contributing factors to colony collapse disorder, namely pesticides, urbanization, climate change and disease.

A colony of bees needs about an acre of flowers to get enough nectar and pollen, Penning said. Bees are losing much of that habitat to urbanization.

But pesticides are a bigger concern, particularly neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides chemically similar to nicotine. Penning said colony collapse started at about the time these chemicals came into use in the late 1970s. When bees make honey from nectar collected from pesticide-laden plants, that honey later interferes with their brains when they ingest it. As a result, when bees leave the hive, they become disoriented and can’t find their way back, Penning explained.

Ridding the world of neonicotinoids — which are present in many common garden pesticides — is controversial. These pesticides are applied to an estimated 150 million acres of crops each year, according to the Great Pollinator Project. And debate about their impact rages.

In early January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released the first part of a four-part study to assess insecticides. It found that the impact of neonicotinoids on honey bees depends on the crop. For instance, the amount of the chemical found in the nectar of cotton and citrus fruits were harmful, but those in corn or leafy vegetables were not, according to the study. It was the first scientific risk assessment of neonicotinoids, and neither bee supporters nor the makers and users of the chemicals were pleased with the results.

Penning said that from his perspective, pesticides pose a bigger problem than other threats, such as disease and climate change.

“Bees have been around for over 50 million years, and they’ve made quite a few adjustments considering there’s been ice ages and things like that,” he said. “I believe that bees will make an adjustment for climate change. They can’t make an adjustment for things that we do, like pesticides.”

To combat colony collapse disorder, Penning said, he doesn’t use pesticides in his own yard. In fact, he said the bees actually prefer feeding off his dandelion-dotted yard in the warmer months.

“The one thing that in this country we do is we kill the dandelions,” he said. “(A yard without dandelions) looks like a desert to a bee.”

Gary Clueit, president of the Washington State Beekeeper’s Association and Mount Baker Beekeepers, said weeds provide some of the best food for bees. That’s because, like many noxious weeds, honey bees are not native to North America, Clueit said. They traveled from Europe with the first settlers, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

“Some of the best forage for them are non-native plants, and some of those non-native plants are highly invasive noxious weeds,” he said.

Years ago, Clueit said farmers often let weeds grow between their rows of crops.

“When those things bloomed, the bees would be on them,” he said.

Penning said he also refrains from using a miticide, which many honey beekeepers use to rid their bees of Varroa mites. Penning said the mites are especially destructive to bee colonies because they carry 20 different viruses. And because they are relatively new to the scene — they first became a problem in 1986 — honey bees are not as accustomed to fighting them off, Penning said. To combat mites, Penning uses natural remedies such as thymol and formic acid.

Even with the many threats against honey bees, though, Penning said he believes they’ll adapt. During the millions of years honey bees have been in existence, Penning said they’ve already adjusted to changes in climate and become better at fighting off disease. It’s the human impact that Penning said he worries about most.

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And perhaps the soundest advice he has is to act as responsible as the bees themselves.

“Bees leave the environment in better shape than they found it,” he said.