Honeybee Health In Illinois: A Tale Of Two Apiaries
The stakes are high for honeybees. A survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows apiaries continue to lose nearly one third of hives each year.
That has led some environmental activists to push for further restrictions on a pesticide used to treat seed corn. Two central Illinois beekeepers are seeing very different results as they work to keep bees healthy in the Midwest Corn Belt.
Arvin Pierce, 61, has been preventing calls to the exterminator for seven years. Each colony removal is a discovery.
“You’ll get these open and it’s kind of like a present,” Pierce said. “You know, ‘cause you open it up and it’s a little surprise.”
Pierce stands in a dark, cave-like basement of a cabin at a hunting club near Chandlerville. The owner of the hunting club, who is severely allergic to bees, called Pierce to remove the buzzing colony under his floor.
Work to remove the colony, Pierce does not wear any gloves. Instead, he has duct tape wrapped around the cuffs of his shirt. He climbs a metal scaffold and begins prying open the ceiling.
“I started doing these cutouts – and taking survivor bees out of trees and houses and barns – and my bees are doing really well,” he explained. “ It’s certainly not anything I’m doing. I don’t have any special secret or talent.”
Pierce calls these colonies especially valuable. He believes natural selection makes these bees - thriving in the wild - stronger than those treated with chemicals to ward off pests and infection.
“I don't like chemicals,” Pierce said. “I grew up on a little black dirt farm and it is just the principle I have that the less chemicals you use, the better off you are.”
Pierce lives in the rural community of Lowder, in south Sangamon County, but he has 58 hives scattered across central Illinois - in backyards, orchards - even the rooftop of a restaurant in downtown Springfield.
While beekeepers around the nation report losses of bees around 30 percent, Pierce's winter loss rate is closer to three percent.
Rick Nuss of Rantoul, who is another central Illinois beekeeper and also collects swarms of live bees, has not been that lucky.
"As a beekeeper, bees are like a member of your family. And when you go out there and you find them dead, it’s very disheartening," he said.
In May, Nuss filed a complaint with the EPA and the Illinois Dept. of Agriculture, claiming a farmer planting pesticide-treated seed corn triggered a massive die-off in his backyard.
“I went out after he got done planting and looked, and there were piles of dead bees out in front of my hives,” he added. “The next morning when I went out and looked it was like a carpet of bees.”
Nuss said he will be lucky if he can produced a tenth of the honey he did last year. His local beekeeping association alerted him of the suspected danger of pesticides used to treated corn known as neonicotinoids.
“It's one of the worst chemicals I've ever seen for killing things. I mean it's instant,” Nuss said.
So how dangerous are neonicotinoids?
If the following records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act are any indication, not enough to warrant much reporting to government regulators.
Ill. Dept. of Agriculture Pesticide Misuse Complaints:
Only Rick Nuss and one other Illinois beekeeper have filed incident reports in the past four years. That is two beekeepers in a state with 2,000 registered apiaries.
"Screaming about it to the media and reporting it to the EPA, who can actually do something about it are two very, very different things," said Randy Oliver, a veteran beekeeper, biologist and contributor to the American Bee Journal.
Oliver said petitions circulating on the internet and alarmist news reports linking neonicotinoids with dying bee colonies will not help his fellow environmentalists. he said instead of grabbing headlines, beekeepers concerned about chemicals should get in touch with regulators:
"If it's not reported onto paper somewhere, it does not exist, as far as the regulatory system is involved,” Oliver said. “So beekeepers have only themselves to blame about this."
Nuss defends Illinois beekeepers, saying they simply have not had enough information.
“They're not reporting because they don't know what's going on,” he said. “ Now that we're aware of it, in our Association, next year when it happens they're going to get all kinds of reports.”
While the debate over honeybee health continues, Pierce presses on with his colony removals. He started preventing calls to the exterminator for a very personal reason.
"I really like them and I really don't like the idea of them being killed,” Pierce said. “They are really beneficial, they're helpful to all of us and… I think I like the challenge of it too.”
Pierce said just because his bees are thriving while others are dying doesn’t mean he has any answers. If anything, he only has more questions.
But Pierce said the unknown - and the unexpected - are just part of the job.
“If you like flying by the seat of your pants, you will make a good beekeeper,” he said. “Because you never know what you gonna find when you open a hive.”