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Buzz Kill: Bees Are Dying. What You Can Do To Help Slow The Trend

John Lee
Beekeeper Luke Goembel
Credit John Lee
Bees from one of Luke Goembel's hives in Baltimore County

Bees are being wiped out. And area beekeepers are pointing the finger at pesticides as a major reason why.

The beekeepers are looking for help from the Maryland legislature, and from you, as you begin plotting your plans for your lawn and garden this spring.

Luke Goembel’s bees are already out and about on a warm, sunny day. He has two hives in his backyard in the Idlewylde neighborhood of Baltimore County near the city line. He estimates that comes to around 100,000 bees.

“That’s a lot of bees,” said Goembel, a bee keeper for 10 years. “And what happens is they need that number for a single hive to survive.”

But the bees he had in four other hives have died since last spring. His girlfriend, who lives in Sparks, is a beekeeper, too, and she has lost all four of her hives.

Goembel said the bees are being poisoned by chemicals used by farmers and by people who put them on their lawns and flowers.

“I can’t control where my bees go,” Goembel said. “They may go to those flowers and collect nectar and pollen and bring it back to the hive and then it gets fed to larvae and the larvae die. And we start to see the hive diminish in size and slowly dwindle away.”

One third of the food we eat comes courtesy of pollinators. They move pollen from the male to female parts of plants, which help to fertilize them.

A national survey of beekeepers by the nonprofit beeinformed.org  found they lost about 40 percent of their honey bee colonies in a year, between April of 2018 and April 2019.

The Maryland General Assembly is considering banning one pesticide that harms bees. The State Senate this week voted to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos for four years and sent the bill to the House of Delegates, where a similar bill remains in committee.

Chlorpyrifos damages children’s developing brains. Beekeepers say it does a number on bees as well.

Baltimore County Natural Resource Specialist Carrie Oberholtzer said pollinators are in decline worldwide, and we’re not just talking bees.

“It’s also wasps, butterflies, beetles, bats, hummingbirds,” Oberholtzer said.

Flies are pollinators too.

The county has published a booklet, How to Attract Pollinators. It lays out how to create a pollinator-friendly garden or meadow.

And if you don’t want to be bothered with any of that, natural resource specialist Sarah Witcher said you can help the bees by doing nothing. Don’t weed. Don’t use pesticides. Don’t cut the grass as much.

“You can intentionally plant things but also letting it go and being a lazy homeowner is better for pollinators than the alternative,” Witcher said.

Beekeeping is like any kind of farming. All kinds of things can affect the crop. Especially feared is the varroa mite.

“The species name is destructor, Varroa destructor,” said beekeeper Steve McDaniel.

McDaniel, who lives in Manchester in Carroll County, has been a beekeeper for 40 years.

The varroa mite is bad news for bees. It’s a parasite that attaches and feeds on the bees and spreads viruses. An infestation can cause a colony to collapse.

Agriculture officials say it is the varroa mite that is the bees’ worst enemy.

But McDaniel said as long as bees are healthy, they can police the varroa mites themselves. McDaniel said exposure to chemicals is causing the bees to forget how to survive, how to be bees.

McDaniel said, “When the varroa mites start to increase in numbers spectacularly, that usually is an indication that the bees are sick, that they’ve been gradually poisoned.”

McDaniel said he had 14 colonies in his front yard. Now they are empty boxes.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2