PETERSBURG — At the Eisele Farm here, Bill Eisele has “bees and trees.” Eisele looks the part of Santa Clause and children often take delight in his shock of white hair, white beard and good nature, when families come to his farm in December to choose and cut their live tree. At the six-acre Eisele Tree Farm, the Christmas trees are thriving.
The honeybees, however, are another story.
Eisele has lost nine of his 12 honeybee hives this past year due to what experts call Colony Collapse Disorder.
Eisele has been keeping bees for over 20 years. He is the secretary for the Jersey Cape Beekeepers Association (JCB) and will be setting up a display on honeybees at this weekend’s Cape May County 4-H Fair and Chicken Barbeque, July 19-21, noon to 9 p.m. at the 4-H Fairgrounds, Court House.
The JCB has about a dozen members from Cape May County; most of these keep only a couple hives for honey production. Keeping honeybees is also a commercial enterprise, however, as they are crucial to the agricultural industry.
In New Jersey, for example, blueberries and squash are highly dependent upon the pollination bees provide. Large, commercial beekeepers lease out their hives to farmers for pollination.
“What is so strange about the whole process,” said Eisele, “is normally if a hive dies out, in a very short time bees that are close to it will clean the hive out of all the pollen, and wax moths will go in and eat all the wax, and that’s just not happening.”
It’s a bit of a mystery, and beekeepers have varying opinions on what is causing the hives to collapse.
“I think they have narrowed it down to a fungus,” Eisele said.
But he said that there are a variety of things that are contributing to the problem, including mites, and an especially cold winter.
Colony Collapse Disorder is not just a New Jersey problem. It’s happening nationwide.
“I was talking to our representative from the National Honey Board, who was talking to one of the big pollinators who migrate their bees from down south all the way up into Canada,” said Eisele. “He’s lost 10,000 hives.
“They’re fourth generation beekeepers, and he said they’ve had to lay off a lot of their workers and they’re close to bankruptcy.”
Experts are continuing to study the problem of Colony Collapse Disorder, in which honeybees simply die in the hive. Similar fungal and mite problems have come and gone and been treatable once identified, Eisele said.
The fungus has been brought in from Asia, he said, and Colony Collapse Disorder is perhaps also due to a mite that has been weakening bee colonies. Some also point to an exceptionally cold winter this year as cause for the loss of hives.
Beekeepers in Cape May County and the surrounding area have lost anywhere from 50-75 percent of their hives, Eisele said.
John Turner, of Ocean View, normally keeps two to three hives. He lost all his hives this year.
“I lost them due to I’m not certain what,” he said. “A cold spell, probably, the hive might have been weak – new parasites, the Verola mites, and other types of mites will weaken these colonies. You have to be careful. There are things a beekeeper can do to help cut down the number of mites.”
Turner started keeping bees at age 16 as a 4-H project.
“My grandfather had kept bees. That’s why I wasn’t afraid of them,” he said.
Some people are afraid of bees, and their sting. One tip Eisele gave was that if you’re stung by a bee, don’t rub or scratch the sting; that will likely release the venom into the bloodstream. Instead, try to keep the stinger intact and push or flick it out from the skin surrounding the sting.
“These are very social insects, and their whole hive works around the queen bee,” Eisele explained.
He buys bees by the pound, and they come in a box that has pollen for them to live on; when they’re brought to the house he puts them in the location where they will be for the rest of their life. Bees orient themselves to the hive by the sun.
The queen bee comes in a separate small box, and is gradually acclimated to the colony by release of her pheromones.
The worker bees, females, literally work themselves to death within the life of the colony and have a short lifespan of only four to six weeks, Eisele said.
They feed and care for the young, fan the hive to cool it, forage for nectar, pollen and water, and create the cells in the hive out of wax where the queen bee, who can live up to five years, lays her eggs. The drone bees are males and live less than a year. The workers feed the young drones for the first few days; after that they feed on stored food and on warm days fly in search of young queens. After mating, they die.
Queen bees can lay up to 2000 eggs a day during the spring and early summer. The worker bees create honey from pollen they go out to the fields every day to collect. Each octagonal cell gets capped off and in this way, honey is stored for the winter.
A few of the male bees fertilize the queen, and she lays eggs to create a new crop of workers. In the middle of the honey season, there will be one queen, approximately 60,000 workers and several drones. Another job of the worker bees is to guard the entrance to the hive to assure safety of the colony, which is why it’s not a good idea to approach the hive directly or to block the entrance of bees coming and going, or, to get too close, period.
According to literature from the local beekeepers, there are only two absolutes about honey bee keeping: “One absolute is you’re going to get stung, and the other absolute is there is no absolute.”
“If you ask a question of members at one of our meetings, you’ll often get six different answers,” said Eisele.
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