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America's Threatened Honeybees Get a Boost

Agricultural circles in the United States are buzzing with bad news about honeybees. As much as 1/3 of the American diet comes from fruits and vegetables that are pollinated by these insects. But this past winter proved to be devastating to the North American honeybee population, and state and local authorities are now scrambling to generate interest in this vital-but often misunderstood-link in the agricultural chain.

The first lesson any beginning beekeeper learns is that you do not visit the hive without first generating a bit of smoke.

Experienced beekeeper Michaeleen Pacholski stuffs paper and pine straw into a wide, plastic cylinder that has a metal, cone-shaped cap. There is a bellows at the base of the container, and Ms. Pacholski shows a group of potential beekeepers how to pump the bellows, so that smoke comes out of the cap. "Give it a bunch of puffs," she tells them.

Smoke pacifies bees, by dulling their ability to smell a special pheromone that is released by the hive's guards whenever they feel threatened. After this hive of about 60,000 bees has been doused in smoke, the evening's lesson begins.

The Pennsylvania State Beekeeper's Association has been working hard to get people interested in the art of beekeeping, and tonight, President Jim Bobb explains why. "These are some Varroa mites," he tells the group after opening up a drone pupa and finding two tiny intruders in there. "It looks like a very small tick."

This past winter, Pennsylvania lost 70%of its honeybee population, thanks to the Varroa mite. It arrived in North America from Asia about 20 years ago, and it kills the bees by puncturing their exo-skeleton and leaving them vulnerable to viral and bacterial infections. Jim Bobb says this past winter's losses could have a devastating effect on Pennsylvania's agricultural industry. "Our apple industry wouldn't survive at all without the bees," he notes. "They're also very helpful in strawberries, blueberries, pumpkin pollination, cucumbers, a lot of the summer crops. Almost anything but grasses rely on the bees to pollinate them."

Nearly every state and province in the United States and Canada has been hit by the Varroa mite. In California, farmers are paying top dollar to rent hives from as far away as Minnesota and Georgia. The state produces 80% of the world's almonds, and without the bees, California's $1 billion-a-year almond industry will die.

In North Carolina, nearly all of the wild honeybees are gone. That is why state authorities there have launched an ambitious effort to encourage people to become amateur apiarists. "It's been fantastic," says Walter Hensey, a grant administrator with North Carolina State University's apiculture program. "We gave away 500 bee hives to 250 people, but we had over 2,700 applicants."

The apiculture program recently got a grant to provide new beekeepers with 2 different hives - one with insects from Italy, and the other with insects from Russia. The university wants to study which variety does better against the mites, but it also wants to increase the number of bees in North Carolina.

Walter Hensey says the devastation wreaked by the Varroa mite has come at an especially bad time, since the state's agricultural industry has been undergoing some changes. "North Carolina is starting to move away from tobacco, and they're trying to get more into ornamental cut flowers, cucumbers, cotton, soybean," he says. "All those crops are pollinated by honeybees."

It is perhaps fitting, then, that the new amateur apiarist program is being funded by the Golden LEAF Foundation. That organization distributes the money North Carolina has received as part of a nation-wide settlement between the tobacco industry and taxpayers who have had to shoulder the medical costs of sick smokers.

So far, North Carolina is the only state to use its tobacco settlement money in this way. But officials everywhere are doing what they can to fight the Varroa mite.

In Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, potential beekeepers are learning how to do what is known as a "sugar roll." Half a cup of bees are placed in a jar of powdered sugar and rolled around. The sugar knocks the mites off of the bees, and the parasites are then shaken out of the jar and counted.

"There's one," an observer notes. "There's two of them there," says another, and so the counting begins.

In the end, there are just 6 mites in this ½ cup of bees -- not enough yet to justify a hive treatment. That is a good thing, since treating mites destroys the nectar that becomes honey, and honey is a big draw for these potential beekeepers.