Montco beekeepers ponder possible colony collapses

Beekeeper Walter Fitzgerald points to a skepp, an old-fashioned straw beehive, during a presentation at Encore Experiences in Harleysville. (Reporter File Photo/ Geoff Patton)
Beekeeper Walter Fitzgerald points to a skepp, an old-fashioned straw beehive, during a presentation at Encore Experiences in Harleysville. (Reporter File Photo/ Geoff Patton)

The next time you notice a bee buzzing around, think twice before you swat or squash it.

That bee is an important part of the area’s ecosystem and is facing a mysterious threat, according to local beekeepers who say research on bees and their habitats is more important than ever.

“This year has brought a lot of mortality, especially for Montgomery County beekeepers. We’re not the large commercial beekeepers; we’re mostly small scale,” said Jim Bobb, chairman of the Eastern Apicultural Society of North America.

“The good news with bees is that they do tend to build up quickly if everything is right and they’re healthy, but this year has been a very cold, cruel spring with late cold spells,” he said.


Bees play a vital role in food production by pollinating various orchard crops in early spring ahead of the summer fruit season, but the cold spring has delayed pollination season — and a mysterious condition known as Colony Collapse Disorder has not helped matters.

“This is our food supply. If we don’t solve it, we’re going to be buying stuff from other countries, and who knows what’s in it,” said beekeeper Walt Fitzgerald.

“We have half of the hives we had in the United States 10 years ago, and the decay before that was even greater,” he said.

A licensed beekeeper who has taught beekeeping basics in the area, including at Encore Experiences of Harleysville, Fitzgerald said the term Colony Collapse Disorder “is a general one, but the bottom line, as I see it, from reading all of the scientific papers and whatnot, is that it’s probably caused by a combination of things.”

Unknown causes of CCD seem to have dropped off most recently, but high mortality rates are still visible, Fitzgerald said, and colleges including Penn State University are working with independent researchers, agricultural suppliers and federal agencies to find the causes.

According to the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the first cases were noted in fall 2006 of hives with few or no adult honeybees left, no dead honeybee bodies present, and honey still left in the hive; similar disappearances have been recorded as far back as the 1880s with other instances in 1905, the 1920s, and the 1960s.

“What might appear as a healthy hive bursting with bees and bringing in pollen and nectar today, might be slowly dying and completely die out over the next winter,” Fitzgerald said.

Beekeepers in Pennsylvania first noticed the disorder several years ago while storing their bees in Florida over the winter, according to Bobb, who is a Master Gardener with the Penn State Cooperative Extension, a past president of the state Beekeepers Association, and specializes in bees and pollination. He said the first known case of CCD was noted when a Pennsylvania beekeeper “had strong hives, came back two weeks later, and almost all of the adult bees had left. All that was left in the hives were the queens and a few of the newly emerged worker bees.”

Since queens are the only bees that can lay eggs and rely on having plenty of male workers for reproduction and maintenance of their hives, the sudden and as-yet-unexplained departure of the male worker bees can quickly lead to the collapse of the hive.

“If the bees leave en masse without the queen, they have no chance of surviving, so there have been a lot of questions as to what’s caused this phenomenon,” Bobb said.

Current research efforts have produced several theories regarding what causes colony collapse disorder: mites have been found that puncture bee exoskeletons and weaken their immunity to viruses and diseases, and a switch in recent years to pesticides based on nicotine seems to coincide with the first observed cases of CCD.

“That switch was made because (nicotine-based pesticides) are not harmful to animals or mammals, but are very deadly to insects and amphibians. That switch was made around the same time that CCD was first reported, so people are looking for a link,” Bobb said.

Fitzgerald thinks those pesticides may come from “the big box stores. They’re now selling some really potent stuff that, if misused, can cause a problem” for beehives.

“It used to be felt that in the farm areas, this is a big problem, but right here in Lansdale we’re losing some (hives), too,” he said.

If hives in this area collapse, food prices would increase if local orchards have to import bees from southern states, but it can be difficult for smaller keepers to notice a collapse.

“A lot of times, they’re relatively new beekeepers, so they might just blame it on themselves or on the weather,” said Bobb. “On the other hand, if you’re a third generation beekeeper and have 30,000 hives, and 25,000 of them die in two weeks, it’s a lot more noticeable.”

In 2007, ARS and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture developed a Colony Collapse Disorder Action Plan, spelling out where more information is needed and developing a research priority list; that plan and annual CCD progress reports can be viewed at

National policymakers have taken note of the impact that CCD could have on agriculture. Earlier this month, state Sen. Bob Casey contacted the heads of the federal U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Environmental Protection urging that the two departments update the CCD action plan and continue to support research into its causes.

“Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry is a major driver of economic growth and job creation across the Commonwealth,” said Casey.

“Helping our state’s farmers grapple with the declining honeybee population will aid our state’s economy and help our farmers continue to support economic growth,” he said.

What can you do locally to help support the region’s bee population? If you’re a beekeeper, state law requires that you register your hives for biannual inspection by the state Department of Agriculture; information on that process and on state laws can be found online at www.Agriculture.state.PA.US.

And if you don’t own bees yourself, you can still help those that fly by. USDA recommends the public avoid applying pesticides during mid-day hours, when honeybees are likely to be out and about.

Bobb suggests you “try to plant flowers and things that bloom, so that (bees) can spot pollinators, as opposed to just having a green lawn or asphalt.”

Where you can learn about beekeeping

Linking those individual colonies in our area to any regional or national trends are several beekeeping groups and organizations where information can be shared on how local hives are doing.

The Worcester Honey Farm, located on Shearer Road in Worcester, offers hands-on beekeeping classes that teach keepers how to open and work their hives, teach bees to move, inspect hives for any problems, and even extract honey. A class scheduled for July 14 is sold out, but information on future classes is available at or by emailing

If you’d like formal credits while learning about beekeeping, the county’s Penn State Cooperative Extension offers an online Beekeeping 101 course that was honored earlier this month with a Webby Award from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, the first such award for a Penn State class.

“Whether you’re in Pennsylvania or in another country, you can participate in a global learning community of beekeepers helping to strengthen the honeybee population,” said Dennis Calvin, Penn State Extension director and an associate dean in the school’s College of Agricultural Sciences. To learn more about the course, visit

The Montgomery County Beekeepers’ Association, which also serves Bucks County, will offer a beginner beekeeping course at the Montgomery County 4-H Center at 1015 Bridge Road in Skippack on June 12, with a general meeting featuring Dr. Vincent Aloyo’s talks on “Cooking with Honey” on June 19. Membership in the county organization helps support research on bee health and lets dealers swap information on bees and equipment for sale. For more information on the county organization visit

On the state and national level, the Eastern Apicultural Society of North America helps promote education and research for all beekeepers east of the Mississippi, and registration is now open for its annual conference of local and national beekeeping experts on Aug. 5-9 at West Chester University, hosted in conjunction with the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers’ Association. You can learn more about the national society by visiting and about the state association at

Follow Dan Sokil on Twitter @DanSokil.

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