In Virginia, beekeepers and officials with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) are fighting back against an unknown enemy that is causing the disappearance of colonies of the state’s honey bees.

The phenomenon is called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and it is characterized by a bee colony in which the honey is still intact but the bees are no longer present.

“We are encouraging beekeepers to become more active in caring for their hives to combat the possibility of CCD. Long-term, we suggest that beekeepers incorporate an integrated pest management approach into their plans. They should supplement the honey supply and replace the queen more often to be sure the hive is vigorous and productive. A number of resistant lines of bees is available to help prevent problems from diseases and pests. Overall, they need to use multiple strategies to overcome the current challenges,” said State Apiarist Keith Tignor.

“At VDACS, we are working with several groups to identify the causes of CCD and determine the most effective ways to fight its effects.”

Tignor continued, “We have been losing significant numbers of honey bees since the introduction of the Varroa mite into Virginia in 1990.” Varroa mites are parasites that attack both adult and immature honey bees. Left untreated, these mites will destroy honey bee colonies. “The difference is that with Varroa mites dead bees are found in the hive.

“With CCD, no bees remain. The disorder is occurring in hives that are stressed from changes in temperatures, movement for pollination, or limited sources of nectar. We are trying to determine if the current situation is the result of a more substantial infestation of mites or other factors, such as climate conditions or bacteria that could play a significant role as well.”

Why all the anxiety and effort about honey bees? Experts estimate that across the U. S., honey bees help pollinate more than 80 crops with an economic value of approximately $20 billion. The list includes Virginia favorites such as apples, peaches, blueberries, strawberries, melons, squash and cucumbers. Honey bees are an excellent choice as pollinators because they are manageable, moveable, and won’t harm the plants.

On average a single hive containing 40,000 to 60,000 bees is able to pollinate two acres of a crop. Without a sufficient numbers of bees, farmers may face crops that are inadequately pollinated, resulting in decreased production and reduced quality. Honey bees are also beneficial as stewards of the environment. A honey bee may fly up to 2 miles from its hive collecting nectar and pollen. They are general pollinators visiting wild flowers, trees, and other plants in bloom in farmlands, pastures, forests, and wetlands. Pollination by honey bees helps to ensure healthy and diverse plant life throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia.

In 1985, Virginia counted 98,000 hives statewide. Today the number is down to approximately 25,000 hives. Recent losses have averaged about 30 percent per year. Because of drought conditions, hives went into winter 2006 with reduced honey supplies, very little brood, and high mite levels. The resulting losses of up to 40 percent have increased concerns about the serious effects of CCD.

In addition to the diminishing number of hives, the number of beekeepers in Virginia is also shrinking, now down by one-third. Currently Virginia beekeepers total approximately 2,000. Fewer than 50 of these beekeepers manage bees commercially for honey production and pollination.

VDACS’ Office of Plant and Pest Services has developed one way to assist Virginia fruit and vegetable growers who are having difficulty locating adequate sources of bee colonies. “Virginia Pollinator” is a Web-based resource designed to connect beekeepers who have honey bees available for pollination rental with growers who need honey bees to pollinate their crops.

For additional information, call Keith Tignor at the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, 804.786.3515, or send an e-mail to keith.tignor@vdacs.virginia.gov.