Bee Rental Common as Population Declines

If you’ve noticed fewer honeybees around in the last few years, it’s not your imagination.

Virginia, like the rest of the nation, has seen its wild honeybee population drop 90 percent in the last five to 10 years. Two varieties of Asian mites that immigrated to America have decimated the population.

While that’s good news for those allergic to bee stings, it’s bad for farmers and gardeners who depend on honeybees to pollinate crops.

Most of the bees that remain are kept by beekeepers. But even the kept population has dropped by 60 to 70 percent, said Paul Davis, past president of the Richmond Beekeepers Association and owner of Bat Bee and Hornet Removal.

Not Attracting New Blood

In 1990, Virginia was home to about 78,000 managed honeybee colonies.

“If you treat it twice a year, you can control it,” Davis said. “If you don’t, it’s disastrous … And you have some beekeepers who are too chintzy to spend the money for a second treatment.”

Frank Fulgham, project manager for the Office of Plant and Pest Control in the Virginia Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services, said there’s little the state can do to rebuild the honeybee population except hope that feral bees that escape from beekeepers will develop a tolerance to the mite.

Al Hollins, a beekeeper in Mechanicsville, said he regularly receives calls from farmers and orchard growers who want to rent his bees to help pollinate a crop, but he rarely rents his bees out these days. Cucumber and squash growers especially rely on honeybees, he said.

Herman Hohlt, a horticulture professor with Virginia Tech’s Eastern Shore Agricultural Research & Extension Center, said cucumber growers have long relied for years on rented hives.

“Anybody who’s been growing a significant acreage has had the need for rented hives for years,” Hohlt said. “For small growers in and around urban areas, the lack of bees can be a problem.”

Although there’s heavy demand for beekeepers who will rent out their colonies, many beekeepers no longer do so for a variety of reasons. In some cases, people with only a few colonies got out of the business because of the mites and never resumed even after options arose for treatment.

“Beekeeping has not historically attracted a lot of new blood,” Fulgham said.