Folklore is such that a beekeeper should tell her hives of deaths, weddings or other significant family events.
On the afternoon of Tuesday June 17, 2014, we had to make the decision to have our beloved little chihuahua Bear put to sleep. He’d been diagnosed with abdominal cancer two weeks earlier. Our family went to the vet together, and I stayed in the euthanasia room to hold Bear as he left us.
I placed him on his dog bed in a wooden box, put flowers and his favorite toy beside him, draped a brightly woven blanket over his body and tied the box up with a gauzy scarf. We drove home and buried him in the woods behind the remote sustainable Oregon family farm we call home. We marked his grave with sticks, fern fronds and wildflowers. We lit a candle and said poems and remembrances.
In the pouring rain, I took a detour to the eight beehives I care for. Two are the neighbor’s and six are mine. I stopped at each hive to tell it Bear was dead. When I got to the pink and brown Warre hive, our healthiest hive of all, I saw thousands of dead bees on the landing board and in the grass around it. Peering inside through the hive’s window, I saw thousands more piled up at the bottom. I thought to myself that they were just cold. It had been days without sun. Days of unseasonably cold weather. I closed the board covering the window and went to tell the next hive about Bear. At the next after that, I saw more dead bees piled up at the base in the rain.
I could not investigate further, for one shouldn’t open a hive in the rain. It rained the next day too, and so I slept and cared for my son, who was wracked with grief at the loss of his dog.
Today the sun came back, and the heat. I called Matt Reed, Portland, Oregon based beekeeper and the owner of Bee Thinking, a wonderful bee supply store. He came out and looked in all our hives, helping me set little things straight. You see, I only became a beekeeper this summer. I decided to do so in response to the Wilsonville, Oregon bumblebee die-off one year ago today: June 19, 2013. On that day, over 50,000 bumblebees rained on the parking lot outside a Target store. The culprit: neonicotinoids, a class of pesticide. I ruminated over this loss and others that summer, and combined with the rising death toll caused by other issues like colony collapse disorder, I made the decision to become a beekeeper and pollinator conservationist. Two of my greatest champions and inspirations were to be Matt and his wife Jill Reed.
Today, Matt looked inside the two hives I was most concerned with and stated his belief that the bees had come into contact with pesticide. When we took the Warre hive apart, there was a layer of tiny dead honeybees on the bottom board standing perhaps half a foot thick. Tens of thousands of them, all with their little tongues sticking out, a sure sign of pesticide poisoning.
It had been our healthiest hive.
Another hive, a traditional Langstroth hive, was stricken with a similar issue, though this one had fewer dead bees and more hive activity.
Many things can lead to bee loss, but experienced beekeepers know what signs to look for. In colony collapse disorder, for example, most of the hive’s bees have disappeared, leaving only brood, a queen and a few attendants. The hive dies. The bodies of the other bees are nowhere near the hive, but since a bee cannot live away from its queen and colony, death is inevitable.
Other causes can include mites and foul brood; in our hives, no signs of these were present.
Bees forage, and they fly far to do so. Although our farm and forest are unsprayed and use only untreated and organic seed, and despite their being full of flowers, forager bees from two of our hives found a rich nectar or other food source elsewhere, and it was likely recently sprayed with insecticide.
When bees bring nectar, pollen or other plant materials back to their hive, they set the other bees to work. Thousands of bees come into contact with the returning bee and with her pollen & nectar.
In this way, the poison is spread throughout a hive in a safe, clean location on a sustainable family farm, and in this way, all the bees become sick and usually, they die.
The piles of bees we dumped out of the hives onto the grass were a horrible sight. They were thriving just a few days before.
After Matt left, I jumped to action and started writing to different state offices, calling media and of course, posting on Facebook. There are many beekeeper forums there; I had to talk to them.
That’s when I found out several other beekeepers in my county, a county well-known for its nurseries, had suffered similar losses in recent days.
Sadly, I had company.
In Eugene today, an entire apartment complex was covered with dead bees after trees around it were sprayed. The state is investigating.
The state is always investigating. The bees are always dying.
I will know for certain what killed my bees in coming days; the state and media arrive here tomorrow. I wanted to leave any Oregonians who might need help should they find themselves in front of a pile of dead bees with a list of people to call. If you see dead bees or are a beekeeper facing hive loss, I suggest calling or emailing the following people immediately. Please note help will vary from state to state, and these numbers are for Oregon. Feel free to contact me at email@example.com with helpful numbers in other states, or leave comments with that information below. We must report these things to our states and demand action and attention. Our futures could depend on it.
(Note: the asterisks below denote immediate response times to me today. I am still waiting to hear back from others on the list.)
* Matt Reed and Jill Reed, Bee Thinking, Portland — (877) 325-2221*
* Isaak Stapleton, Oregon Dept. of Agriculture Pesticides Program– (503)986-4650*
*Tracy Loew, The Statesman Journal — firstname.lastname@example.org*
Oregon Dept. Agriculture Pest Analytical and Response — (503)986-6470
Oregon State University Bee Lab — (541)-737-5460
The Xerces Society –(855) 232-6639
Oregon State Beekeepers Association – contact list
The Oregonian – contact list