ARTICLES Parasites Attacking Oregon Bee Hives
Parasites Attacking Oregon Bee Hives

EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - A rice-sized mite that sucks blood from honey bees is wiping out thousands of hives in Oregon and across the nation, making life difficult for beekeepers and for farmers who depend on bees to pollinate their crops.

The parasites can destroy an entire colony in a few months and have grown resistant to approved miticides.

So farmers, notably California almond growers, are paying top dollar for healthy hives to pollinate their crops.

"The mites are going to wipe us out unless we get someone to figure out what to do to kill the mites," said Laura Ames, whose family raises bees in Elmira near Eugene.

They lost at least one-third of their hives this year, leaving them with about 400 colonies, which are now parked in California almond groves, she said.

Kenny Williams, president of the Oregon State Beekeepers Association, estimates between a quarter and two-thirds of the hives in the West and upper Midwest have been affected.

California has more than 500,000 acres of almonds, requiring about 1.1 million hives to pollinate the trees. About half come from out of state, and this year there are not enough bees to go around, Williams said.

"That has created intense demand for beehives on the part of almond growers," he said.

Last year, almond growers paid about $54 per hive for a pollination fee. This year, they're paying $80 to $100, Williams said.

Oregon is home to about 20 commercial beekeepers, who generate about $4.5 million a year in honey production and hive rentals, Williams said.

But the crops they pollinate are valued at $280 million, he said.

In addition to the commercial beekeepers, hundreds raise bees as a sideline.

The mites infest the breathing tubes of bees, and causes hives to become smaller, said Susan Hansen, a beekeeper in rural Clackamas County.

Beekeepers once used a plastic strip coated with one of two miticides placed in the hives when the bees are dormant. But the mites became resistant to both.

Scientists are working on several possible solutions, Williams said. One is formic acid, a hazardous material that has proved difficult to apply safely. They are also looking at oxalic acid, which is found in lettuce and is more benign, he said.

Federal researchers are looking at a potent fungus that kills mites but doesn't harm bees or their queen, according to the U.S. Agriculture Research Services.

Researchers also are trying to breed mite-resistant bees, using those that lived in hives that have survived the mites, Williams said.

Williams, who raises bees in Blodgett west of Corvallis, said the mites didn't hit his hives too hard this winter, though he's not sure why.

But the bees that survived don't look as strong as they could, he said. "You could say we dodged a bullet," he said, "but I wish I knew what I did right."