Diseases are ‘bee’wildering

It’s a common sight to see high school and college students bent over a microscope studying specimens in a biology class, but how about a group of “older” adults on a sunny Saturday in a class for no credit? This is exactly what occurred earlier this summer as members of the Chautauqua County Beekeepers Association met at the Agricultural Center in Jamestown. Unlike the typical plant cell slide assigned by the teacher or professor, these folks were examining bees and attempting to identify their diseases.

Even though beekeepers are the people interested in this very specific topic, others can gain a better understanding and appreciation for bees and the people who help to bring honey to your door. Beekeeping is much more than setting up a hive.

Nearly everyone knows how beneficial honey bees are to our environment and food supply and the miraculous benefits of honey itself. That is why it is so worrisome to hear that bees are experiencing a noticeable decline in population. No one can quite put his or her finger on the exact causes, but pesticides and loss of habitat from acres and acres of mono-crops are high on the list. Certainly, this past winter of sustained extreme cold temperatures was no help. Some Association members reported fifty percent or more loss of hives.

Beekeepers know that strong and healthy hives can better survive both man-made and natural challenges, and they do whatever they can to help. It helps to know what some of the common diseases are, how to identify the symptoms, and how to intervene through various treatments.

Dysentery, or diarrhea, is no laughing matter for humans. Believe it or not, there is also a form of it in the honey bee world. Called nosema, the disease can start when a fungal spore is ingested by the bee. The hive is weakened as the disease spreads and the bees get too weak to eat. The bees produce less honey and in the worst case the whole colony is wiped out. Some experts have linked this disease to Colony Collapse Disorder, where most of the adult worker bees mysteriously abandon the hive. Beekeepers recognize its symptom – excessive brown fecal spotting and streaking on or in the hive. Interestingly, bees won’t defecate in their hive. They need periods of thaws in the winter to take cleansing flights. When they can’t, their little bodies become an incubator for disease.

Mites are a huge problem to bees that no beekeeper can ignore. A varroa mite sometimes can be seen on the outside of the bee. It attaches itself and feeds on the “blood” of the bee, creating openings that make it more susceptible to infection. A trachea mite, as the name suggests, lives in the bee’s trachea and is much more difficult to diagnose. Dissecting a bee makes the diagnosis clear. Both types of mites must be treated for at certain times of the year using various methods or the hive will weaken and eventually die.

The small hive beetle and wax moth also threaten and weaken a colony, but the worst pest is “foulbrood,” bacterial and fungal diseases that are very contagious to bees. The way to detect this is by observing how the larvae and brood look. European, chalkbrood, sacbrood, and American foulbrood are four types; the latter is so bad that many beekeepers burn the whole hive or even all the hives in the bee yard to kill it.

So what’s a bee keeper to do? He or she has to diligently look for symptoms and know how to treat for the diseases. Some beekeepers use approved chemicals. Others, myself included, attempt to use more “natural” remedies such as essential oils.

The class where beekeepers learned more about diseases was called “Spring Assessment.” The County Association sponsored the class which featured guest lecturers from Cornell. Participants used microscopes to examine slides with bee diseases, as well as study frames from hives to identify both normal and abnormal patterns of comb and brood. Like veterinarians who take precautions by sterilizing equipment between examinations, beekeepers were reminded to take basic hygiene measures such as cleaning their hive tools after inspecting hives or transferring equipment.

They were also told to think of the hive as a “whole,” like a farm animal. Hives live and, as disappointing as it is, hives can die. A beekeeper can intervene to lessen the impact of some stressors. Other stressors, such as weather, are beyond a beekeeper’s control. It is important to be prepared and have a plan.

Make it a good week and enjoy observing the honey bee work its way around your flower and vegetable gardens.

Mary Burns Deas writes weekly for the OBSERVER. Send comments to lifestyles@observertoday.com