AUSTIN — Honeybees usually take winters off. But when it’s 50 degrees and sunny, the bees are flying — and dying faster.
Beekeeper Blake Shook raises bees commercially in the Collin County town of Blue Ridge. The 27-year-old has been beekeeping since he was 13. He’s seen firsthand the decline in the insects’ health since 2006, when the great bee die-off from Colony Collapse Disorder was first reported.
“It’s hard to get the crops pollinated in the United States, and that’s getting worse and worse,” Shook said. “Unfortunately, I don’t think most folks will pay attention until we start running out of food. As soon as we can’t get almonds anymore, that’s when they’ll start noticing.”
Every year, billions of bees are sent to almond farms in California to pollinate the trees. Without them, almond production would take a nosedive.
The U.S. bee industry lost 44 percent of its bees from 2015 to 2016 and 40 percent the year before that. This year, there were reports from south-central Texas of honeybees waking up early in January, when temperatures rose higher than usual, according to Agrilife Today, a Texas A&M agriculture publication. Whenever bees look for food and can’t find any, they end up eating stored honey and wear their bodies out faster.
“We certainly are not having any cold weather to speak of,” Shook said. “In the D-FW area, it’s shaping up to be a warm winter that isn’t good for the bees.”
While beekeepers have developed methods to restore the numbers lost during the winter, it’s not a perfect system. At the current industry rate, bees will not reproduce at a fast enough rate to keep up with demand, Shook said.
So the Texas Beekeepers Association plans to urge lawmakers to protect major nectar sources for bees so the bees can thrive. Shook, a board member, said the group has other ideas in the works, such as trying to get a honeybee license plate to fund research and lobbying during the 2019 legislative session to update the bees and honey chapter of the Agricultural Code.
Texas takes a relatively hands-off approach with the beekeeping industry. The bees and honey chapter in the Agricultural Code hasn’t been updated since the 1990s. The most recent legislative action regarding honeybees came in 2015, when the Texas Legislature exempted small honey producers from needing a “honey house” for inspection and a state license to operate. The Legislature also officially designated the western honeybee as its official state pollinator that year.
Texas beekeepers did try to pass a bill during this year’s legislative session. House Bill 1293 made several changes to the Agriculture Code, including giving beehive inspectors the ability to control “unwanted species or pests,” and requiring beekeepers selling bees or hives to have a certificate stating the product is pest-free, unless they sell fewer than 25 hives a year. Shook said the association pulled the plug because of objections from some members — mostly small-scale beekeepers who did not want their operations regulated.
Although he keeps an eye on weather reports and the almanac, they’re not the most reliable, Shook said. Beekeepers can adjust their management techniques as necessary, but with small-scale beekeepers, it’s often unrealistic to add on the extra expense of buying supplemental protein or keeping bees in a refrigerated climate.
“I can’t tell you how many beekeepers have told me this isn’t a viable business anymore and got out,” Shook said.
Chris Moore, president of the Texas Beekeepers Association, has 2,500 hives as part of his commercial operation in Kountze. Like most beekeepers, Moore feeds his bees supplemental sugar syrup or honey to keep them alive through the winter. But sugar isn’t enough to sustain the whole hive, so Moore also gives them a protein supplement, which he estimates costs an additional $20,000 a year.
“We always had to go back and feed them sugar syrup but we never gave the protein supplements we are now,” Moore said. “We give them a protein patty, a pollen patty to help get them through the winter.”
It’s not only weather that throws bee reproduction rates off, he said, but also insecticide use, pests and dwindling natural nectar sources.
“It’s a complex issue, with these bees,” Moore said. “Property is sold and developed every day. All your habitats for birds, deer, for bees — everything’s diminishing, dwindling every day.”