The number of bees in California and across the nation has been dwindling rapidly for several years, and no one is absolutely sure why.
Mites, viruses and insecticides pose threats, but researchers have not been able to nail down why bees' numbers are declining so rapidly. The phenomenon is called "Colony Collapse Disorder," but little is known about what causes the bees to disappear.
At Thursday's Lodi Rotary meeting, Ripon beekeeper Gale Langum told the audience about the dire situation beekeepers find themselves in, what they are doing to stay afloat and how it affects consumers.
"In 1995, there were five million hives in the nation," Langum said. "Now there are about 2.5 million."
Langum, who farmed almonds but made the transition to the beekeeping industry, said bees are vital to the production of California's fruits and vegetables. Langum has been beekeeping since 2000 and said it was a natural transition from almond growing.
"If we lose the bees, we lose one-third of the food we eat," he said. "We would have to depend on rice and grains."
Companies that rely on bees for honey and pollination purposes are catching on, Langum said, but more needs to be done. He said Ben & Jerry's Homemade Ice Cream has donated money to help conduct research into the crisis. The California Almond Board has also done its part to assist beekeepers, he said.
"They are trying to protect their business," he said.
The Varroa Mite has been giving beekeepers headaches with the way they attack hives and spread disease. While there are insecticides that can be used to ward off the mites, Langum said they must be used carefully because bees are insects, too.
One popular method for controlling the mites is through propane-powered foggers that mist the hives with mineral oil, thus suffocating the mites.
Viruses and fungi are pestering beekeepers as well, Langum said.
"It's straws that keep getting added to the camel's back," he said.
The hangover of Colony Collapse Disorder gets passed onto local farmers.
"Bees are extremely expensive," said Tom Gotelli, a local cherry grower.
He said the price of bees leveled off last year after seven consecutive years of increases, but they are still at an all-time high.
"It just adds more to the bottom line," he said.
Despite the shrinking population of bees, Gotelli said he hasn't had trouble getting his cherry blossoms pollinated and is expecting a healthy yield this year.
Bees at a glance— During the summer, bees live about 30 days.
— During the winter, bees live about 60 days, because they stay in the hive to keep the queen warm.
— It takes the life's work of 300 bees to produce a pound of honey.
— Each bee produces about a tablespoon of honey during its life.
— The queen bee is twice as long as a worker bee and the queen's wings are small for its body.
— If you get stung, do not use tweezers or your fingers to pull the stinger out. Instead, take the flat side of a knife or your fingernail to scrape it off. Applying a gentle heat to the area will also soothe the pain. Attempting to pull the stinger out can cause more venom to release and lead to a more severe reaction.
Source: Beekeeper Gale Langum
Although prices of bees are up due to a lower supply, Langum said the lack of profitability and high uncertainty is scaring people from entering the industry.
"We need more young entomologists and beekeepers," he said.
Besides the economic factors, Langum said the industry struggles to recruit new people because a lot of work needs to be done at night.
"Young people would rather be playing video games at night," he said.
Langum also addressed the issue of beehive theft. While it was a problem several years ago, he said beekeepers have protected themselves by installing small GPS locators in some of their hives.
"I'm concerned about the number of beehives in decline," said Jeff Thompson, a Lodi grape grower and Rotary member. "People don't know how important it is to food."
As a grape grower, Thompson said he's more insulated from the declining numbers, but still enjoys the fruits and vegetables that bees help pollinate.
"It troubles me," he said. "It could hurt our food source for those nutritious and delicious foods."