Honeybees are vital to pollination and Virginia beekeepers are doing their best to keep them safe.

Most of us think of insects as pests, but here in Virginia one species of insect is responsible for adding $1 million to the state’s gross domestic product (GDP).

According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS), Virginia beekeepers harvested an average of 35 pounds of honey from each hive in 2017 and the value of honey and other products was $1 million. In celebration of the contributions of both the honeybees and the beekeepers, Governor Ralph Northam declared September Honey Month.

VDACS touts honey as the ultimate local agricultural product. There are beekeepers in almost every county of the state and many urban areas even have beekeepers. The honeybee’s primary purpose is pollination, but honey production is an added benefit. Honey has been used for medicine and food since ancient times and is still considered to be a healthy alternative to refined sugar as it contains antioxidants and some nutrients.

Beyond the financial benefits of beekeeping, the local beekeepers reported other added benefits.

Holly Horan started keeping bees at her Greene County residence to help her gardens. An avid gardener, Horan was motivated to try beekeeping to help pollinate her fruit and vegetables.

“I got into this to help my garden,” said Horan. “I read The Secret Life of Bees and became fascinated. I really enjoy the bees and find it almost like meditation. They communicate so well. If you listen the sound of the hive and watch their action it tells you if they‘re peaceful or upset. Listening to the bees just puts me in a zen state.”

Rhonda Oliver, also of Greene County, said that she and her husband started beekeeping to produce their own honey.

“My husband loves honey,” said Oliver. “He puts honey on or in everything so the idea of having our own hives was very appealing. We also garden and realize the need for pollinators so beekeeping was a natural extension of this.”

For Rhodesville beekeeper Mark Poplawski, beekeeping is a family legacy. Poplawski’s father was a dedicated beekeeper and early on, Mark vowed to have nothing to do with the hobby.

“My dad did bees and I told him I didn’t want to deal with them,” said Poplawski. “He gave me one hive and then it just snowballed.”

Today, Poplawski has between eight and 12 hives at any time and does bee removal. Last year his hives produced eight five-gallon buckets of honey. He sells his honey from the farm and also at two retail businesses, Deep Roots Home and Garden Center in Rhodesville and The Galloping Grape in Warrenton. His bee removal service is also thriving and just last year he picked up a very productive hive from the Food Lion parking lot in Culpeper.

“Some people get really worried about seeing a swarm of bees,” said Poplawski. “Often they can’t differentiate between yellow jackets and honeybees. Honeybees aren’t aggressive. They will only sting to protect their hive and when they’re traveling there is no hive to protect. One of the worst things that happens is people spraying them with insecticide. Those sprays kill the entire hive.”

The populations of pollinators have been in decline in Virginia for the past decade. Beehives all over the country have been impacted by colony collapse disorder a syndrome where the majority of worker bees of a colony disappear leaving a queen and a few nurse bees to care for the immature offspring. While many causes for the syndrome have been suggested, including neoniconoid pesticides, varroa mites and loss of habitat none have been scientifically proven to bear responsibility.

Significant hive losses have an impact beyond the lack of honey or beeswax production. Many agricultural crops require pollination, so a shortage of bees can mean a shortage of fruit, plants or flowers. VDACS works with beekeepers to establish new hives because an increase in honeybee colonies means more bees to pollinate crops, meadows and forests as well as more honey for consumption.

“Honeybee pollination helps boost farm and garden yields,” said Tony Banks, a Virginia Farm Bureau Federation commodity marketing specialist. “Honeybee pollination is estimated to contribute over $16 billion in the value of U.S. crops each year. Virginia crops such as apples, pumpkins, cucumbers, squash and blueberries are dependent on pollinators to fully develop their fruits.”

Hives can be fragile, and beekeepers cited a variety of reasons for bee losses including mites, bad weather and in the case of one Madison County producer, bears.

Shirley Ammon, proprietor of Haywood Honey, reported that her 2016 and 2017 crops were impacted not by weather or mites, but by bear damage.

“Our apiary was destroyed by bears in May 2016,” said Ammon. The bears took out 21 hives in total and did enormous damage. When the bears first started coming in we put up barbed and electric wire. Up until last spring we hadn’t really had bear problems, but I have a theory that the fire in the park pushed the bears down here into the foothills to forage for food.”

Poplawski lost five hives over the 2017-2018 winter and attributes it to mite infestation. Oliver believes that the loss of her hives in 2016-2017 was due to unusually warm temperatures in February.

“I think the bees got tricked by our early spring that year,” said Oliver. “They started searching for nectar early and when the weather got cold again just didn’t go back to the food in their hive and starved.”

Increased awareness of the need for pollinators and the trend toward local foods have led to more people considering beekeeping.

The Greene County Library as part of its How-to-Tuesday series is offering a Beginning Beekeeping lecture on Sept. 25.

Heather Schoenborn, program chair of the Madison Garden Club, plans to address the increased interest in beekeeping with a special program on beekeeping and gardening in March 2019. Schoenborn said that the seminar will be open to the public as well as Madison Garden Club Members.

Even if you aren’t planning to don a suit and hood anytime soon, there are other ways to support Virginia’s pollinators.

“Every Virginian can help honey bee populations by providing flowering plants around their homes,” said Keith Tignor, State Apiarist at VDACS. “The best way to support local beekeepers is to buy their honey and other products such as beeswax candles or bee pollen.”

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