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Beekeepers band together
W Beekeeper takes look
Rhett Kelley finds the bees tightly packed and healthy on one of his frames.

    Colony collapse disorder. Neonicotinoid pesticides. A vampire-like mite named Varroa destructor. Foulbrood. The hive beetle.
    With the horror show of threats facing honeybees these days, it’s no wonder beekeepers want to band together for mutual support. Back in February, a group of beekeepers, mostly semipro and amateur, began organizing as the Ogeechee Area Beekeepers Association. After several months of informal gatherings and with an email list topping 50 interested persons, they elected officers and adopted bylaws in July.
    Rhett Kelley, the association’s vice president, took up beekeeping three years ago as a hobby, which he hoped to grow into a family business. He has done copious reading on the subject: books, articles, websites.
    “But as we often say, the bees don’t read the books,” Kelley said.
    He left a copy of the recent Time magazine whose cover warned of “A World Without Bees” on the kitchen table. Riding in a pickup, he and his eldest son, Cordell, 13, took a reporter to see the ground truth of their hives, among cow pastures and pine stands west of Metter.
    Smoke from smoldering pine straw puffing with bellows helped keep the bees calm as Kelley removed one frame after another for inspection. On this day, the comb was covered with bees and packed with their brood — honeycomb cells with growing larva. Kelley found one tiny hive beetle in a partial hive he recently split off in hopes of growing a new queen. Otherwise, no problems — but that hasn’t always been the case.
    Last season Kelley lost 25 percent of his bees, three of what were then his 12 total hives. One was a “deadout” with dead bees present, but two other hives presented a thumbnail view of colony collapse disorder, which has haunted the bee world since 2006.
    “I opened up hives that were really strong, producing, had honey on them, and the bees were just totally gone,” Kelley said. “They left behind the honey. They left behind their brood.”
    Not letting the heartbreak discourage him, Kelley has recently expanded to 20 hives. He split some large hives to produce smaller nucleus hives intended to produce queen bees to sell to other keepers. That’s a sideline Cordell hopes to take over soon. Rhett Kelley, who earns his living making nylon whips like those used by Florida ranchers and selling them online, still wants to develop beekeeping as a family business for himself, his wife, Diana, and their five children.
Colony collapse
    Back in October 2006, “some beekeepers began reporting losses of 30–90 percent of their hives,” states a U.S. Department of Agriculture report on colony collapse disorder, or CCD. Similar disappearances have since occurred around the world, including in Europe, where the honeybee species most commonly kept by beekeepers for honey production and pollination are native. They are an introduced species in the Americas.
    Colony collapse was worst in 2006–07. That was when Bobby Colson, who has been keeping bees in Bulloch County since 1989, lost about 350 of his previous 450 hives. The losses were, he said, a combination of CCD-type disappearances and bee deaths to Varroa mites.
    “That was a pretty big blow,” Colson recalled, noting that he sees hives advertised for $200 each. “Well, 350 hives at $200 is a pretty good bit of change.”
    The obvious math suggests a $70,000 loss.
    In the peak years before the collapse, Colson’s hives were in demand for pollinating watermelons and cantaloupes far from Statesboro. He would load the 30–35 hives each on specially adapted trailers, and he and his daughter and son would sometimes drive them before sunup to farmers’ fields at Hawkinsville and Unadilla.
    Meanwhile, Colson had a career as Statesboro’s public works director. Retiring in January 2010, he adapted his beekeeping business to the previous losses. Now, he keeps 100 hives. While still doing pollination work on a much more limited and local scale, he and his daughter, Cindy Dailey, now focus on honey production. As B&G Honey Farm, they sell online and through the farmers’ markets in Statesboro and Savannah.
    Colony collapse did not cease to be a problem in 2007. USDA reports, available at, cite losses averaging 33 percent of bees for 2006–11. Losses nationally dipped to 22 percent for the winter of 2011–12. Total losses rebounded to 31.1 percent last winter, according to the annual survey of beekeepers, but the USDA noted that more colonies dwindled away instead of suffering CCD disappearances.
    The Time article considered possible causes for CCD. Much discussion has centered on neonicotinoid pesticides. Neonicotinoids, synthetic chemicals resembling nicotine, are used in seed coatings and also in some insecticides applied directly to crops pollinated by bees. However, Time reported that the CCD has scarcely been seen in Australia, although neonicotinoids are used there, but has been a problem in France, which has restricted their use since 1999.
    The USDA lists pathogens, parasites, bee management stress and environmental stress as possible CCD causes. “Varroa mites are often found in bee colonies that are affected by CCD,” the department’s general report notes.
Mites and other monsters
    The mites, whose scientific name is Varrao destructor, are pinhead-sized, oval, tick-like pests.
    “It’s a small parasite to us, but to the bee, the Varroa mite is like you’re walking around with a tick on your back the size of a dinner plate,” Kelley said.
    Besides sucking hemolymph, the insect equivalent of blood, the mites may vector viruses or other pathogens to the bees. The USDA lists this as a possible CCD factor. Kelley, who tries to avoid chemical pesticides, uses an organic mite treatment consisting of formic acid — which occurs naturally in ant venom — and another made from hops.
    His opinion about the cause of CCD might be the most honest possible: “Nobody knows for sure.”
    “I just keep an open mind,” Kelley said. “It could be that. It could be all of the above. It could be something that nobody’s figured out yet.”
Beekeepers share
    When the Ogeechee Area Beekeepers Association held its monthly meeting Aug. 29, CCD was mentioned, but more discussion focused on better-understood threats such as hive beetles and American foulbrood. Hive beetles are weevil-like insects that eat honeycomb and honey. They occur very frequently in Georgia hives but are only a threat to already-weak colonies, the beekeepers say.
    Still, association members share information about tricks for controlling beetles at almost every meeting, said Dr. Brent Tharp, the group’s president. Tharp, who also is the director of the Georgia Southern University Museum, took up beekeeping as a hobby three years ago and has just three hives.
    When the beekeepers meet, they also share upbeat information, such as a recipe for making furniture polish from beeswax and a show-and-tell about Kenyan top-bar hives.
    “It’s just a lot of fun,” Tharp said. “Bees never do quite what you expect, you know. That’s why this group is so valuable because, once you get started, the best part of these programs is just asking questions and trading information with folks.”
    For their first guest speaker, the beekeepers invited Henry Price, the lead apiary inspector with the Georgia Department of Agriculture. He talked about results of a study showing that many pesticides are present in bee-collected pollen. He also showed slides about American foulbrood, a bacterial disease that has been known for more than a century. It kills bee larva and is so virulent and contagious that state law requires inspectors to burn hives with confirmed infections.
    However, foulbrood is easily preventable with antibiotic treatments twice a year, Price said.
    State law calls for regular inspections for all beekeepers. However, Price acknowledged that with only seven inspectors statewide, his agency is unable to inspect most small-scale beekeepers. The inspectors focus on large apiaries and smaller operators who sell bees to other beekeepers or transport bees out of state for pollination.
    The Ogeechee association is applying to become part of the Georgia Beekeepers Association. Regular meetings are held the fourth Thursday of each month at 5:30 p.m. at Fordham’s Farmhouse restaurant. For more info, visit

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