If you’re paying higher prices for almonds, blueberries, cucumbers and any number of other produce items this year, blame the bugs. Specifically, the bloodsucking varroa mite. The tiny foreign creature has devastated the U.S. bee industry, which in turn has led to shortages of nuts, fruits and vegetables, as well as some gourmet types of honey.
What do bees have to do with the lack of produce in your local grocery store? Simple. Honeybees pollinate as much as one-third of the nation’s crops every year. Without them, farmers can’t grow nearly as much and shortages lead to higher prices.
Farmers rent bees from professional beekeepers. Every spring, hundreds of trucks roll out of the South carrying bee colonies all over the nation to pollinate crops. That includes everything from blueberries and cranberries in Maine to cucumbers in Michigan to almonds in California.
Each colony is made up of a queen, several hundred male drones and 50,000 or so female workers. The bees pick up pollen from male plant parts on deposit them on female parts, fertilizing crops.
Honey is created as a byproduct of the pollination. The honey can come from pollinating, among others, lemon, grapefruit, and orange trees to make “orange blossom” honey, or from tupelo trees to make the famous “tupelo honey” so popular in the South.
But lately there just aren’t enough bees to do the job. Over 2004-2005 winter, varroa mites killed them off in massive numbers, leaving only about half the country’s 2.5 million colonies.
There were barely enough bees to cover the watermelon crops in Florida and Georgia this year, and California almond farmers had to pay up to three times the normal price – about $45 for a single hive – to get their crops pollinated.
The varroa mite is native to Southeast Asia and arrived in Florida sometime in the mid-80s. The nearly-invisible creatures survive by nesting in the folds of a bee’s abdomen and drinking its blood, earning them the nickname “vampire mites.” The bees, drained of blood, aren’t strong enough to survive winter and begin to die off.
When the ratio of mites to bees is equal, an entire colony can collapse suddenly, sometimes dying off almost every night.
There’s not a lot that can be done about it.
When the mites first arrived, insecticides helped control them. The best was Apistan, a powerful insecticide highly effective at killing them off. At least, most of them. The mites that survived continued to breed, and their offspring were resistant to the chemical. Within about nine or 10 years, there were enough resistant mites that Apistan no longer worked.
Researchers came up with an alternative, but it wasn’t long before the mites developed a resistance to that one, too. Today, researchers at Florida A&M University and government bee facilities are currently working on a fungus that may help kill them, but a solution has yet to be found.
So, for now, be kind to any honeybees you spot buzzing around your garden. And next time you big up a $5 bag of almonds, curse them little bloodsucking varroas.