BEULAH—Benzie County beekeeper Greg Griswold considers taking his honeybees to warmer climates during the winter, but he prefers keeping them in northern Michigan.
“My bees stay here all winter and they sleep in the snow bank,” he said.
Griswold is one of the few beekeepers in the region who keeps his bees through the winter season. His goal is to develop a northern Michigan hardy bee, which is no small challenge.
“This year, the snowfall is a big plus for my bees, as the hives are below the snow’s surface and they’re insulated from the cold. When it melts, it will provide good ground moisture for the plants they use to make honey,” he said.
Griswold is concerned about the health of his bees that produce honey for his growing business, Champion Hill Farm, and he’s also concerned about the declining honeybee population across the nation. Beekeepers started reporting higher than usual losses to their colonies in 2006. Scientists have since been trying to identify the cause for what is known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Federal officials say CCD is threatening the health of honeybees and the economic stability of beekeeping in the United States.
The United States Department of Agriculture’s Research Laboratory has identified a number of possible causes: the acute and sub-lethal effects of pesticides, poor nutrition, genetics and the parasitic Varroa mite—the single most detrimental pest of honey bees.
“All these factors are the perfect storm,” said Griswold. “It’s very difficult to get a handle on what is going on. It’s very complicated. The Varroa mite is my nemesis. They have killed more bees than anything out there.”
Zachary Huang, associate professor in Honey Bee Biology at Michigan State University, is closely studying bees, looking for clues to explain CCD.
“Honeybees are very important in Michigan as they support an almost $1 billion dollar per year agriculture industry. Blueberries, apples, cherries, peaches, plums—they all need honeybees,” Huang said. “Agriculture is dependent on the beekeeping industry.”
Many beekeepers find it economically beneficial to take their colonies to southern states to pollinate other crops during the winter. Presently, the almond industry has been paying record amounts for bees and is drawing beekeepers from across the nation.
“There are 800,000 acres of almonds in California and honeybees are essential,” said Griswold. “It’s worthwhile for beekeepers to go. Almost every beekeeper in Michigan has bees in the almonds right now.”
Both Huang and Griswold believe protecting bee pasture is essential to the long-term survival of bees.
“Bee pasture is disappearing due to mono-cropping,” said Griswold. “Hundreds of thousands of acres of wildflowers are being plowed under for corn and soybeans.”
“I don’t know how long this will be sustainable, because we’re losing 30 to 40 percent of our colonies every year,” Huang said. “Imagine if farmers lost 30% of their cattle every year? This has happened for the last seven years and eventually, it might reach a breaking point.”