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Maryland bee die-off linked to weather

/ Source: The Associated Press

Maryland beekeepers have lost 45 percent of their bees since last year — but the death toll is likely attributable to weather, not a national trend of mysterious die-offs, the state's top bee inspector said Wednesday.

An unusually warm November and December likely caused high fatalities in the state's 8,200 bee colonies, said Jerry Fischer, state apiary inspector. In a briefing to the state Agricultural Commission, Fischer said the warm early winter fooled bees into continuing reproduction — called "brood bearing." When temperatures dropped in January, Fischer said, the bees died.

"It's been a very unusual year, this last year," he said.

The honeybee briefing came amid national worries about widespread die-offs of the insects that are crucial to agriculture.

Honeybees pollinate many flowering crops, from broccoli to berries, but they've been dying off in at least 27 states for reasons scientists don't understand. Federal agriculture officials have called the phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, and the biggest threat to America's food supply.

In Maryland, though, commercial colonies have been spared the disorder.

"I have found no colonies in the state of Maryland lost because of CCD," Fischer said.

Susan Hays, whose family runs Hays Apiaries in Frederick County, said weather was her problem in the last year. The warm December days led to brooding, then when the weather turned, the bees would remain sitting on the broods instead of getting food — even if the honey was just inches away.

"They just froze or starved to death," said Hays, who estimated she lost 10 percent to 15 percent of her 2,000 colonies last winter. Her family sends honeybees as far as California, carried by refrigerated trucks, to pollinate almond crops. The apiary also ships bees to mid-Atlantic area fields to pollinate cucumbers, watermelons and apples.

Maryland only has three large commercial beekeepers such as the Hays family. The majority of Maryland's 1,312 registered beekeepers are hobbyists with a colony or two in the backyard, and they're more susceptible to bad weather.

"I had about 80 percent losses over the winter," said Carl Kahkones, owner of 35 hives at South Mountain Apiaries in Boonsboro. Kahkones is a small-scale honey producer and sells to farmers' markets.

Even though honey isn't his main source of income, he thinks more work needs to be done to research Colony Collapse Disorder and honeybees.

"We owe it to ourselves as a country to really think about it, because they are important," Kahkones said.

Fischer said most Maryland farmers rely on wild honeybees for pollination, but there's still a need for more beekeepers. In 1985, he said, there were 2,120 registered beekeepers _ a decline of 38 percent from 1985 to 2006, the most recent year for which numbers were available.

"We need beekeepers in Maryland," he said. "We have to rely on our hobbyists, so we have to promote beekeeping, because commercial beekeepers do not come to Maryland."