By JIMMY LAWTON
Declining bee populations, a love for honey and a growing awareness in food production has prompted a rise in the number of St. Lawrence County beekeepers.
Kristin Colarusso, who has worked at Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County for about eight years, said extension is seeing more people interested in backyard agriculture and raising bees is no exception.
“There are many more backyard beekeepers than there used to be,” she said. “I think people are aware that bees are dying out and want to help.”
Colarusso said she got involved in beekeeping after reading about “Colony Collapse Disorder.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the disorder was discovered in 2006 when beekeepers began reporting unusually high losses of 20 to 90 percent of their hives.
“Basically bees were abandoning their colonies,” she said.
The EPA says as many as 50 percent of all affected colonies demonstrated symptoms inconsistent with any known causes of honeybee death. Those symptoms included sudden loss of a colony’s worker bee population with very few dead bees found near the colony.
Exactly what’s cause CCD is not known, though some theories suggest that pesticides, disease, mites or perhaps all three are to blame.
As for raising bees, Colarusso said work involved compared to the payout makes beekeeping fairly lucrative. “Bees actually tend to do better when you leave them alone,” she said.
Not only do bees produce honey that can be sold or kept, but they also pollenate two-thirds of crops used to produce food.
Keeping honeybees can increase crop yields and keep plants healthy, and that’s important to her as she specializes in nutrition at the extension.
While there are many new beekeepers popping in St. Lawrence County, the area is also home to some veterans.
Luke Martin of Parishville has been raising bees for more than 40 years. He says a lot has changed since he started and there always seems to be a new challenge when it comes to keeping bees.
Martin said beekeepers in this area are having trouble with mites -- the small red parasites cling on to the bees, often making them too weak to survive winter.
“A lot of people lost their colonies this year,” he said. “It was a tough winter.”
Martin said he has spent the past 15 years breeding his colonies to be mite resistant.
“It takes a long time, but it’s worth it,” he said. Some people use pesticides, but I’m organic.”
Martin said when he was learning the business his mentor said a good honey yield was around 200 pounds per hive. These days Martin says 60 pounds is considered a good harvest.
Martin said he believes it’s due to changes in agriculture.
“Back in those days they grew clover hay and Timothy. They didn’t plant much corn, because it wasn’t as easy to harvest,” he said. “Now days they use Round-up ready, genetically modified corn, alfalfa and soybeans.”
More Interest In Bees
Martin, who oversees about 20 hives, has noticed more people taking interest in the hobby that has been a big part of his life.
“I’d be happy if things were the way they were back then, but you cant change that,” he said. “I think with bees being in the news and people hearing they are in trouble there is more of an interest. People are concerned about the quality of the food that they eat and what chemicals are in it,” he said.
Martin is encouraged by the growing number of local beekeepers, despite the fact that they do create competition for his honey sales. Martin says he even sells his mite-resistant bees to people looking strengthen their colonies.
“Personally, I’ll go out of my way to help people get started. I think we are better off to have two colonies in every backyard or farm than we are to have 40 or 50 in one spot. I think that’s best for the bees survival,” he said.
Colarusso said she is encouraged not just by beekeepers, but also by residents who choose not destroy colonies that are found. She said the extension often fields calls regarding how to handle a hive when it’s found. Sometimes they can be removed and relocated, but she said the best method is to let it be.
“Even though they won’t get honey out of it, bees are still good to have around. Most people, after hearing that the bees won’t hurt anything, decide to leave them alone,” she said. “They usually won’t sting you if you don’t muck around with them.”
For those interested in raising bees, Colarusso said St. Lawrence County is good place to start. Each month a bee and beekeeping discussion group meets in Canton. The group is supported by the Sustainable Living Project, which helps educate the public on agriculture and other topics.
Colarusso says there are also members of Amish community who build hives and raise bees. Colarusso said costs may have risen since she bought her equipment, but estimated a $300-$400 investment as a start up cost.
“For anyone interested in getting started I really recommend talking with someone who has hives,” she said.
For more local information on bees and beekeeping call 347-4223 or visit www.SustainableLivingProject.net/workshops-groups/bees-beekeeping.