lorida resident Jeffrey Burdick maintains 10 hives and has cared for bees for 46 years.
lorida resident Jeffrey Burdick maintains 10 hives and has cared for bees for 46 years.

FLORIDA -- There's nervous anticipation about the upcoming winter for Berkshire County bee farmers: A repeat of last winter would be cruel.

Florida resident Jeffrey Burdick maintains 10 hives and has cared for bees for 46 years. So he knows not all of them will survive winter. But this past winter, his entire colony was nearly wiped out: Two-thirds of his bees died.

When Burdick pried open a box that serves as a hive, there was a huddle of dead bees.

The founder and current treasurer of the Northern Berkshire Beekeeper Association has about 30 members, and others beekeepers were also confounded with a similar loss over the winter. Berkshire Farm Apiary owner Tony Pisano lost 11 out of 14 hives.

No one is quite sure what happened, but the well-documented decline of bees nationwide and publicized risk factors leave plenty to speculate about.

"I want to see what happens in the coming winter and see if this [last winter] is an abnormality," Burdick said.

Last week, scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and University of Maryland identified a possible culprit for the deaths of the honeybees: Pollen contaminated with a cocktail of pesticides, which can increase the likelihood of death by parasite.

While bees supply honey, they are also important in nature's cycle because they assist in the fertilization and maturation of crops by transporting pollen from one flower to the next.

The research article, published last week, has a lengthy and self-explanatory title: "Crop Pollination Exposes Honeybees to Pesticides Which Alters Their Susceptibility to the Gut Pathogen Nosema Ceranae."

It was published in the journal PLOS ONE, a publication of the Public Library of Science, and the research funding was provided by the USDA and the National Honey Board, an industry group.

The research aimed to identify what pesticides bees come in contact with and end up bringing back to the hive.

(Caroline Bonnivier Snyder / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
It also explored how pesticide blends affect the insects' susceptibility to infection from parasites.

Researchers collected pollen from hives on seven crops grown on the East Coast. Fungicides were present at high levels in both crop and non-crop pollen collected by bees.

The report highlights the dangers of "pesticide regimens" and "pesticide drift" on surrounding crops. Both can impact bees negatively.

In the study, one pollen sample contained an average of nine different pesticides, ranging as high as 21 kinds in one cranberry field. In an unrelated and more expansive study, a scientist discovered 7.1 pesticides per sample.

"While multiple studies have shown negative effects of specific pesticides on honeybee individual and colony health and high pesticide exposure, ours is the first to demonstrate how real world pollen-pesticide blends affect honeybee health," the report states.

The report says the combination of exposure to pesticides and infection is potentially lethal for bees.

The Nosema parasite infection was twice as likely in bees that consumed fungicides than in bees that did not.

Bees that consumed a pollen containing pyraclostrobin were three times more likely to be affected by a pesticide, which can result in death.

Nevertheless, the research suggests that beekeepers are confronted with another possibility behind the decline in their bees.

In the mid-1980s, mites were identified as culprits affecting bee populations, Burdick recalled.

In recent years, the concern has been around Colony Collapse Disorder, when bees just don't return to their hives.

Beekeeping is "just not what it used to be," Burdick said. "It's different from when I started 46 years ago."

Pisano owns about 10 hives after purchasing and discovering new ones to replace those that died over the winter. From those hives, he makes and sells beeswax candles, lip balm and honey.

Pisano, a member of the Northern Berkshire Beekeeper Association, said some beekeepers took their bees to be tested last winter. It was discovered that mites were responsible for their deaths. 

"I think what's happening to bees is a good indicator of what's going wrong in agriculture," Pisano said.

The loss wasn't related to Colony Collapse Disorder, since the bees didn't leave the hive and disappear.

They were just dead.

"The bees had died, but not many left [the hive]," Pisano said. "There was a lot of honey left, so it didn't look like they starved."