The Trouble with Bees

by Neil Moran
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[from Michigan Country Lines, May 2006]

Bees are sent south to replenish the hive.

Gardeners and farmers have one thing in common: they both need bees and insects to pollinate their crops. No one knows this better than Wes Green, a commercial beekeeper and member of HomeWorks Tri-Country Electric Cooperative.

Green’s bees are in much demand these days, as they provide not only pollination for fruit crops around the state, but for the production of almonds in California. That’s right. For the past couple of years, Green and other beekeepers have been renting out their hives to almond growers on the West Coast as the demand for domesticated bees continues to grow.

However, come spring, Green has other things on his mind. That’s when he and his wife leave their home in Edmore and travel 18 hours to Georgia to do “splits” on about 500 hives he winters-over down south.

Since the 1980s, tiny tracheal and varroa mites have been infecting bee hives, threatening the livelihood of beekeepers everywhere. To avert a total loss to the hive population, Midwestern beekeepers, like Green, truck their bees to the warmer climates. The flight south doesn’t outrun the mites, but, the warm weather helps to maintain a high population of bees in the hives.

“We don’t worry about the (tracheal) mites,” said Green, “the bees can breed through it.” It is only when the problem
reaches an “economic threshold,” where it would be too costly not to try to eradicate the mites, do they treat the hives with any type of insecticide.

Green’s southern migration with his bees begins the first of November. He trucks his hives down to Georgia in a semi-truck. Once there, he places them on farm land much like he would around Edmore. The bees feed on some of the goldenrod that is left in the fields, gradually increasing the population of worker bees in the hives.

After a few days in Georgia, Green will return to Michigan. Over the winter, he’ll make two or three more trips back down south to feed the bees and inspect the hives. During this time the queen bees are able to reproduce worker bees in the mild weather. The beekeepers refer to this as doing the “nucs,” a term that describes the expansion of the nucleus of the hives, which results in several “splits” and an increase in the number of hives.

In mid-March, as winter is gradually turning to spring up here, Green will head back down south for his final run. He’ll do some work on the hives, including splitting them up and making more hives. He’ll also wait for his California bees (which Green shipped in January) to be trucked over to Georgia, where he’ll do the same to those hives. Then he’ll say goodbye to the sweet sunshine of Georgia and head back up to Edmore. As for the folks who allowed him to over-winter his bees on their property in Georgia, well, they’ll never run out of honey.

Meanwhile, in Michigan the pollination season is just beginning. With the native population of bees in this country “virtually nil,” Green’s hives are in high demand. So, from the end of April to early May his bees will help pollinate apples around the Belding area, and then it is on to the blueberry farms around Grand Junction, South Haven, and north to Holland.

Finally, after Memorial Day, Green’s bees are buzzing around the farm fields of some counties in the central part of the state all the way over to the Thumb. They’ll spend the rest of the summer producing quality honey from fields of white sweet clover and knapweed. In the fall, the bees will go after the goldenrod and then it all starts over in November.

Gardeners and hobbyists can take heart in knowing that they won’t need to truck their hives south each winter to deal with the mites, according to Green. However, they will need to keep a keen eye on them.

“Read a lot about mites, know what you’re facing, before one starts,” warns Zachary Huang, an associate professor in MSU’s Department of Entomology. “Ninety percent of colonies die if not treated,” he adds. Products, such as recently-developed Apiguard, can be used to treat the mites.

Domesticated and wild bees pollinate more than 16 percent of the world’s flowering plant species, and about 400 of its agricultural crops. So, despite their rather stinging reputation, gardeners should try to attract bees to their gardens. Do this by planting a nice variety of flowers, avoid the use of harmful pesticides, and keep some out-of-the-way areas of your lawn wild and weedy. This last suggestion should be easy to follow.

Neil Moran is the author of “North Country Gardening: Simple Secrets to Successful Northern Gardening.” For tips on gardening or to contact him, visit his Web site

For more information on bees and beekeeping, visit

Author: Zachary Huang

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