BUCKFIELD — Too many of beekeeper Tony Bachelder’s hives have gone silent.
Once-thriving hives — averaging 70,000 honeybees each — sit idle and empty. Too often, he opens the boxes and finds nothing more than a few dead bees at the bottom.
Last summer, the veteran Buckfield beekeeper had 700 healthy hives. This spring, the number has fallen to 500. And many of the remaining hives have only a fraction of their former populations.
His honey production is down. And his work with farmers has fallen. Bachelder’s bees perform like migratory workers, visiting crops for weeks at a time to pollinate and encourage growth.
Bachelder recently turned down a $30,000 contract because he no longer had enough bees.
“We never felt like we were getting rich,” he said. “But we’ll get by.”
It’s a common story this season.
Statewide, populations of bees have been hit harder than they have in more than a decade, said state apiarist Anthony Jadczak. The bee expert has received calls from New Brunswick, upstate New York and Vermont (which he calls “bee heaven”) for help with die-offs of bees.
In Maine, the population has dropped by at least 20 percent, figured Erin MacGregor-Forbes, president of the Maine Beekeepers Association
Lots of reasons, Jadczak said.
One big piece is the weather. The latter half of the summer of 2010 was dry in most of the area. And it was followed by a poor fall for bees, when such plants as goldenrod bloomed with dry, nectar-poor flowers.
It left many bees starving for nectar, Jadczak said. The situation was complicated by viruses and mites, which further weakened the struggling population.
Jadczak, who travels the state inspecting hives and teaching beekeeping, knows of an experienced beekeeper in eastern Maine who lost about 225 of his 250 hives.
Jadczak himself lost about 60 percent of his 50 hives. MacGregor-Forbes, who also teaches beekeeping, figures she lost about 25 percent of hers and knows some hobbyists who were wiped out completely.
“I know a lot of beekeepers who lost 50 percent, 70 percent or 100 percent of their colonies,” she said.
She worries that some professionals may leave the business altogether.
“At the same time we’re losing bees, we’re losing beekeepers,” she said. “You’d be crazy to go into that as a living.”
Bachelder has no plan to stop. He’s been tending bees and harvesting honey for more than 30 years.
“I’m lucky, I guess,” he said, walking across his farm. “I own all of this.”
But he needs to be careful. He has become particularly upset by a chemical insecticide known as clothianidin. The chemical attaches to seeds and becomes part of plants as they grow. It was blamed for a widespread die-off of bees in Germany, where it was banned. It has also been banned in Italy.
But it continues to be sold in the United States.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency has studied the chemical and continues to analyze it here in the United States. The chemical is in several insecticides sold in Maine.
Bachelder blames it for some of his hives that have died.
“It’s cut them right down,” he said.
In one case, he contracted with a farmer for 10 hives. All 10 died off. He replaced them with nine more and most of those died, too.
He has since decided only to allow his bees to be used in areas where they flourish, he said.
MacGregor-Forbes said she, too, blames chemicals for some of the deaths.
“We’re bringing those chemicals back into the hive through pollen quality,” she said.
Jadczak remains unconvinced.
“I’m on the fence,” he said. “I have not seen compelling evidence that the chemicals are to blame.”
And he has hope for the future.
“As we speak, hives are rolling in on tractor-trailer trucks for the blueberry fields,” he said.
Big companies will likely bring in more than 60,000 hives to help this year’s blueberry crop in eastern Maine, he said.
There have been other bad winters, he said, including 2007-08. Catastrophic die-offs occurred in the late 1980s and again in 1994, he said.
“Things are cyclical,” Jadczak said. “Things were bad this winter, but we have seen it before. I know the bees will rebound.”