New Castle News

May 5, 2014

Beekeepers facing tough times

Mary Grzebieniak
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Beekeeper Bob McMillin wishes more people would let their weeds grow.

McMillin, who operates McMillin Apiaries on Chewton-Wurtemburg Road, said homeowners who poison weeds and mow their lawns frequently are hurting the bee population. If people would leave some areas of tall grass and wildflowers in their yards, he said, it would make a big difference.

And a lawn with no dandelions “is like a desert for a honeybee,” he added.

Farmers also are hurting bees by making frequent cuttings of alfalfa “which don’t give bees a chance.” And they don’t plant buckwheat much anymore, or leave fields in clover.

Chances are that some of McMillin’s bees are buzzing around your yard, because he has hives in 15 or 20 locations in Lawrence County and the bees venture up to two miles from the hive.

McMillin is the only large commercial beekeeper in Lawrence County and one of the few left in the region. He said disease, pesticides and weather have made beekeeping less profitable, even though the U.S. demand for honey is twice what can be produced.

The lack of a good food supply is only one factor hurting bees. Parasitic mites, disease and pesticides have done far more damage, he said. He once had 300 hives or “colonies,” McMillin said, but is now down to about 100.

Last fall, he had 40 hives on his property. Only eight survived the winter. The winter before that was even worse, he noted.

McMillin said his last best producing year was 12 years ago, when his bees produced 40,000 pounds of honey. This was when a pesticide was controlling parasitic mites that began killing off bees in the mid 1980s. Shortly after, the mites developed immunity to the chemical and nothing else has been developed.

The mites are “like having a rat in the beehive,” he said, explaining they suck on the bees’ blood and weaken their immune systems, making them susceptible to natural pathogens that kill them.

Some of the bees hatch with shriveled wings, he noted. Loss of the hatchlings is devastating, because they produce food for the pupal bees, the hive’s future. State agriculture officials have advised beekeepers to use time-consuming mechanical means to control the mites.

As if that’s not enough, bees are dying because of a systemic pesticide introduced several years ago. McMillin said it doesn’t kill bees directly but might “make them sick and delirious so they can’t find their way back to the hive.”

He said that in Europe, some of that class of pesticide was banned, but it is still sold here.

And as the bees die, the price of honey goes up. He remembers when the wholesale price of honey was $1. Now it’s between $2 and $3.

The weather is also an issue. He said bees come out on winter days above 45 degrees and eliminate waste, leading to a healthier bee. But there were few such days in January and February. The prolonged cold also prevented the young bees from making good “brood food” for the pupae because they were older than the optimal age when weather finally got warm.

McMillin produces and sells honey locally and to retailers over a larger region. When he runs out of honey, he buys more.

In addition, he lends hives to orchardists in the region. Orchards depend on bees for cross-pollination. If there were no honeybees, fruit yields would be much smaller because solitary bees are much less efficient than honeybees.

A past president of the Central and Western Pennsylvania Beekeepers Association, McMillin works as a building contractor in addition to beekeeping.

He took up beekeeping at 15 when he inherited 10 hives from his grandfather, Bill McMillin. His other grandfather, Everett McCracken, was also a beekeeper, so you might say it’s a family tradition.