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Mites and disease a challenge for local beekeepers

Julie Rittenhouse, of Rittenhouse Bee Farm in Hawick, adds hives to a colony Thursday west of New London. Mites and colony collapse disorder, which have been plaguing honey producers around the country, caused a 40 percent loss in the bee population over the winter at the bee farm. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

NEW LONDON -- A swarm of honey bees swirled aggressively Thursday around Julie Rittenhouse and Brice Hartman as they set a new stack of hives in a clover field west of New London.

The bees from the established colonies were a little excited, Rittenhouse said, because the new hives they were unloading from the flatbed truck were sticky with honey.

Because of the wet, cool spring, bee food -- like clover -- is behind schedule and bees haven't been able to forage much, said Rittenhouse. That's why the bees were eager to get to the honey on the exterior of the hives and they weren't shy about protecting it from humans.

Inclement spring weather is just another challenge for Minnesota beekeepers who, like beekeepers across the country, have been experiencing drastic declines in bee colonies in recent years from the varroa mite and "colony collapse disorder," Rittenhouse said.

She lost 40 percent of her honey population over this last winter.

That's forced her to purchase a semi-load of bees from California. She's also dividing her existing colonies and purchasing new queens for them as a way to rebuild the population.

To help protect against the destruction of the varroa mite, she's installed a new product called "Hop Guard" in the hives. The thin cardboard strip is made from hops and serves as a natural miticide.

"We won't know if it works until next fall," she said.

If the product does work, and if there's an extra long fall to help stretch out the season a bit, she's hoping her bee population stays strong and that she meets her average harvest of 75 pounds of honey per hive. "Hopefully we'll have a better than average crop," said Rittenhouse.

The one bright spot in the business is that an increased demand for honey has meant prices increase revenues for growers.

Marla Spivak, an apiculture entomologist with University of Minnesota Extension, said it's important to help Minnesota's bee population grow, not only because of the honey they produce but also because they are "vital pollinators of our fruits, vegetables, flowers and seed crops."

Urban and rural dwellers can make a difference by planting "bee-friendly" flowers and reducing pesticide use to provide uncontaminated food for honey bees, which forage an average of two miles from their colony, Spivak said.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program provides funding for the enhancement of bee habitat on private farms and ranches. The Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service also has information for technical and financial assistance to establish pollinator habitat on private land.

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Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750