Northwest Pa. beekeepers devastated by long, cold winter

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EDINBORO, Pa. -- The beekeepers who gathered recently inside the social hall of Our Lady of the Lake Church in Edinboro shared a common story.

One by one, the 65 beekeepers talked about the harsh toll the frigid winter took on their bee colonies, and how a late start to spring has delayed the blooming of dandelions -- depriving bees of one of their first sources of nectar and starving them to death.

The consensus at the meeting of the Northwestern Pennsylvania Beekeepers Association was about 50 percent of everyone's honeybees died during the colder-than-usual winter. Normally, the winter die-off would be about 20 percent.

"I've never seen a winter like this one in regards to bee losses," said Charlie Vorisek, president of the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association. He told the group that he lost 67 of his 135 hives -- resulting in the death of 530,000 honeybees.

The above-average bee die-off means locally produced honey is scarce and more expensive. Mr. Vorisek, for instance, has raised prices about 50 cents a pound.

"A lot of other guys are sold-out," said Mr. Vorisek, 59, who has been a beekeeper in Linesville for the past 24 years.

Fewer bees also mean less pollination in cherry and apple orchards, and crops that feed dairy cows. Mr. Vorisek said he expects to see higher prices for fruits, vegetables and almonds in local markets.

He recently surveyed the more than 800 members in the state's beekeeper association about the winter die-off. The study is continuing, he said, but so far about 200 responses have showed 41 percent of colony losses statewide.

Charles Schroeck considers himself lucky.

The longtime Millcreek Township beekeeper went into the winter with 12 colonies of honeybees. Eleven survived.

"I expected this spring would be a disaster. This has been the coldest winter since I've been keeping bees," said Mr. Schroeck, 69, a beekeeper for 34 years. "I was pleasantly surprised."

Mr. Schroeck, who teaches beekeeping at Asbury Woods Nature Center in Millcreek, said his bees have less exposure to pesticides found in agricultural areas that weaken bees.

He also fed his bees in the fall. It was a rich, syrupy mixture of sugar and water, something he's never given them in the past. Mr. Schroeck lost eight of his 12 hives last winter, and figured he'd experiment with the fall feeding.

Bee populations in recent years have already been devastated by the mysterious colony collapse disorder, the cause of which is still unidentified by researchers. But this winter and spring, beekeepers dealt with a different dilemma.

On Monday morning, temperatures dipped into the low 30s at Mr. Vorisek's Backyard Bee Farm, 15834 Linesville Road, in Crawford County. The beekeeper also operates a roadside stand on his 2.5-acre property, where he sells a dozen varieties of honey, and skin products, candles and lip balm all made of beeswax.

Mr. Vorisek saw frost covering the windows of his car and glistening off the grass.

He surveyed his hives. The bees that survived the winter have begun laying eggs and rebuilding the population. They'll do that through this month and into June. But there also were clusters of dead bees inside the hives.

They were stuck in small spots due to the extreme, persistent cold -- unable to move around inside the hive, even though the hive still held honey they could have eaten -- and eventually froze to death.


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