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New York honeybees struggling along with their counterparts elsewhere in the nation

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BRASHER FALLS –– The U.S. Department of Agriculture is spending millions of dollars to help Midwestern beekeepers assist the nation’s struggling honeybees, prompting their New York counterparts to point to problems in their own hives and for Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand to ask to expand the program to New York.

“What about the East Coast?” asked Theodore P. Elk of Alexandria Bay, a former commercial beekeeper who still has more than a dozen hives and stays in touch with other apiarists. “I’m already hearing losses of 60 to 70 percent from Maine to Florida. The bees haven’t been able to get out and forage. We certainly should have had a portion of that on the East Coast.”

When he heard the news that the USDA is offering an assistance program of $3 million to reseed pastures with alfalfa, clover and other plants appealing to bees in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Dakotas, Elk called Gillibrand and U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, to push them into asking for federal dollars for bees closer to home.

Without adequate food, the bees will not reproduce or be in good shape for the winter, when they rely on their stores of honey to survive. The money will also go to farmers for improvements that assist them in moving livestock from pasture to pasture so vegetation is not worn down.

Those five states were chosen for assistance because 65 percent of the nation’s commercial beekeepers bring hives there for some of the year. However, honeybees are also important for New York crops, Elk said.

“There could be a huge shortage of bees for apple pollination, period,” he said.

A day after the USDA’s announcement, Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, requested that it help revive the New York bee population as well.

“New York apple growers rely heavily on the honeybee pollinator to produce their apples. Last year, New York beekeepers lost on average 30 percent of their hives,” Gillibrand wrote in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack. “Apple trees require two to three hives per acre to pollinate, so New York urgently needs USDA’s pollinator health assistance to avoid losses to our apple production. Pollination services add an estimated $300,000,000 value to a $4.4 billion agriculture income in New York in 2012.”

Honeybees are also important pollinators of blueberries, cherries, squash and other fruits and vegetables.

The reasons behind honeybee survival struggles are complex, without any one reason behind their decline, said Mark W. Berninghausen, owner of Squeak Creek Apiaries in Brasher Falls and president of the Empire State Honey Producers Association. Genetics, weather, pesticides, mites, viruses, herbicides, novice owners and combinations of factors all play a part, he said.

“If anyone can say ‘I know why they died,’ I don’t put a lot of faith in it,” Berninghausen said. “The modern-day norm, even in managed outfits, is that you’re going to have a greater percentage of death than you had 30 years ago. Things have changed so much.”

Berninghausen has 500 to 600 hives wintering in South Carolina. So far, 85 percent of his colonies are still alive.

However, small-scale local honey keepers are telling him they are seeing heavy losses.

The St. Lawrence River Valley used to be covered with small dairy farms. With the consolidation into larger but fewer farms, livestock is not let out on pasture as much and the land is either being used for field crops or allowed to overgrow past clover and other plants that bees like.

When Berninghausen heard about the USDA assistance program, he thought its greatest benefit will be in calling attention to the problems bees and their keepers face.

“My first thought was $3 million? Really, $3 million doesn’t help very much,” he said. “We have lost our research. Research is important. Three million would be a drop in the bucket in that way, too.”

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