Mites are devastating to honeybees -- and pollination. No one will dispute the value of honeybees to commercial agriculture and home gardeners. As crop pollinators for our fruit trees and vegetables, honeybees are worth billions of dollars.
Home gardeners are increasingly frustrated by the lack of bees for pollinating squash, cucumbers, pumpkins and watermelons. Where have all the honeybees gone? That's a good question, one that's worrying agricultural educators and researchers across the country.
There has been a decline in honeybee populations since the 1980s, and parasitic mites are the culprits.
Two types of mites have caused trouble. One, the Varroa mite, is killing entire colonies. This mite has researchers pulling their hair out. It resembles a tick in shape and is often called a tick mite. The Varroa mite feeds on the honeybees and eventually causes the hive to collapse in late summer or fall.
This mite cannot be controlled among wild bees, which typically live only a year. The Varroa mite is the major reason we are seeing fewer honeybees in our yards and gardens.
This reduction in wild honeybee numbers has made it necessary for farmers to rent bee hives for crop pollination. Hives rent for an average of $25 each for a crop season in Georgia. In some areas, hive rental can run as high as $100 each. The Varroa mite has caused such devastation that honey prices have increased, and this increase has made moving hives less profitable for beekeepers. Higher hive-rental prices for bee-dependent crops are inevitable.
In home gardens and commercial agriculture, we are gaining a new appreciation for the bumblebee. Bees are great little pollinating machines, but we cannot artificially culture them. Perhaps one day we can manage them better.
We once thought that the wild African honeybee would cross with our domestic bees and create a honeybee that could withstand an attack from Varroa mites. But our old enemy the imported fire ant is killing wild African honeybees, which often build hives in the ground.
Home gardeners can take steps to increase both honeybee and bumblebee numbers. First, do not spray insecticides in the early morning. Early spraying is deadly to honeybees. Wait until early evening and pay close attention to label instructions.
Next, plant flowers or flowering shrubbery in or near the garden. Vitex trees are great for attracting bumblebees. Sunflowers, purple cone flowers and abelia are good for attracting bees.
If the above measures are not practical, you may have to hand-pollinate vegetables such as cucumbers, squash, pumpkins and watermelons. To do this you must learn the difference between the male and female flowers. The female bloom will have a small fruit behind it. Male flowers will have long stems and no fruit behind them. There will usually be five to nine male blooms for each female. Once you know the flowers, take a fine artist's paintbrush and brush pollen from the male to the female bloom parts. If you are lucky, you will see fruit begin to develop in two or three days.
Clyde Lester is an agent with the University of Georgia Extension Service Office in Richmond County.