YAKIMA, Wash. -- What bugs bees? An external parasite called the varroa mite that can weaken or kill entire honeybee hives.
"The mites drive them crazy," said Eric Olson, a beekeeper for nearly two decades in nearby Gleed.
Beekeepers in the Northwest have gotten special permission from the Environmental Protection Agency to try a new product in the fight against varroa mites, which have infested hives from one coast to the other.
Bob Stump, president of the Washington Beekeepers Association, said the mite is to blame for the dramatic drop in the number of beehives in the state over the last decade.
The number of honeybee hives fell from 85,000 in 1992 to 54,000 in 1997, the most recent count available from the state Department of Agriculture. It's the smallest number of hives since 1914.
Adding to the problem is that varroa mites are growing resistant to fluvalinate, sold under the brand name Apistan, the lone chemical currently registered for control of the parasite in the United States.
"If the mites aren't controlled, the effect to the beekeepers and then to the crops that require pollination would be devastating," -- about $1.3 billion in crops in Washington, said Erik Johansen, pesticide registration specialist for the state Department of Agriculture.
It's enough to give a beekeeper a headache.
So, this year a regional request was prepared seeking an emergency exemption from the EPA to let beekeepers in Washington, Oregon and Idaho use a new miticide on a beehive pest strip made by the Bayer Corp., the giant German company famous for aspirin.
Bayer is working on a petition for full federal registration by the EPA for the bee strip, a process that could take several years, Johansen said. The exemption expires next February.
The active ingredient in the Bayer Bee Strip is a chemical called coumaphos.
Bees walk on the strips, which hang inside the hives, and distribute the chemical. When varroa mites come into contact with the chemical, it kills them.
Olson said he's delighted to have an alternative to fluvalinate. Mite resistance can sneak up on beekeepers and wreck their hives, he said. "We run 5,500 hives. We're not going to let that happen," said Olson, who has already ordered and received 10,000 coumaphos strips.
Tolerance to fluvalinate has been documented in Florida, South Dakota, Minnesota and California and reported in at least five other states, including Washington.
Stump said a lot of Washington beekeepers take their bees to California in the winter to pollinate the almond crop, then return to the Northwest to pollinate tree fruit and other crops, before moving on to the Dakotas for the honey crop.
"They're mixing in with beekeepers that come from all over the United States, and their bees get mixed up with the ones resistant to the current, approved `medication,"' he said.
The migratory nature of the beekeeping industry today means that everyone is in this together, Olson said.
"When the varroa mite resistance to fluvalinate becomes widespread in California, it will also become widespread in the Pacific Northwest," said state apiarist Jim Bach.