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South Dakota’s state insect may be industrious, but it’s also in danger. The honeybee, which was introduced to North America by colonists from Holland in 1638, is a vital but often-forgotten part of food production.

Honeybees are getting more attention lately, though, because they seem to be disappearing. For reasons currently unknown, many of the bees maintained by commercial and hobby beekeepers alike seem to leave the hive and never return. This phenomenon is called colony collapse disorder.

John Stolle, part owner of Sturgis Honey Co., keeps between 800 and 900 bee hives. “I’m about the smallest commercial beekeeper on the planet,” he said. During the spring and summer, his bees gather nectar and pollinate clover and alfalfa in South Dakota. In the winter, he takes the hives to California, where almond growers pay for the bees’ pollination services. For the past four or five years, though, Stolle says he has gotten to the almond orchards and found that as many as 35 percent of his bees are missing.

“It just takes the wind out of you,” he said. Though Stolle sells his honey to commercial packers and Prairie Berry Winery, the paycheck he collects from the orchards is the biggest part of his income. Since he gets paid by the hive, Stolle says, it’s like taking a 35 percent pay cut for the year. These mysterious losses have been enough to drive some beekeepers out of business, he said.

Bob Reiners, South Dakota’s state apiarist, said Stolle’s losses are about average for the past year, according to beekeepers he has talked to. “Some are as low as 10 percent; some are as high as 80 percent. A 10 percent loss of bees has always been considered normal, especially for those who truck their bees.”

Colony collapse disorder looks different from hive loss that can be attributed to other causes, like accidental pesticide exposure, Stolle said.

With the collapse disorder, “you go to your hive, and it’s full of pollen and honey, and either you have no bees in the box at all or the queen is left with 30 to 40 bees around her. There are no dead bees in the box. Normally, if a hive dies, the other bees in the area go in and steal the honey, but that doesn’t happen with colony collapse disorder, and I’m not sure why.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes the plight of beekeepers and the potential impact continuing bee losses may have on not only the bee business, but all of agriculture. The USDA has started a study to determine what may be causing these losses.

The USDA has chosen 13 states to study to try to determine the cause of colony collapse disorder. Twenty-five of South Dakota’s 175 apiaries will be randomly selected for bee testing, Reiners said. Federal labs will do the testing, and state inspectors will inspect the colonies and collect the bees for testing. The labs will be testing for two types of mites -- an intestinal disorder called noscema, and some viruses that they think may be causing colony collapse disorder. The mites that infect honey bees can weaken the bees physically and diminish their immune systems, making them more susceptible to viruses. Beekeepers can treat bees for mites, but there is nothing they can do about viruses.

“The only thing beekeepers can do is maintain best bee management and try keep them as healthy as possible to better fight off these viruses,” Reiners said.

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Many other causes of colony collapse disorder have been proposed, including increased pesticide use and cell phone signal interference. The USDA hopes this study either finds or eliminates possible causes.                                                   

“I’m really happy to see the response and awareness of the problems we’re having with CCD,” Stolle said. “Everywhere I go, people are asking about the bees. At least it’s on everybody’s mind. It might help keep the research funding available, so maybe we can get a grip on this, which would really be nice.”

Over the past three decades, the number of beekeepers in South Dakota has been about halved, while the number of hives has increased, Reiners said. This is partly because of the aging population of beekeepers and a decrease in hobby beekeeping while the existing commercial apiaries have grown. The past few years, however, has seen a resurgence in interest in hobby beekeeping, especially in western South Dakota.

South Dakota’s beekeepers maintain bees at about 6,500 locations, Reiners said. These bees are responsible for producing about 30 million pounds of honey, ranking South Dakota consistently in the top five honey-producing states nationwide. South Dakota honey is usually sought after by honey distributors because it is light-colored and mild-flavored, thanks to the clover and alfalfa that make up the majority of the bees’ South Dakota nectar sources. Increased imports of foreign honey has driven down the price of honey, but Reiners said the price is going back up because the past few cool, wet years, preceded by several years of drought, have hampered the bees’ ability to make honey, reducing the supply.

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