As has been the case for thousands of years, crop yields and honeybees are inextricably linked. So how healthy is the Arkansas bee population?
“We do have some issues to deal with,” says Mark Stoll, who oversees apiary concerns for the Arkansas Plant Board. “Bee pests currently in the state include tracheal mites, varroa mites, small hive beetles and the Africanized honeybee.”
Varroa mites can be found in most hives. Strong colonies are a good defense against them and certain types of bees — like Russians — handle varroa mites better. There are also treatments available to keep the mites in check.
Tracheal mites are also in most hives. Those can be treated and kept at bay by maintaining healthy colonies.
As for small hive beetle, “we've got it in 33 to 35 counties in the state. We've dropped the regulations on it. When they were only in a few counties, we had some quarantines on movement. But when they spread across so much of the state, the quarantine wasn't feasible.”
Now, Stoll and colleagues try to ensure beekeepers have proper treatments and education on the beetle. “The ground around hives needs to be treated because this beetle can destroy hives very quickly if left untreated.”
As for the most common diseases, Arkansas beekeepers face American foulbrood, European foulbrood, and chalkbrood.
“Chalkbrood isn't a big issue, though. We don't see many cases and a strong colony can clear it up with some effort.”
European foulbrood is treatable. However, “if you've got American foulbrood, it is recommended hives be destroyed because it isn't treatable.”
Stoll says, thus far, five southwest Arkansas counties have positively identified the Africanized honeybee. This is a problem because Africanized bees — “killer bees” to some — can take over hives populated by their less-aggressive cousins, the European honeybee.
“In 2005, Miller and Lafayette counties were found to have established populations of the bee.
“There was also a positive find in Union County (around El Dorado) and another in Clark County (near Gurdon).”
The only positive find in 2006 is in Columbia County around Lamartine.
“We also have quite a few samples being studied. Some of those came back inconclusive on preliminary tests so the (lab) is doing full morphometrics to determine if they're Africanized.
“The reason we don't consider the Clark, Union or Columbia County bee finds Africanized is we have just one positive from each. We like to have at least two positives from two distinct areas within a county before considering them established.”
The Africanized honeybee pollinates as well as its European cousin. That's a good thing, says Stoll, because the Africanized bees can't be eradicated.
“Once they're here we'll just have to educate the public and make everyone aware of how to handle situations, how to interact with them. We've been doing presentations for utility workers, for pest control operators, forestry employees — anyone with a greater chance of coming in contact with them.
“Mostly we speak with beekeepers on these issues. They need to help us keep chances for man-aided migration to a minimum. None of us want to help the Africanized honeybee (widen its range).”
Can the bee's spread be slowed?
“Hopefully, we'll take out the man-aided migration (threat), which is probably the chance for them to make the biggest jumps. We don't need someone accidentally moving the (Africanized bees) from Texarkana to Fayetteville or Jonesboro.”
Stoll believes the slow movement they've made in Arkansas so far is due to poor environmental conditions. In 2005, the state had a severe drought, especially in the southwest. In 2006, the drought was repeated.
“Eventually, though, they'll spread out. But keeping swarm traps up to monitor where they are will help keep the public in those areas informed and on the look-out. When we say, ‘They're in your county,’ people pay a lot more attention to what's happening in their backyard.”
Stoll suspects the Gurdon find was a man-aided migration. The Africanized bee was found in a trap in a train yard.
“The bees can hitchhike on train cars and semis. For that reason, many of our traps are placed strategically in train yards or truck stops.”
There are just over 1,300 beekeepers in the state. Few of them — perhaps 25 — are commercial/migratory beekeepers.
“Most of those are based in the northeast part of the state — in the thick of (row-crop) country. There's one in the southwest who's actually based in Louisiana — but he has yards in Arkansas. We also have beekeepers from Oklahoma, Nebraska and South Dakota who like to overwinter their bees in south Arkansas. They bring the bees down to take advantage of the warmer temperatures.”
The big thing affecting Arkansas beekeepers “is we're in the process of updating apiary laws. Our current laws basically deal only with bee diseases. They're being updated to deal with bee pests — mites, the hive beetle and the Africanized honeybee. The new laws will protect beekeepers, the general public and industry.”
If the Arkansas Plant Board approves the updated laws, a sponsor for the 2007 Arkansas legislation session will be needed.
For additional information, visit www.plantboard.org . Then scroll down to the Africanized honeybee icon.