Bee population threatened by mites

By Ed Brock

P.N. Williams of Forest Park is worried about his friends, and he has billions of them to be concerned with.

Like many other beekeepers in America, Williams is worried about the varroa and tracheal mites that for the past two decades have been infecting the insects to which he has dedicated much of his life.

"The mites have decimated the wild honey bee population," Williams said.

And the steady decline in the bee population isn't just a bee-lover's problem, Williams said. Bees play an important role in the ecology.

"When you say bee most people think about the sting or the honey and that's the least important part," Williams said. "It's the pollination of the crops that's important."

Indeed, California and other states have had to import bees to pollinate some of their crops. The mites have grown immune to the chemicals that beekeepers once used to control them, and since the same pesticide that kills the mites can kill the bees it is hard to find a replacement system.

One approach has been to bring in bees from Russia that have immunity or resistance to the mites for breeding, but the genes are often diluted by the queen bees' repeated mating with native males, Williams said.

"It's not going to be a quick fix," Williams said. "It's going to take some time to do this."

Of course, the average person can help by not killing the "secondary pollinators" such as carpenter bees, bumblebees and mason bees.

After all, it's easy to avoid getting stung, Williams said.

"Just leave them alone," Williams said. "The bee is not going to sting unless you are invading her territory or domicile."

Only female bees have stingers, Williams said.

It was 40 years ago when Williams talked to another beekeeper who got him interested in the craft.

"It's a chance to go inside a society and see the working and the uniqueness of it that we don't seem to have in the human race," Williams said.

Now Williams likes to educate people about bee society through presentations at schools and his annual presentation at Panola Mountain State Conservation Park just outside Henry County.

About 44 people came to the lecture Williams gave at the park this past Saturday, park manager Phil Dew said.

"It's been a reasonably successful program," Dew said. "This year I think was the biggest we've ever had. A lot of people were interested in keeping bees."

Williams also maintains a glass-sided observation hive at the park, but the bees there starved to death recently when they were unable to gather food due to heavy rain.

"They were using all their combs for brooding (raising baby bees) and they weren't using any of their combs for food storage," said Phil Delestrez, the park's naturalist.

Williams has been very patient with them, Delestrez said, and he hopes Williams will bring more bees back to the hive.

"You can tell he really loves the craft of bee-keeping," Delestrez said.

It's never easy to keep a hive alive, Williams said. Of the 40 to 50 hives he keeps he can check on one and find them thriving and then return the next week to find them dead.

Handling them can be tricky, too. Williams say bees have their good days and their bad days, but they're best when they are working.

Even with all his experience, Williams said he gets stung frequently.

"But treat them like you want to be treated and you'll get along just fine," Williams said.

In fact, bee stings can be therapeutic for people suffering from multiple sclerosis and Lyme disease, but Williams, who has some people who come to him to be stung, stressed that it's not a cure.

Natural, unprocessed bee honey is also much healthier than processed, commercially produced honey, said Williams and Carrol Duffield, owner of The Herb Shop on Tara Boulevard in Jonesboro.

"It has the local immune system in it," Duffield said. "That's what's good about local honey."

Duffield sells honey she gets from Williams, and she said it's a popular item.

The amount of honey his bees produce varies, Williams said, but it can be between 1,500 to 2,000 pounds in a good year.

This year has not been that good.

"Everything was going like gang busters until the rain started," Williams said.

Williams is also a member of the Tara Beekeepers Association that has 102 families as members in Clayton, Henry and other counties.