Beekeeping hobbyist Tom Hill's eight hives have faired poorly this year. Only three survive and two of those are not strong.

In the hives that are weakened, no dead bees are actually found in the hive and not all the bees have died. A tiny cluster of living bees survives, but they are lethargic.

For example, Hill said the bees would not sting you if you stuck your hand in the hive.

They could recover if there is no big freeze this year. If a freeze does occur though, there are not enough bees for the hive to stay warm and the rest will die.

Property across the road from Franklin High School will be the site of Cross the Road Ministries Youth Center

Hill, the president of the Macon County Beekeepers Association, is just one of an increasing number of beekeepers who have lost honeybees to a strange disorder ravaging hives in the United States.

About a year ago, honeybees across the country inexplicably began disappearing from their hives on a massive and unprecedented scale.

The nationwide decline in honeybees has been primarily attributed to what scientists call "Colony Collapse Disorder" (CCD), a mysterious scourge in which adult worker bees leave their hives in search of nectar and never return. This can then lead to the collapse of the entire hive, which is weakened.

The Agricultural Research Service, part of the United States Department of Agriculture, continues to study the phenomenon, but after a year, little is still known about what causes CCD.

The reason for concern is the vital role bees play in pollinating crops, particularly almonds and other nuts, berries, fruits and vegetables.

According to the ARS, they are responsible for $15 billion in added crop value. Roughly one in three mouthfuls in our diet is either directly or indirectly benefited by honeybee pollination, so their impact on our food supply cannot be overstated.

Hill, who also writes the newsletter for the Beekeepers Association, said he a relatively specific Google News search he recently performed for the newsletter returned 924 articles on honeybee disease.

"All the articles basically said the same thing-it's worse than it was last year," Hill said.

While progress has been made on the technical side of it, no cause for CCD has been determined.

Hill said most people agree it's stress on the bees from a variety of sources that are weakening them and making them susceptible to whatever is killing them.

"It doesn't get strong hives or hives that aren't stressed," Hill said.

The main focus of research is on viruses that may be transmitted by pests or parasites, particularly the varroa mite, but other pests bother bees and these could be carrying the virus as well, according to Hill.

Hill emphasized that bees have had plenty of available food this winter, so that has not been a factor.

Other beekeepers have encountered difficulties, but do not attribute their losses to CCD.

Wayne Ledford, a local beekeeper of 20 years, has lost half of his 100 hives this year.

Ledford believes his losses were caused by a new medication he used on some of his bee yards (beekeepers with more than 30-40 hives keep bees in different locations so they do not compete - these separate areas are called yards). He thinks it caused the bees to leave and not return due to the odor.

Further complicating the matter, Ledford said he knows beekeepers in Georgia who put the same medication in their hives with no ill effects. However, they only used one application of the medicine whereas Ledford gave it to some of his hives a second time.

Ledford said there are so many variables in beekeeping, it is hard to pinpoint a lot of the problems they face now, but in his opinion CCD did not cause his hive loss.

Hill said some students from last year's beekeeping school have lost their hives as well.

The main problem will be people keeping bees after hives die because it gets harder to replace them, Hill said. Everyone who supplies bees this spring has already sold out, so you have to wait until later to get more, according to Hill.

Other beekeepers faring well

While it appears CCD may have impacted some local beekeepers, not all the news is bleak on the honeybee front.

Macon County beekeeper John Henry lost all 20 of his hives last year. He attributes some of the loss to Colony Collapse Disorder.

This year is a completely different story though, as all 21 of his hives are strong, healthy and active. Henry, a beekeeper of more than 25 years, has encountered no problems and lost no bees since December.

"Which is kind of strange, because I've talked to other people who have lost 50 percent of their bees or something like that," Henry said.

Henry said what works for one beekeeper may not work for another, noting that other people may do the same thing he does but get different results.

He says it is not unusual to hear of larger commercial beekeepers losing a lot of hives to CCD.

They will find the queen and a handful of bees left in the hive, with their numbers dwindling. In this weakened state, the hive cannot survive a freeze.

Beekeeping hobbyist Paul Farley of Franklin, who has kept bees for about four years, says his two hives are both doing well.

He lost two hives last year and had to replace them, but neither of them died off due to CCD.

Farley, who ran the 2008 Basic Beekeeping School the Macon Beekeepers Association hosted from March 11-22 (see pictures and write up in "Living in Macon" section) said his hives this year contain fresh, healthy bees.

Despite the significant losses CCD has inflicted on beeekeepers overall, Henry remains optimistic that honeybees will be fine as long as people do not get discouraged in keeping bees.

"There's more and more interest," Henry said.

Perhaps illustrating Henry's point, the beekeeping school saw a good turnout this year, as more than 30 people, including spouses, participated in some of the school's six sessions, according to Hill.

The school provided students with free materials and instruction and featured a class taught by the state bee inspector for our region, Jack Hanel.

Farley said that six people who attended the class ordered bees, and a couple other students said they planned to order bees next year.

Sweet weather for bees

As of yet there has been no repeat of last year's major freeze to affect this year's honey crop, and the rain has been beneficial, Hill said. Bees are already collecting pollen from alder and especially from holly, a big pollen producer.

This is important because, until the pollen comes, you can feed bees all the sugar they want but they won't start reproducing. Pollen is what stimulates bees to reproduce in large numbers, Hill said.

With the recent rain and the warm weather, agricultural extension agent Alan Durden said the outlook is also good right now for tulip poplars (start blooming in May), which are major nectar producers for bees. Barring another April freeze, which adversely affected the tulip poplar in 2007, there is no reason to think they won't do well this year, Durden said.

Hill emphasized that 2007's Easter freeze is not what caused the problems with dying honeybees. It impacted the blooms and ruined the honey crop, but the honey is not the issue.

"When you talk about the bees dying, you are really talking about their value as pollinators, more than as honey producers," Hill said. "The pollination is far more important to our agricultural system."

The Macon County Beekeepers Association meets at 7 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month at the Cooperative Extension Service offices on Thomas Heights Road. For more information call 369-9819.*

*If someone has a problem with honeybees in their home, Hill asks that you please not kill them or spray them. If you call Debbie Hunter at the county agent's office, she has contact numbers for area beekeepers, who can salvage the bees. They offer to remove the bees as a public service, clean out the honey and move the bees into their hives.