Written by David Castellon
If you’ve driven by most any almond orchard in the Valley, you’ve likely noticed wooden boxes stacked at the edge of or among the trees.
Each of those boxes contain colonies of bees —some from the Valley, other parts of California, and some from throughout the US. Each year, beekeepers are hired to have their bees spread pollen collected in the blossoms to ensure they’ll begin growing nuts in the coming weeks.
But for about the past 18 years, keepers around much of the world have been dealing with their honeybees dying at rates double, triple or more compared to what had been the normal rates of bee mortality.
While a clear cause of this phenomenon has eluded researchers and apiarists around the world, Mike Tolmachoff, a Kerman-area beekeeper, is hoping he has found a way to give his bees a better chance of surviving the effects of “colony collapse disorder.”
It started around 2000, with a mortality rate of 30-40 percent, compared to normal rates of 10-15 percent, Tolmachoff said.
“It’s still going on. It has not stopped.”
Last month, at a conference for beekeepers in Reno, Tolmachoff said he came across a booth promoting a product created to fight the effects of colony collapse, and he has begun applying the product, BeesVita Plus, to his colony.
Representatives from the company, Healthy Bees, LLC — headquartered in Miami but manufactures the bee feed supplement in Minnesota — asked Tolmachoff if they could go out with him to feed BeesVita Plus to his colonies and invite the press along to announce the product’s availability.
That’s how Tolmachoff ended up this morning in an almond grove between Madera and Kerman, along with some reporters and Lee Rosen, chairman and CEO of Healthy Bees.
He said the company was built entirely around BeeVita Plus, which was developed by an Italian biochemist, olive grower and beekeeping hobbyist, Francessca del Vecchio, who began investigating colony collapse after her bees and those of her neighbors began dying off about 11 years ago.
A definitive cause of the problem has yet to be determined, but theories include environmental changes, viruses, mites attaching themselves to individual bees and sucking out their blood, pollution, loss of feed sources and reactions to agricultural chemicals.
Jack Brumley, a Porterville beekeeper who came to Madera County today to see the product for himself, said CCD likely is a result of a combination, if not all, of the causes theorized.
Companies have been selling a “whole lot of junk” over the years to apiarists claiming to have fixed the problem, he said.
Rosen noted that his product doesn’t fix colony collapse. Instead, he said, del Vecchio came up with a series of all-natural ingredients that, after ingested by bees, improves their health, making them stronger and better able to resist the illnesses and stresses that might otherwise kill them.
Rosen, a former Wall Street executive who retired and became an environmental philanthropist and entrepreneur, put together the investment group that turned del Vecchio’s formula into a business that just launched in the U.S. and has conducted efficacy trials here and overseas.
Company representatives noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that BeesVita Plus contains 38 times more anti-oxidants than other bee feeds, improving honeybees’ health and tolerance to certain pesticides and diseases.
In addition, the company reports that in lab tests conducted by the USDA Honeybee Laboratory in Maryland, a group of bees fed BeesVita Plus and exposed to the insecticide paraquat tolerated and detoxified the deadly chemical better than bees fed a sugar-water solution.
The need to preserve bees is particularly critical in the Valley, as Brumley noted that roughly 75 percent of commercial bees in the country are currently here pollinating almond trees, along with other crops in the coming weeks. A short supply makes it difficult for farmers to find apiarists with enough bees to pollinate their crops and also limits the amount of honey those bees produce.
“Of the 2.5 million colonies of bees in the United States, the almond crop in California alone requires approximately 2 million colonies, and this need is projected to increase significantly over the next few years,” according to the USDA annual survey on bees released in August of last year.
Whatever the cause of CCD, apiarists agree that a big part of the problem in California are widespread infestations of Varroa mites, which attach themselves to bees and slowly suck their blood, severely weakening and, at times, killing the larger insects.
Company officials say that while BeesVita Plus is a food supplement, not a pesticide, it’s listed as one because it also kills Varroa mites.
The product comes as a dry powder, so application simply involves scooping some out, opening the hive boxes and sprinkling the powder across the tops of the hives, each of which can number about 16,000 to 20,000 bees.
As for the effectiveness of Bees Vita Plus on his bees, Tolmachoff said he’s excited but will not know any time soon.
“We will find out if it is really working between May and July,” he said.