Bees may be in decline but interest in them is abuzz

Photo courtesy of Dan Gilrein
Worker honeybees will travel up to three miles away from their hives to forage for food and pollinate flowers. Local beekeepers say they are trying to help boost declining honeybee populations with colonies of their own.

Getting stung by a bee is the least of Laura Bavaro’s worries. But when it happens, the 36-year-old beekeeper takes the blame.

“Sometimes, you squish a bee and it stings you,” she said from behind a netted headdress Sunday afternoon, working one of 45 hives she keeps on Latham’s Farm in Orient. “But even if they are agitated, they really don’t want to sting you, because then their butts fall out and they die.”

Ms. Bavaro, who maintains 35 other colonies near her Southold home, is only one of several beekeepers, or apiarists, working on the North Fork to keep the natural world buzzing with honeybees.

Spring is the busiest time of year for beekeepers of all stripes, from the professional to the budding hobbyist — all of whom are worried about the steadily declining population of honeybees, said master beekeeper Ray Lackey. Without bees to pollinate plants, he said, reproduction won’t occur and new seeds won’t be produced — which means no more plants.

“For a long time, beekeepers on Long Island were immigrants” from Europe, said Mr. Lackey, owner of Sweet Pines Apiary in Bohemia and teacher of several classes on beekeeping. “A lot of those old-time beekeepers have given up, but what I’m seeing now is a new generation interested in the land and the environment.”

Mr. Lackey is currently teaching a once-a-month beekeeping class at the Dorothy P. Flint 4-H Camp in Riverhead.

According to Jay Evans, a bee specialist for 11 years with the United States Department of Agriculture in Maryland, professional and hobbyist beekeepers are “working harder than usual” on maintaining their honeybee colonies due to declining populations in the U.S.

“The last major drop was about 10 years ago, and they’ve been steadily declining since,” he said. “We had about five million colonies in the 1950s, now we’re down to about three million.”

Mr. Evans said the reasons for the decline range from pesticides to parasitic mites to economic pressures that make beekeeping less profitable.

“It’s terribly hard for a beekeeper to make a living these days,” he said. “But as people become more aware of beekeeping and its beneficial effects on farming” — without bees to carry pollen, there wouldn’t be much farming