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Sticky situation for state beekeepers

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last year, West Virginia had its fewest honey-producing bee colonies since at least 1994 -- partly because beekeepers are giving up, the state's bee inspector said.

In 2011, about 4,000 West Virginia bee colonies produced honey, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, down from 5,000 colonies from 2010. Between 2006 and 2010, the numbers were between 5,000 and 6,000. As recently as 1994, there were 20,000 bee colonies producing honey in the state.

Nationwide, nearly 2.5 million bee colonies produced honey in 2011 -- a 7 percent drop from 2010, according to the USDA.

Wade Stiltner, a longtime apiarist (that means beekeeper) and the state Department of Agriculture's bee inspector, agrees that fewer people are beekeeping in the Mountain State.

Instead of preserving land that is full of wildflowers -- which the bees pollinate and ultimately use to produce honey -- West Virginians are destroying those areas, Stiltner said.

"Housing developments, malls, golf courses, football stadiums -- we're losing farms and ground that would be used for honey production that are going into other things now. We're losing more and more forage areas." Stiltner said. "I'm 59 years old and I can see places that were big, beautiful farms are now suburbs. Every time this happens there's less and less honey production going on. It's just a little more and more every year."

For those who do have the land, keeping bees isn't cheap, said Paul Carbonneau, owner of Killer Bee Honey in Hurricane. The apiarist has 58 hives producing honey on his 11 acres in Putnam County, as well as two Cabell County properties

Carbonneau, 69, started beekeeping at 14 years old, but officially got back into it four years ago.

It's a tough business that discourages many people, Carbonneau said. Not only does he check on his bees daily, there's also the hassle of putting on the bee suit every time, since Killer Bee is a one-man operation.

Carbonneau harvests, extracts the honey, bottles and labels everything himself to prepare it for sale.

One problem for the beekeeping profession, he said, is its small demographic.

There are 946 registered beekeepers in West Virginia, many of them elderly, Stiltner said.

In the United States, there are 125,000 beekeepers handling honey (including apiarists with just one hive), said Troy Fore, director of government relations at the American Beekeeping Federation.

"We don't have a lot of entrepreneurs who are young in this business. Maybe we're not getting out to the youth of America and West Virginia that beekeeping is a vital enterprise. It's a money-making occupation," Carbonneau said.

Honey prices rose to a record high of nearly $1.73 per pound -- up 7 percent from 2010's nearly $1.62 per pound, according to the USDA.

Although the U.S. imports about two-thirds of its honey, Fore said, many people are particular to buying local honey.

Stiltner -- who enjoys honey slathered on a toasted piece of bread with peanut butter -- agrees with that.

"In my mind, more people are turned on to natural, healthy, local food. People here are buying local honey," he said.

Despite the decrease in the number of bee colonies, West Virginians had more local honey available to them in 2011 than in 2010. The state's honeybees produced 212,000 pounds of honey in 2011, 12,000 more than the previous year prior.

That's not the case nationwide, where honeybees produced 148 million pounds of honey -- 16 percent less -- in 2011 than 2010, according to the USDA.

The biggest factor in honey production is weather, Fore said. If you have good weather, bees will make more honey, he said.

Honey production is affected by droughts, freezes, too much rain, and natural disasters, Stiltner said.

This year, late freezes have already damaged crops in West Virginia, he said.

 "Despite the freeze, we're still having a pretty good spring so far on honey," Stiltner said. "But the way the environment has been happening the last couple of years, any time a hurricane, tornado or disaster happens, that place is devastated for a couple years in honey production."

West Virginia had a considerable amount of rain last year, Carbonneau said, one reason his honeybees only produced 1,800 pounds of honey. Bees don't work in the rain and flowers get washed out, Fore said.

"Two weeks of rain can make a difference on thousands of pounds of honey," Stiltner said. "If it rains a lot, it washes the nectar out of the flower."

Stiltner still hopes that this year, his 150 bee colonies will produce more than the 3,500 pounds they've churned out the past couple of years. The same 150 colonies produced seven tons of honey eight years ago, but with good weather he hopes for more honey.

"I'm thinking we're going to have a better crop this year. We're set up for a really good honey year. I'll be sitting there watching The Weather Channel every night," Stiltner said. "That's farming."

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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