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Probe into massive bee die-off leaves owners, experts puzzled

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Kim Tinker of Sandy shows a one of the combs from her hive. Tinker lost at least half of her bees in the spring, but the hive has rebuilt itself since then. Four Clackamas County beekeepers may never know what killed their bees June 18.

“I came home and there was just piles of dead bees,” said Kim Tinker, an amateur beekeeper in Sandy who lost half her hive that day.

Tinker’s were just some of thousands of bees that perished seemingly overnight in separate locations across an approximately 24-square-mile area, but the Oregon Department of Agriculture announced Monday, Aug. 11, that neither parasites, disease nor pesticides were the cause.

Though pesticides often are blamed for beehive collapses — as was the case in a widely publicized June 2013 spraying of trees in the Wilsonville Target parking lot — investigators feel confident that was not the cause here.

“I was surprised that they didn’t find any pesticides, however, I guess I have to accept the results for what they are,” said Estacada beekeeper Jon Beaty. “It was just a mystery to me what might have caused so many bees to die all at once.”

Department of Agriculture spokesperson Dale Mitchell said the Oregon State University Honey Bee Lab worked with agencies across the nation to create a list of 39 indicative chemicals that could point to pesticide contamination in pollinators.

“By creating that screen, we actually created a tool that will help us going into the future,” Mitchell said. “Not all pesticide products may have a reaction or an effect on pollinators.”

Beekeeper Austin Bennington, who lost one of his hives in Gresham, said he was disappointed not to have an answer to what caused the hive collapse and questioned whether the test was comprehensive enough.

“I’ve never seen it before,” Bennington said of the bee deaths. “I’ve never heard of something like that happening in rapid order like that in a short period of time.”

Mitchell defended the test as thoroughly vetted by experts.

“We recognize that it is not a 100 percent list,” Mitchell said, “but it is a list of the active ingredients that could be in the area and be harmful to bees.”

Photo Credit: REVIEW FILE PHOTO - Pesticides often are blamed for beehive collapses, but investigators feel confident that was not what caused thousands of bees to die this summer in Clackamas County.

Starving bees?

In documents released by the Department of Agriculture, investigators theorized that the bees could have starved as they found little honey and pollen in the hives surrounded by hundreds of dead bees.

However, the amateur beekeepers thoroughly deny those accusations.

“That was not the case for my hive. It had food. It was fed,” Bennington said, adding that food sources are widely available in summer. “I’ve lost bees to starvation before, not usually when forage is available.”

Beekeeper Beaty lost one of two hives and said he thought it was highly unlikely that one would have died of starvation when the other was thriving.

“We’ve got a lot of options for the bees to forage out here,” Beaty said. “I wouldn’t expect that to be an issue for my bees.”

Mitchell said the Department of Agriculture considers these cases closed, but it will continue to work with a statewide task force on coming up with explanations and solutions to the increasing number of hive collapses.

“We’re maybe not solving the mystery in Clackamas County, but pollinator protection is still a high priority for our agency.”



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