What we commonly call honeybees in the United States are really descendants of the European bees brought to this continent by the early settlers. Over the centuries, some of them escaped to form the "wild" colonies that inhabit hollow trees in the woods.

The European honeybee is also the critter that bee keepers raise for production of honey and as a source of pollinators for many crops. Over 90 crops including apples, cucumbers, squash and others depend heavily on honeybees to carry the pollen from male flowers to the pistils of the female flowers.

Most of us think that honeybees work by carrying pollen from plant to plant in those sacks on their legs. In reality, the pollination they do is totally by accident. Honeybees are fuzzy creatures. As they crawl around in the flowers, pollen dust accumulates on the "hairs" on the bee’s body. When it moves to another flower, some of the pollen rubs off on the pistil of that flower and starts the process of pollination.

Ever get a cucumber that was misshapen with tiny, undeveloped seeds inside? This was probably due to poor pollination. It is estimated that bees must visit each female cucumber flower at least ten times for proper pollination to occur. This will result in a properly shaped cucumber fruit.

In recent years two tiny spider mites and mite-related diseases have led to the death of most wild honeybees. Estimates for this loss range as high as 95 to 97% of the wild bees. Hobby beekeepers routinely lose up to half or more of their hives every year.

Commercial bee hives have also been attacked but beekeepers have had been able to counteract the problem. They have one chemical that will help but the key is usually their ability to purchase new, uninfected queens to reestablish their hives each year.

Research efforts at major universities are focusing on the Varroa mite and its biology. They are trying to identify the pests complete life cycle to determine the best point to attack it. Control measures must consider that the mites are in the hive along with the bees. Chemical treatments are difficult because they may contaminate the honey. Also, since the mites, although not technically insects, are close in nature to the bees, it is tough to find something that controls them but which does not also kill the bee.

The ultimate long-term solution is to breed bees that are resistant to the effects of the mites. Unfortunately, this is a very time-consuming process and success is not guaranteed. Results of this type of program will be many years down the road.

Note: We have provided some general information and observations on this topic aimed at the home gardener. Before you take any serious action in your landscape, check with your state's land grant university's Cooperative Extension Service for the most current, appropriate, localized recommendations.

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