Wildfires deal another blow to Northern California’s fragile bee populations

28 November 2020

Published by https://www.sfchronicle.com/

USA – The flatbed truck was laden with chickens and honey as Caroline Yelle sped away from her Vacaville apiary, away from the flames licking the ridgeline. The honeybees would have to stay behind.

By the time she returned, more than half of her 700 bee hives were reduced to ashes. The surrounding hills, once thick with yellow star thistle where the bees gathered pollen, were stone gray and barren from the Hennessey Fire.

Yelle, owner of Pope Canyon Queens, is among the many beekeepers trying to rebuild after a historically destructive wildfire season that consumed millions of acres statewide. The wildfires dealt yet another devastating blow to the all-important pollinator already facing myriad challenges, from mite infestations to widespread colony collapse.

Even for beekeepers who didn’t lose hives to the flames, the vast amounts of smoke hampered honey production by disrupting the bees’ natural routines. The fires also destroyed vegetation where bees forage for nectar and pollen.

When honeybees smell smoke, the effect is “like a fire drill on a submarine,” said Chris Conrad, owner of Bee Conscious Removal in Santa Rosa.

Smoke disrupts the insects’ alarm pheromones — that’s why beekeepers often use small amounts of smoke when working on their hives. Rather than flee, the bees zoom inside the hive and gorge on honey deposits.

It’s just one reason for the bees’ seemingly paradoxical tendency to stay put, rather than retreat from wildfires. Another reason they rarely abscond: The queen’s heavy abdomen makes her too heavy to fly on short notice and the bees will not abandon her.

“If the fires come licking around, they’ll hunker down and try to survive,” said Conrad, who tends about four dozen hives. “They may run out of food, but they’ll die in the box.”

It’s a phenomenon that Napa and San Francisco beekeeper Jeffrey MacMullen knows well. The owner of We Be Honey lost several colonies in Napa to smoke in the early autumn months, as wildfire smoke drifted from the Glass Fire. The bees that survived required constant care and supervision after weeks of smoke-darkened skies prevented them from foraging for pollen.

Many of the surviving hives depleted their stores of honey in the weeks the bees spent hunkered down as fires raged outside. The bees could die over the winter if they run out of honey. That’s why MacMullen gave his hives supplemental sugar syrup to sustain them, a common practice among beekeepers.

“My approach is making sure bees don’t starve and they have something for winter,” he said one recent afternoon as he prepared his wares for a farmers market.

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