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Beekeepers take steps toward improving bee health

Rusty Foltz, president of Beekeepers of the Northern Shenandoah, removes a frame from one of his hives at Mackintosh Fruit Farm. Foltz and other club members are hoping to improve both bee health and food production through hobby beekeping efforts. Katie Demeria/Daily (Buy photo)

Bees buzz around honey on a frame from their hive held by Rusty Foltz. Katie Demeria/Daily (Buy photo)

Rusty Foltz inspects bees within one of his many hives at Mackintosh Fruit Farm in Berryville. Katie Demeria/Daily (Buy photo)

By Katie Demeria

BERRYVILLE -- Honey bees across the United States, including those in Virginia, are dying at an alarming rate. But local beekeepers want to change that pattern.

The Virginia Department of Consumer Services recently released a news release urging residents to check pesticide labels to ensure the products do not kill bees.

But the release also noted that several stressors, such as poor bee nutrition, loss of forage lands, parasites and pathogens, are also contributing to the dramatic loss in bee populations. That is why local beekeepers are hoping to do something about the health of bees in Virginia.

Rusty Foltz is the president of Beekeepers of the Northern Shenandoah. His club, he said, has been growing consistently more popular. Every year they see more individuals attempt to enroll in their Beginning Beekeeping course.

"What we're hoping to do and certainly what our club is trying to do is encourage people to keep bees and to plant bee-friendly flowers," Foltz said.

Bees, Foltz pointed out, are essential to the food production process. A vast majority of the bees that suffer from colony collapse disorder are those kept on large commercial farms -- where pesticides are used in large amounts.

But even if the pesticide issue is contained, he added, those bees are still not benefiting from a diverse amount of forage and are still traveling quite a bit, increasing the likelihood that they will pick up a disease of some sort.

"The bad news is, those things are not going to change," Foltz said. "Our agriculture has become a huge business that relies on pesticides and new scientific approaches such as [genetically modified organisms] and so forth. We're not going to upset that."

The answer, Foltz said, works directly with other grassroots movements that have erupted all over the country: locally grown food. Local food sources will do better with locally grown bees, and honey made by those bees will include a host of health benefits not found in the commercial products.

Right now, he pointed out, most local bees originate from out of state. But Beekeepers of the Northern Shenandoah club is working to start developing homegrown, Virginia queens.

And the club is not alone in this pursuit. Local beekeeper Scott Currie of Toms Brook Busy Bee has the exact same goal in mind.

"If I can grow more local bees, meaning I produce more and more and keep them local and have local queens, they become better acclimated to the conditions around our area, rather than taking queens from Georgia," Currie said. "They'll be more likely to survive Virginia winters, for example."

Currie pointed out that Africanized bees, which are very aggressive, have also been reported in Georgia. Keeping bees in Virginia and not ordering from other states could prevent the aggressive strands from coming to the commonwealth.

As president of the club, Foltz said he hopes to educate the community about bees and what can be done to help them.

"It's definitely something we should be alarmed about," he added. "This affects a lot of food out there, not just what the honey bee pollinates, but also what other bees pollinate -- it is extremely important."

To find out more about the club, visit www.valleybees.org or email valleybeekeepers@gmail.com.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com

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