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Bees under assault

Randy Oliver’s front yard is a jumble of empty wooden bee boxes, mason jars, smokers, veils and buzzing swirls of honey bees.

Oliver is Nevada County’s resident bee man, and he is not shy to tell you that his knowledge of bees has gained him recognition by beekeepers and scientists around the world.

“We’re looking at how to keep bees healthy,” Oliver said. Bees are needed to pollinate gardens, orchards and crops, but their populations are being diminished by pesky mites and an unknown pathogen.



Just back from Australia, Oliver will give a presentation on the state of beekeeping throughout the world at the Nevada City Farmers Market at 10 a.m. today.

Oliver’s niche in the world of bees is to follow scientific research in areas such as virology (the study of viruses), gerontology (the study of aging), population modeling, ecology and pesticides and to turn that knowledge into advice that practical beekeepers can understand and use.




In order to study the bees, Oliver houses the insects all over the county, including on his own property.

“Anything you see here is a drop in the bucket. I have 20 yards of bees in Nevada County and 10 more in Nevada. Most of it is hand-shake agreements,” he said.

Oliver heads out to the bee boxes with a smoker filled with burning pine needles and woodchips. Smoke changes the bees’ behavior, and they stop defending the colony. He wears little more than a T-shirt, shorts and Birkenstocks.

“If you really know bees, you know what you can get away with,” said Oliver, boasting that he’s been stung tens of thousands of times.

“This is the pattern that makes beekeepers drool,” he said as he pulled out a comb crawling with plump-bodied bees. More bees buzzed impatiently in the hot sun above Oliver’s head as he studied the insects and sampled some golden syrup.

In recent years, a pesky varroa mite has caused huge economic losses for beekeepers. Oliver is working to develop a colony that hatches in less time than normal breeds to strengthen the resistance to the mite without depending on chemicals.

Mitocides used to fight the mites have begun to fail, because the mites rapidly develop an immunity.

Besides commercial bees, the mite has nearly wiped out native or feral bees found in the wild that in the past naturally pollinated gardens and orchards.

The demand for bees to pollinate California almond orchards has jumped because of the loss of wild bees. It now represents 25 percent of an almond grower’s cost to do business, up from 8 percent previously, Oliver said. In February, half of all bees in the United States are trucked to California to pollinate Central Valley almond orchards.

In the past two years, an unknown pathogen has been killing bees, as much as 30 to 40 percent of colonies worldwide. This is causing the agricultural world to sit up and take notice of the small insect’s critical role to crops.

“It’s harder to keep bees alive now. We’re not worried about the bees going extinct. We’re worried about the beekeepers,” he said.

To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail lbrown@theunion.com or call 477-4231.


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