Tucked in a clearing off the side of Chatham Street in Cary, hundreds of honeybees go about their business.
These bees are part of the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Beneficial Insect Lab, their hives sitting in front of the lab building within a greenhouse frame.
The lab is part of the department’s apiary program, which is itself a part of the Plant Industry Division. The apiary program is responsible for maintaining the health of North Carolina’s honeybee population, which is no small job. The number of colonies in the state has grown “exponentially” over the last 10 years, said Don Hopkins, apiary inspection supervisor.
“There was a phenomenon around 10 years ago known as colony collapse disorder which inspired a lot of people who were not beekeepers to say, ‘I want to save the bees,’” Hopkins said. “There are around 4,000 species of bees in America, and about 500 in North Carolina. The bee population has really bounced back.”
For the apiary program, that means there is always something to do. Apiary inspectors such as Hopkins must monitor bees being sold in North Carolina, as selling honeybees requires a permit, as well as those moved across state lines. Any bees coming or going must be certified safe by the sender and then permitted by the receiver, and the NCDA&CS apiary program handles both.
This is all to prevent the spread of diseases in bee colonies, Hopkins said. It’s the job the apiary program has been called to do since it was established in the 1930’s.
“American Foul Brood was the main concern at the time, enough so that the state decided that it was worth it to create an apiary program,” Hopkins said. “Since then, there are many more recent pests to have been added on to our mandate.”
One of those recent pests is the varroa mite, a persistent problem for bee colonies and one of the causes of colony collapse disorder. Introduced in America in 1987, the mites are now “ubiquitous” in beehives, according to Hopkins. The arthropods nest on the bee brood, where larval bees develop, and feed on the organs known as fat bodies in the abdomen of the insects.
By doing this, varroa mites can spread disease and generally “cause havoc” for bee colonies, similar to how ticks transmit disease to humans, Hopkins said.
With an influx of new beekeepers in recent years, helping spread knowledge about threats like the varroa mite has become an essential part of the apiary program.
“Every hive is going to have some level of mites, but you’re not always going to be able to tell how many you have at a glance,” Hopkins said. “We try to assist beekeepers in being aware of their mite levels, and help parse out recommendations for them based on those levels.”
The apiary program also serves as a watchdog of sorts, tracking threats to both bees and humans and working to keep them out of North Carolina. Among those threats are Africanized bees, also known as “killer bees,” which first entered the United States in the early 1990’s.
Those highly aggressive bees look nearly identical to regular honeybees, and it takes a trained specialist to tell the difference. Glenn Hackney, agricultural research technician, is one such specialist. It is his job to regularly examine bees to make sure that Africanized species have not entered North Carolina.
Africanized bees have shorter wingspans than regular honeybees, so Hackney checks for them by measuring the wing lengths of the bees. He does so using a projector to create a large image of the insect on a wall. Then he can measure the length of the projected bees wing and, using a scale, calculates the wings actual length.
So far, Africanized bees have not been found in North Carolina, Hopkins said, outside of one incident in the state’s port cities.
“There was an incident more than 20 years ago where some were found on ships, one in Wilmington and one in Morehead City,” he said. “Those were depopulated. Since then, we’re still looking but not seeing any and hoping not to see any.”
Beekeeping continues to grow in popularity, and the apiary program has resources to help both aspiring or established beekeepers thrive. For more information, including an up-to-date apiary registration form, visit www.ncagr.gov/plantindustry/Plant/apiary/index.htm.
Photographs by the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.