(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — Apiarists first sounded the alarm in 2006 — something wasn’t right, and the bees were missing. That was the first noted period of colony collapse disorder. While it might mark the first noted period, and while it may have fallen out of headlines, the issue hasn’t resolved itself.

Colony collapse disorder is when the bees abandon the queen. Many theories abound as to why colony collapse occurs — a certain type of mite that lives on bees may be weakening their immune systems, a lack of crop diversification may make them move on, or pesticide and herbicide may be killing the bees. Whatever the cause, it’s affecting beekeepers throughout the commonwealth.

“Pennsylvania over the winter saw a 60% loss,” said Lynn Urban, a beekeeper in Harborcreek.

Sarah Bennett of Asbury Woods, left, and Harborcreek beekeeper Lynn Urban pose for a photo at Asbury Woods.

Urban met with JET 24/FOX 66 and Sarah Bennett at Asbury Woods Nature Center to talk about the state of honeybees and colony collapse in Erie. Urban was soft spoken and wore an Asbury Woods T-shirt. He had a dry sense of humor that snuck into the conversation often. But the discussion of colony collapse disorder was serious to Urban and Bennett.

“60% is a pretty big loss,” said Bennett, the director of education and community programs at Asbury Woods.

Sure, it’s a big loss, but it was woefully expected.

“That’s pretty much the norm anymore — the winter loss,” Urban said.

“We don’t know exactly why — there’s no one cause,” Bennett explained. “Because the bees have the Varroa mites, they have some viruses going on… they’re livestock, and they’re bred, so their immune systems are not very strong.”

Then there’s crop diversity. Acres upon acres of all the same plant — sometimes hundreds of acres — and when the flowering is over, the bees have no more food.

“You add pesticides and herbicides that they come into contact with, and they carry that dust back into the hive, and that also leads to a weaker hive, and that especially affects the larvae… There are a lot of pressures on honeybees.”

Honeybees are nonnative. They were introduced from Europe in the 17th century. Now they’re integral to several crops, from citrus crops in Florida to Almond crops in California. There are anywhere from 20,000 to 80,000 bees in a colony. Urban said when he lifts bees out of hives, they remind him of pulling apart Velcro and they vibrate in his hands. At one point, there were almost double the honeybees in the U.S. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were some 5 million managed honey bee colonies in the 1940s, and now there are only about 2.66 million.

“There’s so much unsolved science behind them — why are they sick? Why did this beehive make it through the winter? What about the bees in the tree who have been there for 12 years, and why are they still there when I lost mine during the winter?… They’re on their own, so what are we doing wrong? ” Urban said.

Honeybees are prized not only for their pollination, but also for their honey. Spring, summer and fall honey vary in color, but Urban said he can’t really differentiate between the taste and which flowers were scoured of their pollen to make the honey. The minute the honeybees hatch, Urban said, they begin working, and they work themselves to death, flying until their wings fall apart (for a total lifespan of about six weeks). Nearly all of the honeybees are female, and they do all of the work. The male bees procreate. And while honeybees pollinate crops, they’re not the only pollinators — and they’re not the only bees. The U.S. Geological Survey notes that there are more than 20,000 bee species worldwide, and 4,000 are native to the U.S. Urban said some 400 varieties of bees, wasps and hornets are in Pennsylvania.

“Most people know about honeybees, and most people know about pollination through honeybees, but our native pollinators — all of those other bees and wasps and hornets, and flies, and butterflies, and moths –they’re just as important, and incredibly important to pollinating in the woods and our fields,” Bennett said. But there was more bad news on that front: “They’re also not doing great — we just don’t have as many solid numbers on them because it’s hard to research insects. But they also are declining based on all of the research that has been done.”

Everyday people can help the pollinators — honeybees and native pollinators alike.

“We can all do things to help honeybees and other pollinators in the area,” Bennett said.

She suggested that people stop the pursuit of “beautifully manicured lawns.” Instead, let the flowers grow, even if they’re not the exact flower you prefer in the lawn. Plant wildflower gardens, Bennett said, with milkweed, black-eyed Susans and blackberries. Focus your efforts on a variety of plants that will offer flowers across all seasons.

About twice per week in the spring, Urban is called to rescue a swarm of bees that has been working to establish a new colony on someone’s property. That’s how colonies reproduce, Urban explained — a new queen is crowned in the original colony, and the old queen goes on to lead the new colony. In Erie County, people with unwanted swarms can contact Asbury Woods or the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association to get help.

Urban says would-be beekeepers shouldn’t start by getting bees. Instead, he suggests that procuring a colony is the last step in becoming a beekeeper. Start with learning (Asbury Woods offers an beekeeping for beginners course), he said, and he suggested talking to more than one beekeeper about it. Urban has been beekeeping since 2014 and he’s still learning.

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“I’ve learned a lot of fascinating behaviors in honeybees — stuff that I would have never thought. They’re just bugs,” Urban said with a laugh. “The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn, and once I started learning, it’s been endless, and I’m grateful for that.”