With eight legs, a reddish-brown flattened body and an appetite for honeybee blood, the Varroa mite has earned its reputation as the beast of the beehive.
The external parasite visible to the naked eye has devastated many a bee colony. Beekeeper Howard Kerr, who’s been keeping bees since 1965, first heard about them in the 1980s, before most anyone else here in the United States. He was on a trip to Germany and the mite already had made its unwelcome appearance there.
Bee master Eric Kaiser had a harried conversation with Kerr on the eve of a beekeeping conference specifically on the Varroa mite.
“I said ‘what’s that?’” Kerr, 77, remembers asking Kaiser.
Then Kaiser began to tell Kerr how they had contacted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to send a delegate to the German conference, but no one came.
“You are American and you are a beekeeper so you can be our U.S. delegate,” they told Kerr. They sat him front row and center.
Kerr was taken to a colony affected by the mites. The deadly insects were brought to Germany from Asia, Kerr was told, by unknowing German researchers.
Taking a look at the infected hives, Kerr said he knew the situation would become dire. It seems the Asian honeybees aren’t bothered by the Varroa mite because they groom each other and the mites fall to the ground and are eaten by other insects. U.S. honeybees don’t do that.
“If they see a mite on another bee, they just ignore it,” Kerr said.
So he went home from that meeting with a video that he began sharing with other beekeepers. He got an appointment with the state commissioner of agriculture, A.C. Clark. Kerr said he begged him to go out and sample bees to see if they had the mite.
“He said, ‘In the grand scheme of things, bees just aren’t that important,’” Kerr said Clark told him. “I will never forget that. He was the commissioner of agriculture. I said ‘thank you for wasting my time and yours’ and I closed my notebook and left.”
Kerr next visited the University of Tennessee and Pete Gossett, who was the vice president of the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture. Kerr shared the video and knowledge gained at the conference. He was a little more tactful and diplomatic, Kerr said.
“Honeybees only produce a little amount of honey relatively speaking to the volume of other crops,” Gossett explained. Kerr said that is certainly true, but bees are critical in the pollination of many crops.
In fact, the pollination bees provide is worth an annual $3.6 billion in crops annually, Kerr said. Of that number, bees contribute half a billion. “That is a big chunk of ag productivity.”
There are 4,000 species of wild bees in the United States, Kerr said. Bees pollinate the top 70 of 100 human food crops.
Feeling he still wasn’t getting anywhere, Kerr’s next visit was to then-state Sen. Carl Koella, who was himself a farmer. It wasn’t long before a bee program was initiated at the University of Tennessee.
John Skinner, a Blount Countian was hired. He served for 29 years, retiring in 2018.
His accommodations were crude at best in the early days. Skinner’s office was a desk and chair in a hallway, Kerr said Skinner told him.
“They gave him an old chicken lab for a bee lab,” Kerr said. “That is still the bee lab.”
Arriving via Florida
As it turns out, the Varroa mite made its way to the U.S. in the 1990s. A beekeeper in Florida allegedly is responsible for its spreading. He sold bees to 20 different states — bees that were infected with the Varroa mite. It showed up in Tennessee in the late 1990s.
Kerr served in the state House of Representatives from 1994 to 2000 and wrote and got passed the Tennessee Apiary Act of 1995, which modernized state laws about beekeeping. Gray Haun, who at that time was in the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, worked closely with Kerr to address new issues impacting honeybees and beekepers.
Kerr’s career was as a research engineer for 37 years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
There were just a few mite invaders at first, but the mite population grew quickly. A treatment was developed and that worked for a while, Kerr said, but in the winter of 2017-18 there was a tremendous loss of bees across the state.
“We lost 50 to 95% of our bees in the state,” Kerr said. “The 95% was in Upper East Tennessee.”
Numbers don’t lie
During that devastating winter, Kerr himself lost down from 81 colonies to only 18. In one season. Last year, losses were huge again. Kerr said he lost 76% of his colonies.
He says he knows what he did wrong. He continued to use the same mite treatment for years and the mites simply developed immunity toward it. He said he should have done testing to see if the medications were doing their job.
Factors other than the mites have contributed to bee losses. There are viruses, diseases and pesticides that affect the bee population negatively. Lack of knowledge or poor management factors in as well.
There are numerous beekeepers in Blount County, and most have suffered greatly, Kerr said. He said it took UT more than a year to hire a replacement for Skinner, and precious time was lost. That is especially true for the upcoming budget. Because there was no one in the position, there was no one to submit requests for the bee program.
Shirley Schmidt and her husband, Al, own Maple Lane Farms in Blount County. They grow a wide variety of vegetables they sell on-site, at local farmers markets and to the Aubrey’s chain of restaurants. She said last year, when bees were supposed to be pollinating their crops, there were none to be found. The only thing she knew to do was call Kerr, a longtime friend.
Kerr brought some of his hives to Maple Lane to help. Schmidt said if he hadn’t done so, they would have been in a world of hurt.
“When I normally pick squash, I have bees buzzing all around me,” Schmidt said. “In other years, I was lucky to even see one on a blossom or in flight.”
The bees also are needed in fall for the pumpkins.
As for this year, Schmidt said she hasn’t seen any bees yet. Kerr has told them to cut down a field of clover so the bees will concentrate on the vegetables instead.
‘”People don’t realize how important bees are to farmers,” she said. “Bees are workers. They work for the farmer.”
Because of a wet spring, the Schmidts have gotten their crops in the ground late this year. They remain hopeful for a good season. If they need Kerr again, they will call.
UT steps up
UT has hired a replacement for Skinner, Jennifer Tsuruda. She came onboard this year and is working to get her program funded. The state legislature has been working with UT to see what can be done. Some money has been allocated. Kerr is cautiously optimistic funding will come through.
Kerr keeps his bees on 2 acres in Blount County. He said bees forage for about a 1-mile radius. We need bees on a mile-and-a-half grid system across the state, he said. Looking at the numbers, we fall short.
Mike Studer, state apiarist, said there are 36,000 bee colonies in the state and that Tennessee needs 84,000 for pollination purposes.
Just recently, Kerr drove down to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, loaded up some bees he purchased and drove them back. “I brought bees back because a lot of people need bees,” he said. “These are new colonies. I got 250 packages of bees from Georgia. We are selling the heck out of bees because they are dying.”
What will happen this year? Kerr and other beekeepers can’t know. He said beekeepers need to treat for mites and sample for effectiveness. Then there are pesticides and insecticides that are fatal to bees. Kerr said he lost several bees a few years ago because someone was spraying while his bees were foraging.
“The major challenge facing beekeepers is we still don’t have enough beekeepers,” Kerr said. “We don’t have enough bees. We don’t need humongous beekeepers. We need them spread across the state. There has to be programs developed across the state.”