If this is the Beehive State, where are all the honeybees?
An invasion of killer mites has thinned the state's feral, or wild, colonies in the past few years, so people may not see as many bees hanging around their backyard gardens and fruit trees this summer.But Ed Bianco, entomologist for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, said he does not think mites have killed enough bees to affect pollination and reduce fruit and vegetable production.
"I think the wild colonies are probably dealing with the problem in a natural way and probably are actually dealing with it better than some of our raised bees," Bianco said.
Some beekeepers estimate that up to 90 percent of the state's wild bee colonies have been wiped out by the killer mites. Bianco said he has no estimate of how many bees have died, but he doubts it reaches 90 percent.
Two kinds of mites arrived in the United States in the mid-1980s on bees imported from Europe.
The varroa mite, now present in 49 states, is an external mite that attaches itself to a larval or adult honeybee. The mite feeds on an adult bee's blood, and it can lead to deformities when bees are attacked during earlier stages of development.
The tracheal mite is internal. It gets inside a bee's tracheal tube and makes breathing difficult.
And to make matters worse, mites often carry viral and bacterial infections that can wipe out hives.
Bill Jones of Jones Bee Co. in Salt Lake City said honeybees in the United States have almost no resistance to the mites.
"If you don't treat, you don't have bees," Jones said. "Nobody treats the feral colonies, so we don't have them. And there's plenty of evidence to suggest that we don't."
Jones said people used to call him when swarms of wild bees were in their neighborhoods. He almost never receives those calls now.
Bryan Cox, a beekeeper in Providence, Cache County, said the mites are still around, but beekeepers know how to handle them.
"It's still a problem. It hasn't gone away," he said. "But it's more of a problem when you're taking shots in the dark."
The state's bee industry produced 1.6 million pounds of honey valued at $1.3 million in 1996.
Bianco said beekeepers can use several chemicals and procedures to maintain that production and fight the mites.
"Certainly (mites) have an impact on bee populations and honey production, but we're better able to deal with it than we were 10 years ago," he said. "It's a threat to those who may not address the (problem), who do not take care of it as they should."
Apistan is the most popular product for killing varroa mites. Studies in Florida show that the mites are starting to build up a resistance to Apistan, but Bianco said other products soon should be available to fight the tiny, reddish-brown creatures.
In the meantime, he said, bees face a threat that is much larger than mites.
"There may be some drop (in bee numbers), and in part that may be due to a lot of the urbanization taking place along the Wasatch Front, in Utah and in general," he said.