Big buzz for Va. Beehive Distribution Program following winter of historic hive losses

Virginia News

This undated photo provided by Rich Hatfield shows a western bumble bee (Bombus occidentalis) lands on Canada goldenrod. The Pacific Northwest Bumble Bee Atlas for Idaho, Oregon and Washington that started this month aims to accumulate detailed information about bumblebees with the help of hundreds of citizen scientists spreading out across the three states. (Rich […]

More than 2,600 applications were sent in for the new Beehive Distribution Program, which formed after restructuring an older initiative run by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS).

Beekeepers saw historic drops this winter. VDACS reports about 60 percent of hives were lost.

“It’s disheartening,” Ed Mekalian, a beekeeper based in Henrico County, said. “It could really almost put some beekeepers out of the game.”

Working with bees has been a way of life for Mekalian.

“I grew up keeping bees with my grandfather. Probably a total of about 50 years now,” he said.

While prepping for the seasons ahead, Mekalian went to check on some hives that had been treated for mites on Wednesday.

“Once all of the honey comes off in June and July, we want to go ahead and put in treatments in the hive that will make the home conducive to the bees being able to survive the summer when resources are low. Then be ready to populate in the fall to get ready for our winter,” he said.

It’s a hobby gone wild for Mekalian. A tattoo on his left arm has a woman dressed in a beekeepers suit with the words “Hunny Be Good” draped in a ribbon. That’s the name of his business.

But he and others beekeepers have seen a change over the years. A variety of things such as the cold, viruses, pets and colony collapse disorder have been affecting the hives.

The state apiarist Keith Tignor says the losses this winter were historic. It was the biggest decrease in hives since the mid-1990’s.

“Thirty years ago was a totally different world as far as beekeeping. We didn’t have as many of the pets and diseases that they’re subjected to know,” Tignor said.

Other pollinators are also going through “similar struggles” in recent years, according to Tignor. The rusty patched bumble bee, native to Virginia, was recently put on the endangered species.

“We’re hoping that by at least addressing the honeybees, that we can help,” Tignor said.

VDACS has been working with the General Assembly to create a number of programs to help these pollinators survive. One of them was the Beehive Grant Program, which started in 2013. Beekeepers could apply for reimbursements for materials and hives from the state after making a purchase.

“We were able to help a lot of people with the finances of getting them started into beekeeping. It was a program that unfortunately we had more applications than available funding for it,” Tignor explained. “So, that put a financial burden on individuals and we felt like that was not something they should incur since they’re already constructing these hives, starting new beehives.”

Over the years, less money was given to the fund. According to a state report, $5,505 was allocated during the 2017 fiscal year and $4,304 the year after. That’s compared to more than $153,000 in the 2014 fiscal year. 

Mekalian and other beekeepers he knows applied for the grants. After two or three years, one of his friends was able to get reimbursed. Mekalian never saw any of the money.

The General Assembly passed and Governor Northam signed into law HB1152, restructuring the program to distribute hives instead of providing reimbursements. There was $125,000 allocated in the budget for the initiative.

Right now, VDACS is working to find a contractor to make the hives. They estimate the cost per hive will be between $100 and $150.

“We are soliciting bids from our vendors to see what the costs of those hives is going to be, so we know how many hives we can order based on the amount of funding we have available,” Tignor said.

Applications closed on Monday, thirty days after the process opened to the public. The law allows VDACS to stop accepting applications when the funds available are considered exhausted.

“We have the opportunity to close the applications. We’ve done that because we’ve received so many applications that we feel that we’ve exhausted the funding that’s available from those who have requested the hives,” Tignor said.

Tignor says there is enough money in the budget so people can apply next year. The application process will open July 1, 2019.

“There was a great number of applications of the Beehive Distribution Program and that’s encouraging for us. It’s telling us that number one, this is a program that people want. It’s also telling us that this is an activity that people want to become involved in,” Tignor added.

According to a state report on the Beehive Grant Program, about 60 percent of the people enrolled in only had “none” or “limited” knowledge of beekeeping. That’s compared to 8 percent who had 5 years or more experience working with hives.

Beekeepers, like Mekalian, think these programs will help attract new beekeepers and protect the hives already growing.

“I hope over the next couple of years that just contributes to more people getting involved in beekeeping,” he said.

If you’re buzzing to get involved, Mekalian says people interested should find a mentor from a local association. He’s part of two, the Richmond Beekeepers Association and the Ashland Beekeepers Association. Groups like these can help you get started, showing you how to work your hives so they thrive throughout the year.

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