Oregon Beekeepers Still Worry About Wildfire Repercussions
The wildfires in southern Oregon killed countless millions or even billions of bees. Nobody will ever know how many. Now local beekeepers are worried about the future of the hives, and the effects of the fires into the future.
Sharon Schmidt is one of many beekeepers in the area who lost hives during the incessant, relentless flames. She lost 8 hives in the Almeda fire, with about 40,000 bees in each. That’s roughly 320,000 bees, belonging to just one beekeeper. Not only did she lose the bees, the hives were also lost, and in the end, nothing was left except the bricks that they stood on. Total incineration.
As founder of the nonprofit Cascade Girl, which educates about beekeeping and advocates for bees, she had several hives scattered around the Rogue Valley that she used to educate people about bees.
Schmidt noticed less activity from her younger bees near the front of the hives during the 2018 wildfire season. Another problem bees experience after being exposed to a lot of smoke is lethargy. This means they don’t fly out to forage, and can lead to a shortage of honey for the winter. They may need to be fed by their beekeeper so they don't starve.
The scope of the loss in southern Oregon is immeasurable.
This 4:50-minute video by Farmstead Smith in Oregon talks about what honeybees do in wildfire smoke.
Before the fires, Cascade Girl, with its mission to keep bees and other pollinators alive, had several hives in Fire District 5. Schmidt rescued them and they initially overcame the fires but the honeybees at Fire District 5 ultimately did not survive. Schmidt thinks they probably perished due to smoke and heat pressure, and possibly the chemical overlay they were exposed to on flowers when foraging.
Another beekeeper, with more than 55 years of beekeeping experience, is Mike Miller from Grants Pass. According to him, the bees had to deal with repercussions of the fires even after the flames were extinguished.
The old worker bees foraged on whatever flowers they could find in the fields, but those flowers were covered in toxins from all the trailers and other things that had burned.
In the Almeda fire, more than two thousand structures burned down. This left behind hazardous materials. Miller said some bees consumed these materials and died on the spot, and others transported it to their hives. Then those toxins were fed to the baby bees, known as brood. This weakened them to the point where they couldn’t perform their hive duties.
As a bee advocate and a member of several bee clubs, Miller hears from other beekeepers in the area. After the fires took hold, several other beekeepers told him they had completely lost their hives.
Schmidt and Miller say that the long-term effects from wildfires on bees and hives will be more evident when Spring arrives. As winter eases away, beekeepers can safely inspect inside their hives to see how the bees are really doing.
A beehive is capable of housing up to 60,000 bees at any given time. With the final number of burned down hives unknown, there is no way to calculate the number of bees that died in the raging fires and afterwards from the toxic conditions. It could be in the millions or even in the billions.
As for wild bees, it is even harder to know how the wildfires affected them and how many died. Schmidt says there are over 500 bee breeds in Oregon, and most of them nest and make their homes in the ground. Those bees are heat-sensitive, so wildfires blazing near bee nests in the earth threaten their habitats and their lives.
Schmidt advises the public that if they want to help bees, also after wildfires, the best thing to do is plant pollinator friendly gardens, preferably with nectar and pollen producing flowers that will bloom in multiple seasons. This will help bees to survive with clean flowers for foraging.
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