HOUSTON -- A Houston summer usually brings with it swarms of seemingly angry bees hiding in the walls, eaves, and subfloors of homes and businesses. But the sudden seasonal surge of problem pests belies an opposite problem: not enough bees and actually fewer and fewer each year.
"And it is a crisis because bee keepers are reaching a tipping point," said Randy Verhoek, president of the American Honey Producers Association. "You know just like this past winter I lost half of my bees."
Verhoek tends an estimated 12,000 commercial honey bee hives at 120 locations throughout the greater Houston area. The series of stacked white boxes, mostly in pastures and remote fields, are home to bees that produce honey for Verhoek. And the bees themselves are shipped throughout the country as pollinators for hire as far away as the almond orchards of California and the blueberry fields of Maine.
But his bee colonies, like bee populations across the United States and throughout the northern hemisphere across the globe, continue to struggle with colony collapse.
"When we start to getting into November and December the colonies start to dwindle," said Verhoek whose healthy hives usually form in a basketball-sized cluster. As they dwindle the hives are often reduced to the size of a softball.
Last week, Verhoek attended an event in Washington, D.C. as President Obama established the Pollinator Health Task Force to focus on the problem of colony collapse. The USDA also announced $8 million in incentives to establish new habitat for honey bees. Pesticides, diseases, and loss of bee-friendly crops are all seen as contributors to the problem. Bee experts say the U.S. bee population is now less than half of what it was in the 1940's.
"We need to get a handle on this very soon because the road that we're going it's becoming harder and harder for beekeepers to stay in business," said Verhoek.
Even Houston-area bee wrangler Claude Griffin of Gotcha Pest Control, who is often called to remove problem bees, worries about the colony collapse crisis. Griffin says the majority of the bees he captures and removes are then released in remote areas to help wild populations recover.
"That is one of the big issues. Pesticides is the biggest key," said Griffin who believes both the agricultural and consumer use of pesticides and herbicides have contributed to the rapid decline.
"And when the place is like napalm in the back yard you wonder why bees are going in your house? They're all getting together to try to survive," said Griffin.
"When you factor in you have over eight million people living around here, they are few and far between," said Verhoek of the bees that show up in Houston homes each summer.
Bee keepers and honey producers hope a renewed focus by a new task force will help keep the so-called good bees alive before they are considered few and far between as well.