If you like to eat, you probably should learn to appreciate and honor honeybees, which are absolutely essential to the growth of crops in this country.

In fact, about one out of every three bites of food you consume can be attributed to crops that have been pollinated by bees, according to Dr. John Skinner, a University of Tennessee professor of entomology who runs the university’s beekeeping programs.

For that reason, it’s refreshing to hear that beekeeping is on the rise in Southwest Virginia and is being actively promoted in our region by the Virginia Cooperative Extension service and the Abingdon-based Highlands Beekeepers Association, according to a recent story by Carolyn R. Wilson in the Washington County News.

The story notes that “Beekeeping is on the rise throughout the country and locally — whether people want to help protect the bee population, save the Earth or just enjoy the benefits of homegrown honey.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were 150 to 200 beekeepers in the area now, but I can’t verify that,” Washington County (Virginia) Extension Agent Phil Blevins told the newspaper. Blevins is a longtime beekeeper himself, and he serves as an adviser to the Highlands Beekeepers Association.

“Based on research, bees are responsible for pollination efforts that help supply one-third of the food we eat,” he said. “Some crops are entirely dependent on honeybees or pollination, such as almonds; and apples are about 80% dependent. Seed crops, such as alfalfa, are pollinated by honeybees.”

Honeybees have been facing severe challenges in this country because of environmental problems such as loss of habitat and attacks on bee colonies by parasites, beekeeping experts say.

“I wouldn’t say bees are in danger of extinction,” Blevins said. “But the Varroa mite, an external parasitic mite that attacks and feeds on the honeybees, continues to be the largest threat to bees.

“When the parasite was first found in the country, wild bee colonies in Virginia went practically to zero,” he said, adding that he believes there has been some recovery in wild bee populations since then.

One of the biggest issues is so-called CCD — colony collapse disorder — which is believed to be linked to the Varroa mites, which can carry viruses that are fatal to the bees, and a fungal disease called Nosema ceranae, which originated on Asian honeybees imported into the U.S., according to the Tennessee Department of Agriculture.

But education and knowledge of how to manage domesticated bee populations might be the key to keeping the bee population healthy and growing, Blevins said.

“The University of Illinois has determined that a lot of losses of domesticated bees in the winter are due to poor management rather than environmental factors,” he said.

For that reason, it’s good to know that the local extension office is working with the local association not only to educate beekeepers already in the hobby but also to attract more people to beekeeping at home.

To that end, the extension service and the beekeepers association periodically hold classes for beginning beekeepers — such as the one this past Saturday in Abingdon.

These programs are designed to inform potential beekeepers on such topics as honeybee biology, equipment needed, where and how to get bees, locating the apiary, hands-on equipment construction, seasonal management, integrated pest management, harvesting honey and nectar sources.

Getting people interested and involved in the beekeeping hobby is seen as key to overcoming the honeybee crisis seen across the U.S. over the past few years, bee experts say.

Each active colony supports about 50,000-60,000 bees, according to industry statistics. The worker bees spend their days foraging for pollen and nectar, which they bring back to the hive to make honey.

And there’s the big payoff in keeping honeybees:

“A good colony should produce 100 to 120 pounds of honey each year,” Blevins said.

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