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Blueberry growers feeling sting of honeybee shortage

BANGOR -- Maine blueberry growers expect to pay higher prices for honeybees to pollinate their fields this spring following a die-off of bees across the country.

Maine's blueberry crop requires about 50,000 beehives for pollination each year, with most of the hives brought to Maine from other states.

Spencer Allen of Allen's Wild Maine Blueberries in Blue Hill said he usually imports about 1,200 hives for 800 acres of crops.

Allen said his bee wrangler's bees are doing OK, but the national shortage of honeybee pollinators is causing prices to go up. The price he will pay has risen from about $50 to $70 -- a 40 percent increase -- for each hive placed in his fields, usually in mid-May.

"That adds up with 1,200 hives," Allen said.

Commercial beekeepers in 26 states have reported that they have lost between 50 and 90 percent of their bees to an unidentified disease. Scientists say the country's food supply might be at risk if die-off continues unabated.

Maine beekeepers have several thousand hives that are kept in the state year-round to pollinate apple orchards, strawberry fields, and other crops. But there are not enough to cover Maine's 60,000 acres of blueberry fields.

Marc Plaisted of Pittston has raised honeybees for 20 years and supplies hives to a dozen farmers for pollination.

He thinks the price could be $90 or more per hive by mid-May. Many migratory beekeepers are being lured to California, he said, where almond growers are paying as much as $200 a hive.

But Plaisted's bigger concern is making sure the disease does not come to Maine.

"We aren't seeing this disease here yet, but I'm very concerned about the migratory bees that are brought into Maine," he said. "Who knows what diseases they are bringing in here. If this disease is not here by the end of summer, I'd be very surprised."

Nat Lindquist of Jasper Wyman and Sons of Milbridge, one of the state's largest blueberry companies, said he will import 10,000 hives from seven beekeepers. Lindquist began monitoring the bee kill last fall when his largest supplier began reporting empty hives in Pennsylvania.

That beekeeper has lost more than 1 million bees.

The bees in 2,000 of his 2,900 hives have disappeared -- a 60 percent loss.

"He has assured us that we will have plenty of bees," Lindquist said. "We also want strong hives, and he has assured us of that."