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After 50 years of beekeeping, Fred Craven thought he had learned a thing or two about his favorite hobby. Until now.

One afternoon this past week, a pile of dead bees were clumped together like marbles at one of his hive's bottom chutes, while at another a few feet away, a few dead bees clung to a cone full of honey. The unexpected deaths have dumbfounded Craven.``They didn't die because of a lack of honey, because the honey was here,' the 65-year-old Craven said as he ambled between his eight wooden hives. ``This little devil was inside the bee, and they're going to be hard to contend with because we don't have anything yet that we know will kill them.'

The little devil is a six-legged tracheal mite that is suffocating the state's bee industry and threatens to affect everything from backyard gardens to the state's multimillion dollar fruit and vegetable industry this year.

Despite a two-year quarantine, state agricultural experts said the parasite has destroyed between 25 percent and 80 percent of the hives from the Outer Banks to the Appalachian Mountains this year. The parasite slipped into the state inside mail-order bees in 1984.

Some beekeepers now fear that this microscopic mite from Florida could lead to lower crop yields and higher grocery store prices for cucumbers, blueberries and other fruits and vegetables that depend on bees for pollination.

``We're not fighting a losing battle, but we're not fighting an easy one,' said Dr. John Ambrose, an entomology professor at N.C. State University who is considered by many to be the godfather of beekeeping.

The state Department of Agriculture has resubmitted a bill that will ask state legislators to appropriate $30,000 to help apiarists, or bee specialists, discover a mite-resistant bee strain before the mite devastates one of the country's largest beekeeping industries and saps the life from two popular tourist products, gallberry and sourwood honey. The General Assembly did not approve the bill this past year during a time when overcrowded prisons, infant mortality and education crowded the state agenda, said Logan Williams, the state's apiary inspection supervisor.

Known as the emergency honey support bill, the proposed legislation also requests $70,000 in the next two years to hire more inspectors to help the state's 16,000 beekeepers and their 180,000 hives combat a mite that suffocates a bee by crawling down its breathing tube. North Carolina has one of the country's largest numbers of beekeepers, Williams said.

In the meantime, North Carolina beekeeping associations are helping to fund a two-year project undertaken by Ambrose that aims to find a mite-resistant bee strain. Beekeepers next month will begin delivering 50 of their bees to a Forsyth County site and five other locations across the state to help apiarists from N.C. State discover a bee strain resistant to the deadly tracheal mite.

Beekeepers are placing menthol crystal packages atop their hives to help treat bees infected with tracheal mites. But until a resistant bee strain is found, beekeepers worry that menthol crystals will only slightly retard the widespread devastation that none of them has ever seen before.

``Hopefully, we can come back, but in the short run, it will have a serious impact,' said Henry Moon, a member of the Guilford County Beekeepers Association, who has lost 11 of his 15 hives because of tracheal mites. ``It will hurt the hobby beekeeper, but when you see a loss of pollination, that hits everybody's pocketbook.'

For example, in Henderson County, which grows 70 percent of the state's apples, beekeepers have lost 80 percent of their hives, or 4,000 hives, said agricultural extension agent Marvin Owings.

Beekeepers are driving as far as Alabama to pick up mite-free bees to help area growers pollinate acres of fruit trees and vegetables next month, Owings said.

``We don't know how this is going to affect us; it's still too early to tell, but the important thing is the growers have to realize the seriousness of the situation,' Owings said.

Similar losses are seen across the Triad.

The tracheal mite has helped destroy between 50 to 80 percent of Guilford County's hives, about 30 percent of Randolph County's hives and 40 percent of Forsyth County's hives, said area agricultural extension agents.

Hordes of beekeepers are clamoring for answers.

On Tuesday, Randolph County beekeepers began investigating their hives for tracheal mites by dissecting several bees and viewing their throats underneath a microscope. Harvey Fouts, the county's agricultural extension agent, said a beekeeper will have to look at 100 bees in a hive to find out if it is mite free.

And next weekend, the North Carolina Beekeepers Association is meeting in New Bern, where members are taking crash courses in tracheal mite identification and control.

``I don't think the general public understands how desperate this thing is,' said George Settle, a Winston-Salem beekeeper who has lost about 80 of his 110 hives to tracheal mites. ``If you don't have bees, what are you going to grow?'

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