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Close to 15% of the nation's bees were in Hurricane Ian's path

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's go back to one of the other major stories we followed in recent weeks, Hurricane Ian. Now, we've talked a lot about the terrible human toll and the devastating property damage. But there's another impact we're learning more about. Close to 15% of the nation's bees were in the hurricane's path. Researchers are still assessing the damage, but beekeepers say the losses may complicate the growing season for crops throughout the country. From member station WUSF, Kerry Sheridan has this report.

KERRY SHERIDAN, BYLINE: Keith Councell raises bees for a living. His hives stretch from the coastal areas near Fort Myers, 50 miles inland. He says Hurricane Ian took aim at all of them.

KEITH COUNCELL: Yeah, it literally followed the line of my farms. So from Pine Island, all the way up through here in Arcadia.

SHERIDAN: Floodwaters still hug the roadsides in this small inland country town. Councell and a dozen other beekeepers gathered one recent morning at an agricultural center here. He said he hadn't been able to check on about half of his bee yards yet, but the ones he has seen are bad.

COUNCELL: The winds blew the lids off, exposed the bees. Some of those winds actually sucked the bees - the frames out of our boxes. And then we had the flood that came through that drowned them.

SHERIDAN: Robert Hill is among the beekeepers here, picking up donations of corn syrup in big 250-gallon containers. The syrup is to help feed the bees that survived because they're starving.

ROBERT HILL: I've been through Charley, Irma, and quite - other little freak storm. But this - I'm telling you, this is the worst I've seen.

SHERIDAN: In addition to destroying bee boxes, the hurricane also blew away tree blossoms and destroyed so much vegetation, the bees can't find food. Demetrius Washington says the bees are fighting each other to eat.

DEMETRIUS WASHINGTON: They robbing other hives out - that have honey. They're taking honey from other hives.

SHERIDAN: He hopes the corn syrup stops this because these battles can kill what's left of a colony. As a forklift moves the syrup on to the beekeepers trucks, Amy Vu, a bee researcher with the University of Florida, says the hit that bees took here affects everyone.

AMY VU: Even if you're not a beekeeper, you know, this is related to you in a way because the beekeepers are working really hard to help put, you know, healthy, nutritious foods on our table.

SHERIDAN: She says close to 400,000 colonies were in the path of the storm in Florida, and beekeepers all the way up to the northeast were affected. Keith Councell says that's because many beekeepers from the northeast truck their hives south for the fall, where food is abundant, like Brazilian pepper tree blossoms.

COUNCELL: You got to think, all the beekeepers from the eastern United States are here. We're down here trying to, you know, build up for pollination for the rest of the whole year. And all the other crops - cherries, peaches, nectarines, plums, you know, all the nut trees - all those have to be pollinated - our watermelons, squash, zucchini, all that.

SHERIDAN: Many farmers around the country depend on these Florida and East Coast bees to pollinate their crops. Councell says he's already getting calls from California to see if he can supply bees by January to pollinate the avocado and almond trees. He's told them yes, with the hope that he can.

COUNCELL: So it's a race right now to get the pillars of agriculture back up and running, to get the rest of agriculture rolling so we can put the food on the table for people.

SHERIDAN: Councell says it could take years for beekeepers to recuperate. In the meantime, they plan to grow new colonies as fast as they can.

For NPR News, I'm Kerry Sheridan in Arcadia, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kerry Sheridan