For Tammy Potter, apiarist for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, knowing someone else's beeswax isn't about meddling where she doesn't belong.

It's her job to understand everything about honey bees, especially if they're healthy or not.

That's what she's checking and testing for when she visits a bee yard.

And Potter was in rural west Daviess County on Aug. 5 sampling eight of Jake Osborne's hives for a nationwide study.

Through a partnership between the KDA and the USDA, Potter has been tasked with collecting data from across the state in an effort to document honey bee diseases, pests and pathogens.

The national study began in 2009 to address the emerging concern about the diminishing health of honey bee colonies. However, Kentucky wasn't part of the study until it was added to the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill.

A nationwide emphasis has been placed on saving the honey bees because they are responsible for pollinating a large percentage of the food supply.

Potter said she began taking samples in 2015 and so far, 2019 has shown positive signs for the honey bee population.

"This year, we've had a good year," Potter said. "In all the samples I've been doing, I haven't seen obvious signs of viruses. Typically in August I've already seen deformed wing viruses; I've already seen what we call greasy bees, which is a virus that causes the fur of the bee to fall off. ... They've been the healthiest I've seen."

Osborne became interested in honey bees as a youth and has been a beekeeper for more than two decades.

Osborne is now "pushing" 200 hives but his goal is 400 before the end of the season.

"I've been doing bees since I was 8 years old," said Osborne, who's now 31. "A neighbor of mine was a beekeeper ... and I got to know him. He just took me under his wing and I learned everything from him really. Once I got into college, I really went in-depth with it and had bees at Western Kentucky University. And from there, I always got more and more. So now, it's kind of turned into a full-time gig."

In the winter, he plans to relocate the hives to south Florida to avoid losing a large portion of his bee population.

"What I'm focused on is the pollination and the actual selling of bees," said Osborne, who's trying to go commercial.

And part of Potter's study will help commercial beekeepers whether they're selling the bees or the honey they produce.

Along with domestic viruses and pests, Potter is also testing for potential foreign threats such as the tropilaelaps mites that are native to Asia and naturally parasitize the brood of the giant honey bees of Asia.

Tropilaelaps mite infestation can cause severe damage, such as deformed pupae, to honey bee colonies.

Although tropilaelaps mites have yet to be found in the United States, Potter said they could easily find their way here by hitching a ride on a shipping container.

"We suspect if this mite gets here that it will not come to Owensboro, Kentucky and Jake Osborne's hives," Potter said. "We suspect it will come through a port city like Philadelphia or probably San Francisco because it's an Asian mite. But part of this grant's funding is about being proactive on invasive species."

U.S. beekeepers do battle varroa mites, which arrived in the United States in the 1980s. And some of Osborne's hives showed signs of the mites, which can be treated if caught early enough.

"It lives on the body of the bee," said Potter about the varroa mite. "Not only is it doing damage to the body of the bee, but it is also transferring viruses. So it's a double threat."

In all, Potter will be taking samples from 24 different beekeepers across the state between 2019 and 2020.

The honey samples taken by Potter will be sent to labs in Washington, D.C. and the University of Maryland.

"Jake is actually sample No. 5 and I'll do 12 before the first week of November," Potter said. "... And then I'll pick back up in the spring, around March when the temperatures warm up, the plants are producing pollen and nectar and queens start laying eggs."

Don Wilkins, dwilkins@messenger-inquirer.com, 270-691-7299

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