Jeff Dicken has been Stark County’s bee inspector for a decade. But this year, county commissioners, faced with flat funding and a half-empty county jail, said they didn’t have enough money for the $2,100-a-year position. Now, the state’s part-time apiarist will be responsible for inspecting the county’s more than 300 bee colonies.
It was his first honeybee inspection of the season, and everything was running smoothly for Jeff Dicken.
The hives’ brood patterns showed none of the telltale signs of the deadly American foulbrood disease, which attacks the larvae before they hatch and creates a brown ropy appearance. The bees, though growing increasingly annoyed by his presence, didn’t appear overly aggressive like the Africanized honey bees that terrorize and usurp other colonies. And each hive contained an active queen bee, considered a staple of a strong hive.
Dicken finished the inspection of the eight hives by signing his name in the space reserved for the county apiary inspector, just as he’s done on inspection forms for years.
But two weeks later, the state apiarist called Dicken about a problem with his report. She said he shouldn’t have signed his name as the county bee inspector because he no longer holds the inspector title. Nobody does.
A DECADE OF INSPECTING
In Ohio, 71 of the 88 counties employ a county bee inspector to monitor the state’s more than 4,000 beekeepers and their 32,742 colonies.
Dicken, a Paris Township resident who started beekeeping 12 years ago to pollinate a barren apple tree, has been Stark County’s bee inspector for the past decade, providing the county’s first line of defense against diseases and pests in honeybee colonies.
Each year, Dicken, who works the afternoon shift at PTC in Alliance as a furnace operator, checks the commercial apiaries that sell or transport bees, assesses the hives of new beekeepers and inspects those operations that have had problems in the past.
Last year, he inspected 99 of the 186 apiaries registered in Stark County, billing the county for roughly $2,100 for his time, his mileage and for the postage to mail the inspection forms to the state and the hive samples to the federal bee research laboratory in Maryland.
But this year, Stark County commissioners, who faced flat revenues and a half-empty county jail, chose not to fund the expenses not mandated by the state, including Dicken’s stipend.
It’s believed to be the first time in the county’s history that commissioners have left the post unfunded — although county Administrator Michael Hanke indicated last week that the absence may be brief.
He said he’s optimistic that as budget officials review the county’s midyear finances, the county will be able to rehire Dicken this year.
Until then, the duties of monitoring Stark County’s more than 300 bee colonies falls to state apiarist Barbara Bloetscher, who is a part-time employee and responsible for the 16 other counties that do not employ their own inspector.
Brett Gates, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Agriculture, gave no timeline of when Bloetscher would start her assessments of Stark County hives, but encouraged Stark beekeepers to help speed the inspection process by sending samples of their hives to the bee research lab for testing.
Page 2 of 2 - STILL INVOLVED
Even though the county isn’t paying him to do it, Dicken said he’s still taking phone calls at home from beekeepers and distressed residents seeking help.
A month ago, he answered seven phone calls before leaving work at 3 p.m. Most of the callers complained about large swarms of bees, which Dicken explained are the bees’ way of looking for a new home when their colony has become overcrowded. While swarming bees are less likely to attack, Dicken said he still gave the callers the names of fellow beekeepers who trap swarms to ease the callers’ minds.
“If there’s a real issue, I’ll take care of it on my own,” said Dicken, who added that his wife, Sheila, the president of the Stark County Beekeepers’ Association this year, also helps answer and respond to calls.
Dicken said he still answers the phone calls because bees are his passion — and because he’s concerned what could happen if he doesn’t.
During his 10 years as county bee inspector and 12 years as a beekeeper, Dicken, now 56, said he’s witnessed increasingly more destructive diseases, which he believes largely are linked to pesticides.
Last year, Dicken reported 175 cases where mites, which can eat a hive’s debris, pollen and nutrients, had infiltrated the colony and four cases of the American foulbrood disease, which has no known cure.
He fears that the rate of disease will rise without vigilant monitoring of local hives.