MOUNT AIRY, Md. (WJZ) — Honey bees are vital to our way of life — with major impacts on what we eat and our economy. But a parasite has been infesting colonies across the country and now there’s another threat looming overseas.

“Each hive has roughly 60 thousand bees in it. I’ve got 15 hives. Do the math,” said Lori Titus, owner of The Bee Folks.

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Titus started keeping bees to pollinate her garden.  It turned into a full-time job with “The Bee Folks.”

“After my first year of beekeeping, I had 60 pounds of honey left over. So what do you do with 60 pounds of honey? You sell part of it to your friends,” she said.

Her business has thrived despite an on-going problem — an infestation.

A parasitic mite called Varroa destructor has been decimating honey bee colonies across the country, attacking the bees and weakening them.

“I spend so much time and so much money trying to come up with ways to keep the varroa from destroying my hives,” Titus said.

She estimated $8,000 over the course of 22 years on one treatment after another. Instead, the mites that survive just get stronger.

“Over time, the medications the beekeepers have been using just don’t work,” Titus said.

WJZ’s Linh Bui suited up for a closer look at her hives in Mount Airy.

“The bees are actually flying out,” she said. “They have a flight range of two miles. So they go out to all the farmers around here.”

“They pollinate the soybeans, they pollinate everyone’s little gardens, the clover that’s in the field, all of this wild berry that’s around here. This all gets pollinated by honey bees,” Titus added.

Honey bees actually pollinate most fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

Honey bees are worth more than $15 billion every year to the U.S. economy and more than $220 billion to the global economy.

“Bees are not just an incredibly charismatic insect, they’re also incredibly vital to our way of life as human beings,” said Samuel Ramsey, a Maryland entomologist.

Ramsey is an expert on Varroa destructor.

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“This is an incredibly destructive parasite,” he said. “It is considered to be the leading issue in the trend of honey bee health decline that we’ve seen over the past decade.”

While working on his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland, Ramsey discovered the mite actually feeds on the bee’s liver, not their blood.

“And that helps us understand why they’re having such a huge effect,” Ramsey said, “because the liver detoxifies pesticides. So now we understand why these creatures make bees so vulnerable to pesticides which they’d been dealing with for years with no problem.”

Inside this Greenbelt lab, he and his team search for ways to eradicate Varroa destructor.

But he said there’s another threat looming. A parasitic mite called tropilaelaps is destroying bee colonies in Asia and spreading.

“Because of globalization, the speed of international travel, the movement of organisms/plants/and animals back and forth, there’s a lot of potential for this creature to reach our shores,” Ramsey said.

He spending a year in Asia studying tropilaelaps to form a strategy in case it comes here.

Linh Bui: How does it feel to be on the cutting edge of this research?

Samuel Ramsey: Honestly? Because it’s groundbreaking.

“I feel so humbled by the fact that I get the opportunity to effect change in a problem that is affecting so many people around the world. It’s a humbling experience,” he said. “And it’s just really really exciting.”

Beekeepers like Titus desperately need a solution. She wants to grow her business and add more hives.

“I’ve been keeping them for 22, 23 years now. My kids have grown up with them,” she said. “They’re definitely part of the family.”

Beekeepers from around the world raised the money for Dr. Ramsey’s research trip, which ends in June.

One person even called him a real-life superhero.

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If you’d like to donate or learn more, you can support him via his GoFundMe. 

Linh Bui