Feb 28, 2014 11:52AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Grave concern over honey bee health has led to better apiary management practices. Only time will tell if we can bring back this crucial species from the brink of total collapse.
If you look at recent numbers, the future seems pretty bleak for honey bees in the U.S. Beekeepers lost one out of every three honey bee colonies between October 2012 and April 2013, according to the annual survey conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership and the Apiary Inspectors of America. That is double the “acceptable rate” in the beekeeping community—including the 1,872 registered beekeepers in Maryland— which remains abuzz about the future of these essential pollinators.
Since the early twentieth century, “migratory” beekeepers have provided a critical service to U.S. agriculture by moving their hives seasonally to pollinate a wide variety of crops. Without the yield increases made possible by commercial pollination, food prices would rise, our farm sector would rapidly become less competitive globally, and the security and variety of our food supply would diminish.
We rely on the domesticated honey bee (Apis melllifera) to pollinate one third of our commercially grown foods—including strawberries, blueberries, apples, oranges, melons, peaches, squashes, tomatoes, pumpkins, and almonds—an industry that contributes more than $15 billion to the national economy. Today, the total number of managed honey bee colonies has decreased from a high of five million in the 1940s to only two-and-ahalf million. At the same time, the call for hives to provide pollination services has continued to increase. This means honey bee colonies are being transported over longer distances, more so than ever before.
In Maryland, there are only four commercial beekeeping outfits (of the 1,872 registered beekeepers), which amplifies the potential for calamity if these honey bee colonies continue to take a beating.
The honey bee plight isn’t anything new, as beekeepers have been fending off mites, disease, and Africanized species for years. But an alarming phenomenon started to hit many colonies in 2006: colony collapse disorder (CCD), where worker bees leave their hive and queen never to return. That year, beekeepers lost 30 to 90 percent of their colonies. And circumstances haven’t gotten much better since.
Researchers were unable to pinpoint a single culprit as the cause for CCD. Rather, evidence has been mounting by the likes of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that losses of bees are due to multiple stressors that weaken hives to the point where bees cannot survive.
One such stressor is poor nutrition, which makes bees more susceptible to harm from disease and parasites. As more of our land is converted into a monoculture of crops or lawns, there is less nutritious food for honey bees. Nectar from a diversity of plants, including wildflowers, provides the correct amount of protein and amino acids that help make bees more resilient to stresses both natural and manmade.
Another stressor, the parasitic Varroa mite, is a major factor underlying colony loss, wiping out entire colonies by attacking adult bees and developing larvae. The mite has become more resistant to miticides, the chemicals used to control it. The Varroa mite also is a primary factor in increasing the levels of some bee viruses.
Meanwhile, debate continues to rage over pesticide use on crops and safety to honey bees. Pesticides, like other factors, are most harmful when combined with other stressors. Scientists at the University of Maryland and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have identified a combination of pesticides and fungicides contaminating pollen that bees collect to feed their hives. This combination alters the bees’ susceptibility to a gut pathogen known as Nosema ceranae. Additionally, a study by entomologists at Pennsylvania State University revealed that “inert” ingredients used regularly to boost the effectiveness of pesticides can impair adult bees’ smelling and navigation abilities.
Changing weather patterns are another cause for concern with the honey bee population, as climate determines when bees begin foraging for food and when the flowers they depend on will bloom. Some bees overwinter, with temperature determining when they will emerge. But many beekeepers accumulate bees each spring from breeders in other states. If the bees don’t arrive or don’t emerge in sync with flower blooming, they can starve. And some in the industry think that one extremely cold winter (like the winter of 2013–2014) could leave some fields fallow.
One in every three bites we eat is directly or indirectly pollinated by bees including fruit, vegetables, and even dairy and beef (cows eat alfalfa, which is pollinated by bees). If losses continue at 33 percent, it could threaten the economic viability of the bee pollination industry. Honey bees would not disappear entirely, but the cost of honey bee pollination services would rise, and those increased costs would ultimately be passed on to consumers through higher food costs. Simply put, many Americans wouldn’t be able to afford to eat well. That is the prevailing concern of bee loss.
Despite all these threats, the future is not all doom and gloom for honey bees. Federal and state agricultural agencies have developed better management practices to help beekeepers maintain healthy colonies. As Jerry Fischer, Maryland Department of Agriculture’s Apiary Inspector, points out, Maryland beekeepers have lost a significant number of bees, not only because of CCD, but mostly due to mistakes in bee management and lack of knowledge. To combat this, department inspectors visit about two-thirds of Maryland’s apiaries each year and examine colonies for diseases and pests. Beekeepers are advised on how to treat any found problems. The agencies also are working with farmers on reducing the exposure of bees to potentially harmful pesticides.
Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing research related to pesticides and their effect on honey bees, while also looking into changes in regulatory practices to address pesticide drift, product label warnings, and enforcement of bee-kill investigations. In January, the EPA awarded almost half a million dollars in funding to three universities—Louisiana State, Vermont, and Penn State—to research integrated pest management practices to reduce the use of potentially harmful pesticides and lower risk to bees, all while controlling pests and saving money.
New techniques have also been developed to breed honey bees with a behavioral trait known as Varroa sensitive hygiene (VSH), in which bees detect and removebee pupae that are infested by the Varroa mite. VP Queen Bees in Frederick breeds queens with the VSH trait to producers who, in turn, propagate daughter queens to sell to commercial beekeepers and backyard hobbyists. This has proven to be a good option for the bee farmer that wishes to avoid chemical treatments on bees and hives. With many years of breeding experience, VP Queen Bees reports no known hazards associated with colonizing these trait bred bees and says that their queens are both reproductive and mite resistant. Additionally, they have not had to chemically treat their bees for 14 years.
Understanding the culture of lawn maintenance and shifting to more natural management practices could be another catalyst toward colony rebound. Americans have been sold on the idea that mowed lawns are beautiful, and that flowering plants are weeds because they compete with lawn. Planting clovers and other native plants is good for bees and other pollinators. If they come up on their own in your yard, don’t spray them with herbicides.
Corporations and municipalities can plant or allow meadows to grow along roadsides, between crop rows, in cemeteries, at schools, businesses, public buildings, etc. Thus, diversity of native grasses and flowers would feed bees and other pollinators like hummingbirds and butterflies.
These and other techniques will help us avoid a future in which many of the foods we enjoy either wouldn’t be available or would be much more expensive due to less efficient pollination practices.
How to Help
If you are interested in beekeeping, start by joining a local beekeeping association. Visit the Maryland State Beekeepers Association at Mdbeekeepers.org for information on your local chapter.
Create a pollinator-friendly habitat in your yard with native plants that provide nectar for honey bees and other pollinators. Visit Pollinator.org/ guides for more information.
Download the Bee Smart™ Pollinator Gardener app, a comprehensive guide to selecting plants for pollinators specific to your area.
Avoid or limit pesticide use, including herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides. If you must use a pesticide in your yard or garden, choose one that is the least toxic to non-pest species, does not persist on vegetation, and apply it in the evening when most pollinators are not as active. Visit Pollinator.org/brochures for more information.