Honey bees are still declining, a recent study shows. That could harm crop production | KCUR 89.3

In addition to his full-time job, Dane Strickland cares for nearly 100 honeybee colonies every day. He first started beekeeping 15 years ago after researching the health benefits honey could bring to his children.

“I thought to myself, ‘I want to be a beekeeper — that doesn’t look too complicated,'” Strickland said. “That’s right, that’s a joke in itself, because keeping bees is much more than just having a box in the backyard.”

Strickland now understands how challenging beekeeping can be, especially with honeybee colonies declining across the country.

He is president of the Northeast Oklahoma Beekeeper Association and one of the few beekeepers in the state to participate in the Bee Informed Partnership Loss and Management Investigation annual.

This year, the nonprofit’s preliminary results show commercial beekeepers in the US lost about 39% of their honey bee colonies from April 2021 to April this year. That’s an improvement from last year’s record loss of more than 50% of all hives. But despite the fact that colony losses have decreased slightly, the partnership’s science coordinator and researcher, Dr. Nathalie Steinhauer, that it is still a very high percentage.

“We don’t want to minimize the stress associated with beekeepers and bees, but this is also roughly in line with what we’ve observed over the past 10 years,” Steinhauer said. “That doesn’t mean it’s good or good, it just means it wasn’t an unexpected high this year.”

The phrase “loss of bee colonies” does not mean that nearly 40% of honeybees disappear every year. Instead, Steinhauer said loss rates are used as a measure of bee mortality. Meanwhile, the birth rate, or birth rate, equals beekeepers replacing their losses by splitting their colonies to create new ones.

“To see whether a population is growing or declining, [researchers] look at the death and birth rates,” Steinhauer said. “For bees, the death rate is what” [the partnership] mentions the loss rate because we count colonies, not individual bees.

Loss of pollinators

Commercial honeybee colonies pollinate at least $15 billion worth of food crops each year, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.

Steinhauer said that because honeybees, a non-native pollinator, have been managed for so long, some consider them livestock. Honeybees are often shipped across the country to pollinate essential agricultural crops such as almonds, apples and blueberries. Minimizing beekeepers’ losses and ensuring the health of honeybee colonies is critical to food production.

“A lot of monocultures don’t support native pollinators where they are,” Steinhauer said. “So unless we go back to small-scale farming and increase the diversity of native plants, we will have to rely on the professional pollinators that are honeybees.”

Randall Paul Cass & Emily Poss

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Iowa State University

“It takes effort, time and investment for commercial beekeepers to offset their losses,” says Nathalie Steinhauer. “What drives beekeepers to maintain their number of colonies is the way they make their profits — renting pollinator services or producing honey.”

Major factors that cause beekeepers to lose their hives include pesticides, parasites, and “bad forage,” said Randall Cass, a bee specialist with the Iowa State University Extension Office. Poor food means not enough diverse flowers bloom all year round, making it difficult for bees to find food and habitat. This is especially true in prairie land that has been plowed for agricultural use, such as in Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

“It’s a big deal here in Iowa,” Cass said. “We definitely have poor forage availability because so much of our land is used in agricultural production — about 85% of the state’s land is in agriculture.”

Encountering pesticides while collecting pollen and nectar from crops also significantly hurts bees. If the pesticide doesn’t kill the exposed bee, Cass said the bee could return the pesticide to the hive and harm the health of the bees by reducing their ability to navigate and causing them to forage less.

Parasites are one of the biggest challenges beekeepers struggle with. The varroa mite in particular, is a leading cause of bee deaths, especially for novice beekeepers, Steinhauer said. These tiny reddish-brown parasites weaken honeybees by feeding and living on them. They also affect colony health by spreading viruses on bees.

“Combine these three things together and it creates a perfect storm of a horrendous environment for honeybee health,” Cass said.

Possible solutions to ‘save the bees’

Research conducted at Iowa State University shows that a small strip of prairie land can help starve bee colonies in fields. Researchers tracked how well bees would thrive in prairie land versus farmland, such as soybean fields.

To their surprise, bees gained more weight when living near soybean fields, but maintained better weight near prairie sites. Cass said one of the researchers called it the “feast-and-famine effect” of Iowa’s landscape.

“The soybean produces a flower in July, which is a feast for the bees, and it is followed by a famine [in August] where there are no flower sources for them,” he said.

Cass is currently investigating how beekeepers can take advantage of the resources each landscape provides and keep more bees alive during the winter. Introduce prairie strips on farmland could be a solution, he said.

Wide shot of Randall Cass examining bees on honeycomb from a beehive.  Ten other beehives surround Cass on a patch of grassland.

Christopher Gannon

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Iowa State University

Last year, honey production fell by a whopping 126 million pounds, or about 14% per colony, according to the USDA.

“The great thing about prairie strips is that I see it as a really good compromise,” Cass said. “Prairie strips not only provide benefits to our bees, they also provide major benefits to farmers, such as drastically reducing fertilizer runoff and significantly reducing erosion.”

Non-beekeepers can help save the bees by planting flowers from their area which mainly benefit native bees. Supporting native bee species in Midwestern states, such as the endangered Rusty Patched Bumblebeeplays just like a important role as a pollinator in crop production.

For beekeepers, Steinhauer said that being active is the best thing one can do to increase the survival rates of their colonies. Her advice applies especially to novice beekeepers, she said.

According to the partnership’s survey, backyard beekeepers, or beekeepers managing fewer than 50 colonies, are on track with a record 58.8% loss.

“Try to be proactive rather than reactive,” Steinhauer said. “Monitoring colonies for pests and diseases is something that needs to be done throughout the season, not just in the fall.”

As for Strickland, he has found that understanding bee history and biology and perseverance are the keys to being a successful beekeeper.

“Focus on the things you can control,” Strickland said. “You have to be persistent. And if you understand the biology of the bee and its adversaries, you can take the actions to increase the survival potential of your colonies.”

Xcaret Nuñez covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KOSU and Harvest Public Media and is a member of the Report For America Corps. Follow Xcaret on Twitter @Xcaret_News.

This story was co-created with Harvest Public Media, a partnership of public media editors in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues. Follow Harvest on Twitter: @HarvestPM

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