Honeybees are what some may think of as whimsical, mythological creatures that turn flowers to fruit. According to the EPA and USDA, their Midas touch, helps to produce approximately one-third of the food and beverages we consume in the U.S. every year1. In recent years, however, honeybees have seen a rapid decline. Farmers across the U.S., who for years have relied on honeybee hives to pollinate their crops, have reported large numbers of colony loss. For many years, the reason for honeybee decline was an enigma. In the mid-90’s when my dad kept bees, a mite, known as the Varroa mite, was the reason for most colony deaths. My dad, like many hobby beekeepers I imagine, gave up after losing hives for 3 consecutive years. Farmers, however, could not give up. Giving up meant a loss of both their crops and their livelihood, and as the years progressed the reasons for colony losses became more and more mysterious. In an effort to better identify the reasons behind honeybee colony losses in the U.S., researchers across the nation have been testing several different factors that may contribute to colony loss.
On May 2, 2013, a statement was released by the USDA and EPA announcing the findings of several years of research conducted by researchers across the U.S.
In summary the statement announced that, according to the 2012 National Stakeholder Conference on Honeybee Health, a network of federal researchers, managers, and researchers at Penn State University, the following factors are greatly impacting honeybee health in the U.S.:
- The parasitic Varroa mite and a new virus species, causing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), are largely contributing to honeybee colony deaths across the U.S. In addition, the Varroa mite is increasingly becoming resistant to chemicals, used to kill the mite.
- Genetic diversity is lacking in many honeybee colonies in the U.S., resulting in decreased resistance against the Varroa mite and other diseases.
- Poor nutrition among colonies, resulting from pesticide-treated crops and lack of diverse forage, is also decreasing disease resistance among colonies.
- A lack of coordination between growers and beekeepers on best practices, with regard to pesticides and bees, is contributing to colony loss.
- Pesticides present a challenge to bee health and more research needs to be done to explore pesticide exposure and effect on bee health.
As the findings suggest future policy needs to address pesticide use, methods of chemical pest control of the Varroa mite, increasing genetic diversity among colonies, and land use management. I think that two of the large factors here of greater concern are pesticide use and land use management. Both factors would require some very large systematic policy changes. To speak to the first of these, pesticide use: Limiting pesticide use on just one farm will not do the honeybee any favors. Honeybees know no property line boundaries, and they are known to fly up to 5 miles or more away from their hive in search of pollen2. What happens then if the neighbor’s farm is applying pesticides? Or what if the landscapers in the subdivision next to the farm are applying pesticides? A systematic policy approach to pesticide use that impacts the timing of application and quantity used is therefore in order. Such an approach would have to function at levels of policy beyond the municipal and state levels. Land use management would also require systematic change. Providing bees diversity in their food sources is suggested to increase disease resistance. By decreasing forest fragmentation (i.e. increasing forest connectivity) around agricultural areas, as well as increasing the diversity of the crops planted on farms, diversity in food sources for bees can be achieved. Local governments can play a role in forest conservation in agricultural areas. Increasing the diversity of crops on farms, however, is a larger issue that would require a systematic change in the way that agriculture is currently done in the U.S. Increasing diversity in crop selection also means moving away from large acres of monoculture crops, a favored approach to agriculture in the U.S.. As farm size increases and the monoculture approach to agriculture increases, we need to be careful not to make ourselves more vulnerable to diseases and pests that not only affect our bees, but also our crops. By increasing biodiversity on farms both through crop selection and conservation of forestlands around farms, both our crops and our bees will be healthier. It seems to me as though honeybees are taking on the role as the ecological indicator species for our agroecosystems. The struggling of an ecological
indicator species makes us aware that a balance has been disrupted in the ecosystem. We, therefore, cannot ignore the honeybees distress much longer. A change in the way we do agriculture and manage our agroecosystems is vital for the future success of our food system.
1. USDA and EPA Release New Report on Honey Bee Health. May 2, 2013. http://content.govdelivery.com/bulletins/gd/USDAOC-795a36
2. Ribbands, C.R. “Flight Range of the Honey Bee.” Journal of Animal Ecology. Vol.2 , No. 2, 1951. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/1541?uid=3739776&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21101991005473