Honeybees and Agriculture

— Written By Kellyn Montgomery

Whenever I mention to people that I am an aspiring beekeeper, they almost always ask me why the honeybees are disappearing. Declining numbers of honeybees in the US has made headlines in the past several years, but the reasons behind the decline have been unclear. The importance of honeybees for growing food makes understanding these insects and how to keep them healthy and abundant a top priority.

Honeybees were brought to North America by European settlers in the 1600s and were called “white man’s flies” by Native Americans. There are many native pollinators, but honeybees have been especially useful to farmers because they are easy to manage and transport. Farmers hire commercial beekeepers that move their hives to fields just as a crop flowers. Almond production in California, for example, is completely dependent on honeybee pollination and, according to the USDA, requires 1.4 million or approximately sixty percent of all managed honeybee hives. The value of crops pollinated by honeybees is approximately $17 billion and makes up about one third of our daily diet.

There has been a steady decline in the number of honeybee hives in the US for many decades. In the 1940s, there were 5 million honeybee hives. Today we have only 2.5 million. But in 2006, beekeepers started reporting unusually high losses of hives, which involved the sudden disappearance of worker bees and total hive collapse within in a few weeks. This phenomenon became known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). From 2006-2011, beekeepers lost an average of 33% of hives every year. Since 2006, there has been extensive research done to identify the cause of CCD and develop best practices for beekeepers to manage losses. It is a complex issue though and involves many factors.

Recently, the USDA released a report that outlined the many factors contributing to CCD, including nutrition, pests, diseases, pesticides, and genetics. Large plantings of single crops and development of formerly vegetated lands have led to a lack of variety and quality in bee forages. Just like humans, a poor diet makes bees more susceptible to diseases, pests, and other stressors. Some farmers have tried to address this by planting flowering pollinator gardens alongside their crops. Pests and diseases, like Varroa mites and American Foulbrood, have been detrimental to honeybees and are commonly found in weak hives. Additionally, pesticides, which are used in all types of agriculture, can kill honeybees and other beneficial insects. Systemic pesticides (like imidacloprid, the most commonly used insecticide) enter all parts of a plant, including the pollen and nectar used by pollinators. Finally, bee genetics plays a role as bee breeders try to increase traits that improve resistance to pests and diseases.

Interestingly enough, in the US, the honeybee decline has coincided with the sharp decline in number of farms. One way you can support honeybees in our area is to try beekeeping at home. If interested, join us for the Beginning Beekeeper School starting March 5. For more information, contact Catawba County Cooperative Extension at 828-465-8240.