Is Agriculture Killing Bees?
One in every three bites of food you eat is pollinated either directly or indirectly by honey bees. Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp says there can be a balance between modern agriculture practices and a thriving honey bee population.
We’ve been hearing about honey bees in the news lately – an increase in the rate of honey bee mortality over the winter is concerning to farmers who rely on them for pollination. The devastation of American honey bee colonies is the result of many factors. A recent comprehensive federal study says that pesticides, parasites, poor nutrition and a lack of genetic diversity are contributing factors. A decline in honey bees could create significant problems for American farms that rely on the pollination to grow their products annually. And it’s not a small issue. American agricultural products are worth tens of billions of dollars a year.
To answer a few questions, we reached out to Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, Assistant Research Scientist, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland.
Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp
Is the current population of honey bees decreasing?
Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp: “We’ve lost 30 percent of our colonies in the last six years, but that hasn’t translated into a decrease into the number of colonies managed. That’s because beekeepers can replace those losses very quickly, but replacing that many bees is expensive. It’s hard for beekeepers to keep up with replacement all the time.
“Beekeepers are very worried about how to manage their losses because they don’t exactly know what is causing their losses, so they tend to have more colonies than they have in the past, expecting that 30 percent loss. The numbers of managed honey bee colonies in the country has increased slightly, but that doesn’t mean that there is not trouble – the beekeepers are spending a lot of money and effort to keep those bee populations up. In the meantime, the need for honey bees as pollinators has increased.”
What crops do bees pollinate?
Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp: “Bees pollinate almonds, blueberries, apples, most of the berry crops, melons, squashes and cucumbers. They also pollinate vegetables that produce the seed that allow the crop to grow, like carrots and broccoli. The seed has to be pollinated from the flowers.
“Beekeepers are having to work a lot harder. There was a shortage of honey bees in almonds this year, which means farmers don’t necessarily get the fruit set that they need in order to produce a crop. Farmers can see losses if their crop doesn’t get pollinated.”
What’s causing the decrease in the honey bee population?
Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp: “Colonies are being lost so much due to a combination of things. One of those is poor nutrition. Because of increased plantings of corn and soybeans, due to the high prices of those commodities, a lot of the land that used to have flowering plants on it to support bees is now being plowed under and planted with corn and soybeans. The bees don’t have as much clean, nutritious food.
“There are also a lot of pesticides in use. We’ve identified more than 100 pesticides that bees are exposed to over the year, and of course bees have a weakened immune system, so they become more susceptible to diseases. Neonicotinoids have been getting a lot of attention because they’re a systemic pesticide. Neonicotinoids were developed because you don’t have to spray the pesticide; you just paint a little bit on the seed, then the seed sucks it up, and it is in the plant. These neonicotinoids do get into the nectar, and so there are a lot of beekeepers who are very concerned that low levels of neonicotinoids in the nectar and pollen may be hurting the bees.”
Can there be a balance between pesticide use and a healthy honey bee population?
Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp: “Yes, there can be a balance. We need to make sure that we have bee forage. There’s a growing consensus that farmers should always have meadows so that they don’t plant straight acreages of corn or soybeans. We have to make sure that we have pollinator strips within the boundary, so that we have healthy bee forage. It’s pretty clear that if bees get good nutrition that they’re able to survive a lot of insult, and so dedicating certain portions of the land to pollinator habitat is a good idea.
“Modern agriculture requires some pesticide use, so I don’t think we need to get rid of pesticides altogether – I just think judicious and careful use is important. It’s pretty clear that things we don’t think are harmful to insects, like fungicides, probably have a negative effect, so we probably need to have some regulation on what we spray, so that we’re not spraying plants when they’re flowering. We just need some common sense rules like that, as well as making sure we have adequate bee habitat. I certainly think there can be a balance; I just think it has to be a multi-pronged and comprehensive approach.
With honey bee losses, will there be a shortage of honey?
Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp: “No, I don’t think there will be a shortage of honey. Most of the honey consumed in this country is produced abroad, and imported. We consume most of the honey we produce in this country already. There’s a lot of honey produced in other regions of the world.
“It’s always better to buy local honey – it has the least carbon footprint of any sweetener. Also, some people claim that if you eat local honey that is seasonal (so in the spring, eat last year’s spring honey) that it may help with allergies. There’s not a lot of science behind that, but a lot of people say it.”
Why is it important to have a healthy honey bee population?
Dr. Dennis vanEngelsdorp: “One in every three bites of food you eat is pollinated either directly or indirectly by honey bee - it’s essential. If we want to continue to produce fruits and vegetables and that variety that we’ve come to expect, we need to have a healthy, sustainable bee population.”
Want to know more?
The Bee Informed Partnership, in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), released preliminary results for the seventh annual national survey of honey bee colony losses. Preliminary survey results indicate that 31.1 percent of managed honey bee colonies in the United States were lost during the 2012-2013 winter. This represents an increase in loss of 42 percent over the previous 2011-2012 winter’s total losses that were estimated at 21.9 percent. This level of loss is on par with the six-year average total loss of 30.5 percent.