Farm Horizons, November 2011

The plight of the honeybees: why are they disappearing?

By Jennifer Kotila, Staff Writer

“Honeybees are like the canary in the coal mine, as far as the environment is concerned,” said Darrel Rufer, owner of Rufer’s Apiaries near Waverly. He is also the president of the Minnesota Honey Producers.

For several years, apiaries have been dealing with the loss of honeybee colonies, some reporting losses of 30-90 percent of their hives. The phenomena is often attributed to colony collapse disorder (CCD), which is defined as the sudden die-off of honeybee colonies. One of the symptoms that defines CCD is not finding any dead bee bodies near the hives, the bees just seem to disappear.

Rufer has lost 25 to 60 percent of his honeybee colonies each year since 2006, which has improved just slightly in the last couple of years, he said. Before 2005, Rufer would see only a 2 to 10 percent die-off of his colonies each year.

During the winter of 2010-11, nationwide, honeybee colony losses totaled 30 percent for all causes, according to the annual survey conducted by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA).

Honeybee colony losses for the previous four years show similar results; losses were 34 percent in the winter of 2009-10, 29 percent in 2008-09, 36 percent in 2007-08, and 32 percent in 2006-07.

“The lack of an increase in losses is marginally encouraging in the sense that the problem does not appear to be getting worse for honeybees and beekeepers,” said Jeff Pettis, an entomologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service. “But continued losses of this size put tremendous pressure on the economic sustainability of commercial beekeeping.”

In a country that depends on pollinators to contribute at least $16 billion to the nation’s agricultural economy, according to Rufer, those types of losses are not sustainable. Of all the food produced in the US, one-third of it is dependent on the honeybee.

For instance, one million honeybee colonies are needed to pollinate the almond crops in California each year, according to Rufer.

There are more than 90 crops throughout the US that rely on pollinators, such as raspberries, sunflowers, apples, and blueberries, said American Honey Princess Allison Adams.

“Even dairy products come to us through the bee, because they pollinate the alfalfa,” Adams said.

A perfect storm of stressors for honeybees

In order to understand the complexity of the disappearance of honeybees, Adams and Rufer explained some of the different stressors honeybees are facing in their environments.

Rufer, who overwinters his bee colonies near Milan, TX, says it is not too hard to figure out what is going on with honeybees. “All I know is when I take my bees to east Texas, they get fat, healthy, and happy,” Rufer said.

But when he brings his colonies back to Minnesota, they are fine until about mid-July, when they start to go downhill and disappear, Rufer added.

Nothing in the environment changed from 2004 to 2006, Rufer said, but a new family of chemicals came in vogue, known as neonicotinoids. “It’s supposedly easy on the environment, with minimal impact on animals and humans, but it raises all holy hell with anything not an animal,” Rufer said.

Not only will neonicotinoids kill the target insect, but any insect that comes into contact with that plant, Rufer explained. Bees that have taken nectar or pollen from plants treated with neonicotinoids die before coming back to the hive.

“If the only environment you lived in is one toxic to you, how long would you live? The same thing is happening to the bees,” Rufer pointed out. “If farmers and landowners are growing crops, there are less toxic things to spray. We appreciate if they use something on the less toxic side with a shorter duration of toxicity.”

He noted a chemical that was used on sweet corn near LeSueur about 30 years ago that killed thousands of honeybee colonies. Farmers switched to a different chemical that was less toxic to the honeybees, and they stopped dying.

“It’s easy to lay CCD at the feet of that type of chemical,” Rufer said, but also admitted there are a variety of factors which have led to the decline in honeybee colonies.

“About 50 years ago, there was a fence surrounding every pasture, now there is no median between fields with plants honeybees need,” Rufer said. “There are no flowering plants left, no fence rows.” Plants such as milkweed, golden rod, and sweet clover all provide a well-rounded diet for the honeybee.

When Rufer first brings the honeybees back to Minnesota, there is a wide variety of plants in the woods which are blooming for the honeybees to feed on. As summer continues, other plants are done blooming, and only corn and soybeans, which are treated with pesticides and other chemicals, are left.

“Migratory beekeepers that bring bees across the nation are vital for pollinating crops, for instance set in a field to pollinate sunflowers, but being in one field of one crop is unnatural. The lack of variety is stressful,” Adams said.

Having been in the honeybee business for nearly 35 years, Rufer said he has seen a lot of change in farming practices over that time. “We (honey producers) like CRP (conservation reserve program),” Rufer said. The program provides compensation to farmers who allow some of the land to grow naturally and not be farmed, which allows for a variety of plant life in one area.

Beekeepers would also like to see less spraying and cutting of road ditches by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “The shutdown in July was the best thing that happened in a long time (for honeybees),” Rufer said. “I don’t mind them killing wild parsnip and other invasive species, but don’t blanket spray and kill off everything. It’s some of the few things left for bees to use.”

Some of the other stressors Rufer’s honeybees have been facing are varroa mites and tracheo mites. Before these two pests became problematic in the mid-1980s, Rufer said his bees faced no real pests, and he could overwinter some of his colonies in Minnesota, he said.

“The tracheo mite is like having asthma,” Rufer said. “A lot of hobbyists and sideliners got out of keeping bees – even career beekeepers.” Rufer began bringing all his bees to Texas in 1990, after losing 60 percent of his colonies the previous two years.

A varroa mite is a small tick-like creature the size of a pinhead, Rufer said. There are some non-lethal chemicals which can be used in the hive to rid the bees of the mites, but the varroa mite is becoming resistant to them.

“We are trying to breed a bee that grooms itself to get rid of the mites,” Rufer noted.

Although scientists have looked all all kinds of factors which could be leading to the disappearance of honeybees, no single factor seems to be causing the problem.

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