University of Minnesota researchers are looking to solve the mysterious and rapid decline of the U.S. honey bee population in a study announced Wednesday.
Honey bee colonies decreased by about 29 percent from September 2008 to April 2009. Honey bees add more than $15 billion to the value of American crops each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Bees pollinate a lot of our diets,” Marla Spivak, professor in the Department of Entomology, said. “All of our quality nutritional foods like fruits, vegetables and nuts are pollinated by bees.”
It is this important role that Spivak said is in serious danger.
“Nutritionally, they are struggling,” Spivak said. “And the food they are eating is contaminated.”
Spivak will work with scientists around the country in a three-year study to analyze the effect pesticides and environmental factors have on the health of honey bees in North Dakota, which is the leading honey bee state in the nation.
The pollination provided by the honey bees is required for a plant to be able to both fertilize and produce seeds.
“We are hoping to understand why bees are dying off at such fast numbers and if it is connected to the floral landscape they are in,” Spivak said.
She said pollen and nectar from the flowers are the extent of the honey bees’ diet, and the lack of flowers is one area that is contributing to their decline.
Zac Browning, co-owner of Browning’s Honey Co. and the beekeeper for the study, said there is a lack of land that is nutritionally viable for the bees due to the growing presence of conventional agriculture in the state.
“If we are in the middle of five miles of corn and beans, the bees are not doing very well,” Browning said.
Browning said there are areas where his hives are located that are “agricultural deserts.” He has noticed the effect these areas have had on his colonies.
In the past three years, Browning said he has doubled the amount of nutritional supplements and medication necessary to just keep his bees at the same efficiency.
“Our inputs have doubled in the last five years, and we have not seen overall growth in the output of our hives,” Browning said.
With the increase in agricultural land comes an increase of pesticide use, according to Spivak, who said this increased use creates a profound negative effect on the honey bees’ health.
Herbicides are being used on the weeds located around the farmer’s crop borders, and bees are feeding on these contaminated areas, Spivak said.
Honey bees can fly up to two miles in search of food, according to Spivak, who said the bees are either not finding enough flowers in this radius or what they do find is contaminated.
“They are not just looking in our backyard,” Spivak said. “There are not enough uncontaminated flowers out there.”
Spivak said she has found 198 different pesticides in honey bee pollen.
The study will compare bees from a number of different regions in North Dakota, according to Spivak.
She said the honey bees from the different regions will then be transported by semi truck to California, where they will be used to colonize almond farms.
Dr. Ned Euliss Jr., wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geographical Survey, said this exporting of bees is an annual process for the state because of the number of honey bees almond farms require.
There are 2.5 million bee colonies in the United States, and 1.5 million colonies are needed to pollinate the almond farms, according to Euliss, who is a researcher in the study.
Spivak said the large amount of honey bees on the farm creates a dense environment that leads to the quick spreading of disease.
The study aims to find out if honey bees coming from environments in North Dakota that are nutritional for the bees will lead to better health when on the almond farms.
“If you take over colonies that are malnourished or sick from pollination, you will see a lot of losses,” Spivak said.
Overall, Euliss said the study hopes to find an environment for honey bees that leads to their best health.
“We want to be able to find the optimal ways to configure the landscape for the bees,” Euliss said.
Browning said he hopes the study will make policymakers and conservationists more aware of his industry.
“Pollinators are a part of agriculture, and I think they have gone by the wayside,” Browning said. “I just want them to learn that they are of value.”