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Loss of honey bee populations a threat to U.S. agriculture

EDITOR'S NOTE — The following article was compiled by Jerry Hayes, president of the Apiary Inspectors of America.

Honey Bees are the foundational, keystone pollinator specie of modern production agriculture. Albert Einstein said, “If the honey bee becomes extinct, mankind will follow within four years.”

Without fertilization a seed does not form and the plant has no reason to expend the energy to build a fruit around that seed. Apples have generally 10 seeds, cucumbers 100s, watermelons 1,000s. Each seed must be fertilized or a flat sided apple or curved cucumber or funny shaped watermelon is formed.

Many insects can pollinate. Some are even more effective at collecting and transferring pollen than honey bees. Bumble bees, blue orchard bees, Osmia and many others are excellent pollinators. However, their colonies are either very small, comprising maybe several hundred individuals such as bumble bees, or made up of single individual females such as blue orchard bee and Osmia.

The advantages of honey bees is that their nest or colony can be picked up and moved without greatly disrupting the life cycle of the bees.

What honey bees lack in efficiency is vastly compensated for in repetition. Honey bees visit flowers multiple times to ensure complete pollination. If the pollen is viable, and the receiving flower is healthy, fertilization takes place and maximum fruit, vegetable, nut or seed set is the result.

A grower can have the best location, the best soil, the best fertilization, the best pest control, the best fungus control, the best irrigation and the very best cultivars, but if there are no honey bees, to take pollen from point A to point B, there will be no saleable, marketable crop.

Agriculture is enough of a gamble, which is why for maximum production of insect pollinated crops honey bees are the vital part of production.

Honey bees are in decline. Over the last 15-20 years honey bee parasites, predators and diseases never before found in the U.S. have decimated and weakened the feral and managed population. Growers, up until the mid-1980s, rarely had to think about pollination of their crops because there was a large feral population of honey bees. These wild populations lived in hollow trees, or cavities in structures and provided free pollination for small acreages.

Then an invasive, introduced, small, mite(tracheal mite) which lives and reproduces in the honey bees' breathing tubes killed thousands of feral and managed honey bee colonies. A control for managed colonies was found. Untreated feral colonies died out.

Then an external mite, varroa destructor, that sucks the blood of honey bees was introduced. Varroa destructor originally came from Asia. This devastating parasite for all intents eliminated established feral honey bees and killed off additional thousands of managed colonies. Varroa continues to weaken and kill managed colonies as effective long-term controls have not been found and fully adopted.

Varroa, in piercing the body of the honey bee to get its blood meal, vectors or transfers additional fungus and bacteria that can kill individual honey bees as they are weakened by this feeding as immune systems collapse.

There are many more pests, predators and diseases that exist world wide that can adversely affect our managed honey bees. We need to be incredibly careful about imports of honey bees, honey and beeswax from other countries as all of these can harbor new and devastating honey bee diseases and parasites.

Leaving varroa and tracheal mites to an unprotected and unadapted honey bee population in the U.S., coupled with environmental toxins, improper use and exposure to agricultural pesticides and a honey market dominated by low cost commodity foreign producers, has resulted in the lowest number of honey bee colonies since the 1940s.

Our human population at the same time is not shrinking. There is more demand for a healthy and varied diet now than at any time in history. The consumer expects it and will pay for it.

American agriculture developed over the last 300 years under a glut of pollination because of the presence of the honey bee (apis mellifera). There is no glut of honey bees, and other marginal pollinators are suffering as well.

Pollination is in decline while crops needing pollination are increasing. There is a deficit of pollinators.

Several management strategies need to be implemented to insure a rebuilding of U.S. honey bee populations:

  • Varroa destructor control.

    Make a fist. Place your fist anywhere on your body. Proportionally this is how large a varroa mite is on a honey bee sucking its blood. Now put 2, 3 or 4 of these mites on a bee. You can imagine how this would weaken a honey colony. Now try killing mites on a honey bee. It is basically trying to kill a bug on a bug. Hard to do. When varroa quickly developed resistance to labeled chemical miticides it became more problematic.

  • Low honey prices.

    Honey is a by-product of pollination. Beekeepers traditionally produced honey to sell. Cost of production of honey in the U.S. is approximately $1 per pound. Honey is being imported from Asia for $.50-$.60 per pound at the dock. Many beekeepers have simply gotten out of the industry because the transition to a fee based pollination industry is not complete.

  • Loss of relevance for U.S. agriculture.

    Consumers know they get food at the grocery store. There is a continuing disconnect with agriculture as urban and suburban populations grow. As our elected officials also come from this non-agricultural culture, they have an equally vague idea of what sustainable food production really is.

It is predicted by 2015 46 percent of all U.S. fresh vegetables will come from China. Anything which becomes a commodity, whether steel, electronics, cars or food bows to the low cost producer. It can be argued that U.S. agriculture produces a better product. One that has less of a pesticide, sanitary health and safety risk but with third world countries producing, visually to the consumer, a similar product, cost reigns supreme.

There will always be beekeepers producing honey and providing pollination. What will this industry, my industry, look like in 10-15 years? I don't know. It will be smaller and different that is for sure. It will still be there in partnership with fruit, vegetable, nut and seed growers as a team, producing the highest quality products for a growing population.

But in the U.S. as an under-appreciated part of agriculture it may be relegated to the unique, quaint and unimportant.

Use this story the next time someone asks you how pervasive honey bees are in food production. Ask them how honey bees produce ice cream. Tell them that approximately 50,000 colonies of honey bees are used to pollinate alfalfa for seed. This seed is planted to grow alfalfa to harvest as hay and pellets. This alfalfa is then fed to dairy cows that produce the milk that makes the ice cream. We are all linked. If the linkage is weak we all suffer.

Right now the link is weakening, but food production can still be depended on from non U.S. sources. As the National Academy of Science (NAS) reported late last year there is a pollinator decline in North America. This may result in less food production which can be compensated for by other countries. Kind of like our energy needs are compensated for by oil rich nations. Do we want our food requirements to be likewise delegated to someone else? This is truly a strategic issue and is why the (NAS) was tasked with preparing their report.

The take home message that I would hope you now have is that honey bees are a vital part of production agriculture that currently feeds us.

Do you care?

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