One of the top performing arts centers on the U.S. eastern seaboard is the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., known for drawing top talent. Yet on the ‘Left Coast,’ one can look beyond artsy places at Los Angeles and San Francisco to find meaningful talent that puts food on tables - honeybees.
Travel across the nearly 900,000 acres of California almond countryside in February and hear the perfectly pitched humming of honeybees; perfecting their craft by pollinating almond blossoms during the ‘Largest Pollination Event on Earth.’
While the 2016 almond season is a recent memory for the Golden State’s tree nut industry, beekeepers and growers are already planning for the 2017 almond pollination. As always, honeybee health is Job One.
Honeybee issues were front and center at the 2016 California Association of Pest Control Adviser (CAPCA) Conference and Agri-Expo held in October in Mickey Mouse’s ‘backyard’ – Disneyland at Anaheim. Speaker Karen Francone of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) delved into a hive of honeybee information, including bee health.
One of her first points shared with the record CAPCA audience, pegged at about 1,600 pest control advisers, crop consultants, growers, and others, was a good understanding by federal regulators on the multiple causes of the decline in honeybee health.
Francone, Cal DPR’s environmental program manager, shared with the CAPCA crowd that many scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), USDA, and the global scientific and regulatory community understand that “The general declining health of honey bees is related to complex interactions among local stressors.”
Many of these regulators agree that honeybee decline – referenced as “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) - has a bevy of causes, not just pesticides as opined by some extreme environmentalists.
Francone says, “Pests such as varroa mite, pathogens such as bacterial disease of American foulbrood and other viruses, poor nutrition due to the loss of foraging habitat, an increased reliance on supplemental diets, pesticide exposure, bee management practices something akin to long migratory routes to support pollination services, (all) put a real stress on bees. That’s being acknowledged.”
It’s believed that honeybees have existed for at least 10 million years ago. Pollination has evolved over millions of years and benefited both flowering plants and the pollinators, says Francone.
Not only do pollinators provide essential services in nature, she says they are necessary for healthy, productive agricultural ecosystems, ensuring the production of full body fruit and furrow seed sets in many crops.
Yet pollinator health is declining worldwide. During the winter of 2006-2007, Francone says some beekeepers reported hive losses ranging from 30-90 percent. Up to 50 percent of the lost colonies had symptoms inconsistent with previously-known causes of honeybee death.
CCD refers in part to the sudden loss of worker bees in colonies with few dead bees found near the colony. Many of the flying insects left the hives to pollinate and went AWOL.
In the end, “Hives cannot sustain themselves without worker bees and eventually die,” says Francone.
The average hive loss during the 2006-2007 winter was 29.7 percent, she explains. By the 2014-2015 winter, there was a little better news with lower hive losses at 21.3 percent – yet far from an acceptable level.
Today, bee colony health remains a top concern today for beekeepers and growers who depend on crop pollination.
Honeybees pollinate crops ranging from nuts to vegetables, and as crop diverse as alfalfa, apples, cantaloupes, cranberries, pumpkins, and sunflower. Literature suggests honeybee pollination can increase yields and fruit size in some fruits and vegetables.
Francone noted, “Keeping bee populations safe is critical for keeping American tables stocked with high quality (food) products and our agricultural sector running smoothly.”
She says pollinator reductions are a threat to global food security and efficiently feeding the growing global population.
According to a 2015 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs report, today’s world population at 7.3 billion people is expected to soar to 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion by 2050, and 11.2 billion by 2100.
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Bee Biology 101
On the pesticide front, Francone says understanding basic bee biology and behavior can help workers make more informed decisions on pesticide applications.
Among the bee factoids Francone shared was the adult honeybee has three body regions – head, thorax and abdomen. A pair of mandibles located on either side of the bee’s head serves as ‘pliers, so to speak,’ to bite into flower parts (anthers) to release pollen.
The proboscis of the honeybee is a long, thin, hairy tongue which acts as a straw to bring liquid food (nectar, honey, and water) to the mouth. The tongue moves back and forth rapidly while the flexible tip performs a lapping motion.
Spiracle openings in the bee’s respiratory system allow oxygen to move into the body and exhale carbon dioxide.
The back legs have a special arrangement of long curved hairs to form a pollen basket on the outer surface. Special hairs on the back of the legs enable the insect to gather nectar and pollinate. They can carry pollen back to the hive to use as protein later.
The queen honeybee’s lifespan averages about three years, ranging from one to five years, depending on stressors. The queen produces about 1,200 to 1,600 eggs per day. The drone (male) mates with virgin queens. Depending on hive strength, up to several hundred drones can live in the hive at a single time.
A foraging honeybee visits about five million flowers to produce a single pint of honey. Francone shared a question and answer from Joe Traynor, a Bakersfield-area crop consultant – “How far do bees fly – as far as they have too.”
According to Francone, honeybees can fly up to five miles per day to collect food stores. However, most foraging bees search for food within a one-to-two mile radius of the hive and visit up to 500-600 flowers per day.
If its flight range is one mile, a honeybee covers about 2,000 acres. For two miles, the acreage covered is about 8,000 plus which Francone termed “phenomenal.”
The last part of Francone’s presentation was the role and impact of pesticides on honeybees and hives. She spent about 20 minutes sharing excerpts from a 35-page online publication from the Pacific Northwest Extension called “How to Reduce Bee Poisoning from Pesticides,” available online at https://catalog.extension.oregonstate.edu/sites/catalog/files/project/pdf/pnw591.pdf.
The publication discusses essential pollinators and bee poisoning causes in Pacific Northwest and California agriculture, rules to protect honeybees, state rules to protect pollinators, investigating and documenting a suspected bee poisoning, ideas to help pesticide applicators and growers protect honeybees, and more.