One of the top ways to create a healthier U.S. honey bee industry - which in turn can lead to successful crop pollination and honey production - is additional funding for expanded apiculture (beekeeping) research.

More dollars are needed to improve the honey bee industry which can benefit agriculture as a whole.

“Beekeeping has never had the needed research dollars or inputs to study its problems as other sectors of agriculture have had,” says entomologist Dick Rogers who has 35 years in the bee business as an entomologist.

Rogers is the bee research manager at the new Bayer Bee Care Center for North America located in Research Triangle Park, N.C. which opened to the public April 15.

“Beekeeping has always worked on a shoestring (budget) basically,” the veteran bug man said. “There are new research dollars coming along which will definitely help things progress.”

Honey bees pollinate one-third of the world’s food supply – in other words, one-out-of-three bites of food the consumer eats. About 140 crops are pollinated by bees.

The largest demand for honey bee pollination is the California almond industry. This spring, 1.6 million honey bee colonies pollinated California’s 840,000 bearing acres of almonds.

Almond pollination is the largest pollination event in the world. Without honey bees, the $4.3 billion California almond industry would almost cease to exist.

Bees and the crop production engine

“Honey bees are the spark that starts the crop production engine,” Rogers said. “If you can’t start your car without a spark you won’t go very far. The same is true of honey bees.”

Rogers and other honey bee specialists discussed the U.S. honey bee business – its successes and challenges - during the Southwest Ag Summit held in Yuma, Ariz. this spring.

Other speakers included beekeepers Thomas “Rick” Smith of Yuma and Bret Adee of Bruce, S.D., plus Christi Heinz of the bee research organization Project Apis m.

For three decades, the apiculture (beekeeping) industry has been in transition. Rogers says responding accurately to the industry’s challenges can keep the beekeeping business solvent.

Today, the top pest threat to the U.S. honey bee industry is the dastardly varroa mite pest, introduced in 1987. USDA calls the external parasite the most detrimental pest of honey bees in the northern hemisphere.

The mite attaches itself to the body of the honey bee species Apis cerana and Apis mellifer and sucks hemolymph fluid (blood) out of the bee. Varroa is such a devilish pest that a severe infestation can kill the entire honey bee colony. Varroa mites, at various numbers, are found in every hive in the U.S.

This pest madness reiterates the call for additional bee research and funding.

“If it was easy to fix varroa we would have done it already,” Rogers said. “There is no silver bullet or adequate integrated pest management (IPM) strategy” for the pest.

Limited IPM methods can help control varroa, Rogers says, but none are economically viable now.

New honey bee threat

And if varroa was not bad enough, Rogers issued a stern warning about a new honey bee pest threat – Tropilaelaps clareae - currently found in Asia but not in the U.S. He said T. clareae  is more destructive to bees than the varroa mite.

“It would be a catastrophe if the Tropilaelaps mite were introduced into the U.S.”

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Rick Smith of Yuma is a fifth-generation commercial beekeeper who farms about 500 acres of cotton, wheat, and Sudangrass along the Colorado River. Smith is the principle owner of James R. Smith Beekeeping & Farming.

Smith discussed how the apiculture industry has evolved over the years – from honey as the principal income producer for beekeepers - to pollination services as today’s breadwinner for apiculture.

Smith said, “My grandpa did not see the day when honey production would not support the industry. He never saw the day when the bee industry would be dependent on pollination rental as their primary source of income.”

The elder Smith predicted though that one day honey bees would be in short supply and the time is now.

Smith shared this factoid from the United Nations – the honey bee is the third most important food production animal in the world. The first is cattle followed by pigs – then bees. The chicken ranks fourth.

Pesticides and bees

Smith delved into the timely and sensitive issue of pesticide use around bees. Careful and timely pesticide applications are critical for crop protection, he says. Some pesticides, including Imidacloprid, are often blamed for bee death.

“The beekeeping industry understands that pesticide use is necessary. Pesticides pose a great risk to pollinators when bloom is present in the field.”

Smith offers an “easy solution” to reduce the impact of pesticides on bees. Apply the products when bees are not in the field and choose products with a shorter residual toxicity period. During warmer temperatures, bee flight starts well before sunrise and continue until dark.

“There is no shortcut for scouting to determine if bees are present in the field.”

Smith discussed the importance of pollen to bee health and survival – pollen from crops and nearby areas.

“Today, pollen is the most critical element for bee health and survival since it is no longer abundant. This is a nationwide issue - not just in Arizona or California,” the beekeeper said.

Besides traditional crop blooms, bees also gain pollen from weeds and grasses.

“Blooming weeds are a target for bees craving diverse pollen sources,” Smith said. “Bermudagrass and Sudangrass pollen collected very early in the morning can be a lifesaver when other pollen sources are in short supply.”

Accounting boring - bees fun

A third speaker on the honey bee panel was Bret Adee of Adee Honey Farms in Bruce, S.D. He completed college with an accounting degree in 1984 and joined the family’s beekeeping business to crunch numbers. Two years later, he decided accounting was “boring” and moved to the “fun job” - beekeeping.

Today, the third-generation beekeeper is one of the nation’s largest keepers of bees with hives in California, Utah, Washington, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Texas, Mississippi, and Colorado.

Adee is concerned about the total number of hives nationally for crop pollination. While USDA reports about 2.6 million colonies in the U.S., Adee says the figure is only accurate when bees are the healthiest during the summer - not during the almond pollination.

For beekeepers, 20 percent of colonies are lost during the summer, plus a 30 percent loss during overwintering - about 50 percent total. About two hives per acre are used to pollinate California’s 840,000 acres of bearing almonds. That pencils out to about 1.6 million needed colonies – about the same number of the available commercial colonies.

“The (colony) buffer is zero,” Adee said.

So while current colony supply just barely meets current almond pollination demand, another 100,000 acres of non-bearing almond trees will enter commercial production within a decade. This need for more bees is a great concern to the apiculture and almond industries.

Wanted: more foraging land

Adee then changed gears calling for more land for bee foraging. Forage acreage has decreased, in part, tied to conversion of some of the land to corn production for ethanol fuel. This conversion, Adee says, has driven up bee production costs.

The final speaker, Christi Heintz, piggybacked on Adee’s call for more bee foraging land. Heintz is executive director of the non-profit honey bee research association Project Apis m. based in Paso Robles, Calif. The group funds and directs research to enhance the health and vitality of honey bee colonies while improving crop production.

“Project Apis m. is working on fall and spring seed mixtures for growers who have fallow land to feed honey bees,” Heintz said. “In California, we are seeking public lands to provide forage for honey bees.”

Wildflower seed mixes are very expensive so the organization is developing cost-effective seed mixes which are beneficial to landowners and honey bees. For growers, wildflowers can improve the soil by creating better water penetration and more organic matter.

“Providing honey bee forage is a win-win for all while building bees for crop pollination,” Heintz said.

Pollinators are responsible for $29 billion in U.S. farm income. Nearly $20 billion is directly or indirectly dependent on the honey bee.

“The honey bee is the best bug in the business for pollination. Bees are the lowest paid, hardest-working workforce in agriculture, and bees make honey.”

Busy, healthy bees are vital to agriculture’s success.