We all owe a huge thanks to the tiny honeybee. While doggedly pollinating most crops of vital importance and underpinning much of our existence here on Earth, the honeybee is buzzing a fine line between MVP of the insect world and ceasing to exist altogether. Pointing to steep declines in managed honeybee colonies, the Obama administration has announced a $50 million spending plan for a multi-agency response effort. The White House added that 90 commercially grown crops in North America are dependent on pollinators, and that honeybees contribute $15 billion to the U.S. economy.
In fact, BeeInformed.org recently released their 2015-’16 survey of 5,700 beekeepers from 48 states across the nation. The survey found we are up to 44% total annual honeybee loss, the highest it’s been in the last three years. According to the American Beekeeping Federation, some crops like blueberries and cherries depend on honeybees for 90% of their pollination needs while others, like almond crops, depend entirely on the honeybee. There are around $2.66 million in commercially managed honeybee colonies serving the aforementioned contribution these pollinators make to our economy and general welfare.
Enter OSU’s Research
Imagining a world without melons, apples, broccoli, and even cocoa is, well, it’s just too much to bear. Although this sounds horrible, and it is, the OSU Honey Bee Lab is here to help.
The Honey Bee Lab, in its current form, was started by Dr. Ramesh Sagili in 2009 in order to study honeybee health and nutrition. In addition to research, the lab offers extension office services, training events, and hosts the Oregon Master Beekeeper program whilst maintaining around 80 bee colonies on campus. Research Assistant and Master Beekeeper Program Coordinator Carolyn Breece explains that they need so many colonies to ensure the studies they conduct have meaningful results.
Why Honeybees Die, How to Save Them
According to Breece, the question most frequently asked is “Why do my honeybees die?” With colony collapse at an all-time high, that is both a very relevant question and a hard one to answer. “It used to be easy [to keep bees] before the introduction of the varroa mite in the 1980s,” explained Breece. “People have these great stories of honeybee colonies in the backyard that hardly ever had to be managed.” Unfortunately with the spread of varroa mites, pollinator-inconsiderate pesticide use, and issues of nutritional deficiency and starvation, the honeybee has suffered heavily.
“What I really like to tell people after all this gloom-and-doom is that even though we have all these problems, this is probably the best time to be a honeybee,” said Breece. This is because there are a number of research labs, non-profit organizations, and citizen-scientists writing articles, doing studies, and getting the information out to the public. According to Breece, “It’s not easy, but I think we are helping it become easier for people by offering educational programs.”
An increased interest in planting native habitats, pollinator-attracting plants, and ensuring there are resources available for bees in the landscape has been one response. Fresh research from the Honey Bee Lab supports these endeavors. Students in the lab have found links between nutrition and supplemental protein feeding and the bees’ ability to resist, or at least survive, infections like Nosema apis. “If they are on a monocrop for a long period of time, then that is all they have, so they don’t have a diverse diet,” explained Breece, “[but] when bees are better fed and have better nutrition, they have better survival rates.”
A different response has been to limit, change, or otherwise be considerate of the pesticides used in the landscape and agricultural settings. In fact a brand-spanking-new study from the Honey Bee Lab has focused on the interaction of two different pesticides on bee colonies in the field. “Not very many of the pesticide studies are in the field. They take bees and put them in cages and do lab trials,” said Breece. The lab team is pretty excited to publish this study because while we cannot expect the agricultural sector to drop pesticides altogether, there is great value in understanding how different pesticides at varying concentrations will affect colonies.
Given that the future of humankind is inextricably tied to that of the honeybee, OSU’s Honey Bee Lab is likely to remain a busy place in future years. The plan is to continue monitoring migratory commercial bee colonies that travel between almond groves in California up through blueberry patches in Oregon, publishing articles for both the extension office and research lab, and putting together events in the community.
While there are still questions surrounding what is happening to honeybee colonies and what can be done about it, the increasingly daunting mystery may have more to do with our resistance against new practices. Science is hard, but if history is any indicator, pesticide change is even harder.
By Anthony Vitale