Interview: Helping Honeybees

  • Honey bees pollinate a wide variety of crops throughout the growing season. (Photo courtesy of Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service)

Honeybees are in trouble. They’ve been pestered by invasive mites. There are concerns about how agricultural chemicals might be affecting bees. And in recent years there’s been growing concern about the disappearance of honeybees. It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder. Lester Graham talked with Christy Hemenway with Gold Star Honeybees, based in Bath, Maine. Gold Star manufactures bee hives for beekeepers.

Transcript

Honeybees are in trouble. They’ve been pestered by invasive mites. There are concerns about how agricultural chemicals might be affecting bees. And in recent years there’s been growing concern about the disappearance of honeybees. It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder. Lester Graham talked with Christy Hemenway with Gold Star Honeybees, based in Bath, Maine. Gold Star manufactures bee hives for beekeepers.

Lester Graham: Beekeepers expect to lose about fifteen percent of their bees over the winter, but for the past four years a survey by the USDA and the Apiary Inspectors of America has found that winter die-off has been about thirty percent. What’s going on here?

Christy Hemenway: Good question. One of the trickiest things about the Colony Collapse Disorder that most people have heard something about…is it’s difficult to study because it’s primary symptom is that the bees simply disappear from the hive. So there’s not a lot left behind to take to the lab and look at the details. So its primary symptom being that they disappear then the question would be why? and where are they going? That leaves us looking at conditions that bees are being raised in, and what are we doing to them, and with them, and it has left a lot of people scratching their heads, you might say. I think that a shift in the way we look at bees and possibly in the way we farm. If we were to begin farming in a way that supported bees it would begin to eliminate a lot of these things that are sort of dog-piling because it’s just a lot to ask a small insect to carry. And if we could do one less thing wrong, or one thing a little less wrong, then I think that we could really start to turn the tide.

Graham: When you say change farming, what do you mean by that?

Hemenway: Well the idea of industrial agriculture, or mono-cropping, where we’re growing, for instance, if you want to pick on a pretty large target, the California almond groves–it’s about 700-thousand acres of nothing but almonds. It creates an interesting situation. First off, you have to understand that almond trees bloom for just about 22 days out of the year. So if you’re a bee living in the middle of 700-thousand acres of almond trees, what do you plan to eat for the other three hundred and forty-some days of the year? So we’ve created the migratory pollination situation by having to bring bees in to these trees because there’s no way for them to be supported for the rest of the year. So if you’re farm is diverse and has things that bloom throughout the course of the bee season, when you’ve got warm enough weather, then you’re gonna find that your bees have got something to do, and something to eat, something to forage on all year round instead of for twenty two days which means you’ve gotta get ‘em out of there after that twenty-two days.

Graham: Short of keeping bees, is there anything else we can do that can help this situation?

Hemenway: Buy raw local honey from a local beekeper, maybe at a farmer’s market. That’s a great beginning. Another thing is: let your dandelions stand. Dandelions are fantastic–

Graham: Really?

Hemenway: Oh yeah, that’s great bee food, and it’s also some of the earliest food of the season. So don’t run out there with the lawnmower or the weed killer at the first sign of a dandelion, let that stuff go. Because it’s just natural, easy food, you don’t have to plant things for bees, the stuff that comes up all on it’s own is great stuff. So if you’re in any situation where you can let a lawn go a little more towards a meadow instead of a sculpted, barren, green bee-desert, do that. It’s really a wonderful thing to watch happen, first of all, and it’s just good for bees, to let them have that natural forage.

Graham: I’d love you to talk to my neighbors, that would be great.

Hemenway: Why, are they mowing down their dandelions?

Graham: Well they’re frowning at mine, let’s put it that way.

Hemenway: Oh, shame on them.

Graham: Christy Hemenway is with Gold Star Honeybees, thanks very much for talking with us.

Hemenway: You bet, thank you.

Related Links

Honeybee Die-Offs

  • Researcher Dennis VanEngelsdorp says the rates of honeybee die-offs threaten the beekeeping business. (Photo courtesy of the NBII)

Beekeepers expect about fifteen percent of their bees to die every winter. But for the past few winters they’ve seen die-offs of thirty percent or more. Mark Brush reports on a new survey that’s keeping track of honeybee losses:

Transcript

Beekeepers expect about fifteen percent of their bees to die every winter. But for the past few winters they’ve seen die-offs of thirty percent or more. Mark Brush reports on a new survey that’s keeping track of honeybee losses:

This is the fourth year in a row that beekeepers have see die-offs this high. The survey was done by the USDA and the Apiary Inspectors of America.

Dennis VanEngelsdorp was one of the researchers who conducted the survey. He says the rates of honeybee die-offs threaten the beekeeping business – and that’s important because honeybees pollinate about a third of the foods we eat:

“If we want to produce fruits and vegetables in this country, we need to have honeybees and we need a pollination force. And without those, we won’t be able to produce those in this country. So we’re not going to starve, but certainly the variety in our diet will change.”

Most of the beekeepers blamed the latest deaths on bad weather in the fall and winter. VanEngelsdorp says you can add to that habitat destruction that hurts the bees’ food supplies; invasive mites that spread disease – and the still unexplained problem of Colony Collapse Disorder.

For The Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

Related Links

Native Pollinators in Trouble

  • Jeffrey Pettis says while honeybees are a concern because they pollinate crops, the wild plants that rely on native pollinators can be in trouble as well. (Photo courtesy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Honeybees have been dying by the millions because of colony collapse disorder. But government officials say it’s not just the bees that are in trouble. Lester Graham reports.

Transcript

Honeybees have been dying by the millions because of colony collapse disorder. But government officials say it’s not just the bees that are in trouble. Lester Graham reports.

Jeffrey Pettis heads up the USDA’s bee lab in Beltsville, Maryland. He says there’s a lot of concern about honey bees because they pollinate crops. But he’s also really concerned about wild native bees, butterflies, bats that pollinate plants in the wild.

“The wild plants that rely on native pollinators can be in trouble as well. So, there’s certainly should be concern for all pollinators in addition to honeybees, which I like to think of as a major agricultural pollinator.”

Pettis says habitat destruction is hitting nature’s wild pollinators hard, but bats are also dying because of white-nose syndrome, a fungus that’s spreading, killing bats by the millions.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

Related Links

Interview: The Incomparable Honey Bee

  • A Honey Bee. (Photo source: Erik Hooymans at Wikimedia Commons)

You could thank a honeybee for the last meal you ate. Bees help produce about one out of every three bites we eat. But worldwide bees are dying at a rate never seen in history. Lester Graham talked with Reese Halter about the decline of the honeybee.
Doctor Halter is a biologist and the author of the book The Incomparable Honeybee and the Economics of Pollination:

Transcript

You could thank a honeybee for the last meal you ate. Bees help produce about one out of every three bites we eat. But worldwide bees are dying at a rate never seen in history. Lester Graham talked with Reese Halter about the decline of the honeybee.
Doctor Halter is a biologist and the author of the book The Incomparable Honeybee and the Economics of Pollination:

Doctor Reese Halter: We do know that we have a problem. 50 billion bees are missing.

Lester Graham: What kind of economic benefit is the bee to food production in, let’s just say, the US?

Halter: Enormous. I’ve given conservative numbers for food, for medicine, for clothing. Directly, the honeybee accounts for, at least, 44 billion per anom. Now, if you go to the cotton growers’ main site, they’ll tell you that, in cotton alone, America does well over 100 billion in commerce. The cotton plant cannot exist without the bee.

Graham: Now, bees have been hurt in the last few decades. We’ve seen a couple of different invasive mites really decimate the bee population, and now we’re seeing this colony collapse disorder. Can you tell us what you think some of the causes might be?

Halter: There’s no one smoking gun. We’ve got a collision of events that have happened. We have insecticided, fumigated, miticided, pesticided ourselves almost right through oblivion. We’ve got electromagnetic radiation coming at them. We truck bees on semi-tractor trailers around our nation – they’re on, like, a Nascar circuit – where we don’t even allow them, for goodness sakes, to eat honey, we stoke them up with high-fructose and corn syrup, because it costs too much to feed them honey, for goodness sakes. And they’re sick. We’re overworking them. We’re losing billions of them. And we’ve reached a point now where there are mites, where there are bacterias and viruses, and, at the end of the day, not dissimilarly to human-beings, the bees’ auto-immune systems are shutting down.

Graham: What can we do about that?

Halter: In a nutshell, I think we need to step back here, and we need to look at all the different problems. And I think where I get really excited, Lester, is corporate America – corporate America – gets this. And they get it with Sam’s Club, they get it with Safeway, because organics – organics – you know, we can grow stuff. We can grow anything without having to nuke the Earth with petro-chemical-derived fertilizers and insecticides. When we ramp the scale of economy up, as we’ve done throughout America, in our supermarkets, and, incidentally, organic foods and organic products are the fastest growing in the United States of America. 24 billion last year. So when it ramps up the price per unit goes down. And there are all these organic bays in almost every food store now. So, please, consider supporting it. Certainly buy organics in season. And, it is very affordable.

Graham: Reese Halter is the author of ‘The Incomparable Honeybee’ published by Rocky Mountain Press. Thanks for talking with us.

Halter: Thank you, Lester.

Related Links

Life Not So Sweet for Honeybees

  • Honeybees have been dying at a rapid pace for the second year in a row. (Photo by Rob Flynn, courtesy of the USDA)

For the second year in a row, honeybees
are dying at a startling rate. Mark Brush reports
beekeepers are asking the public for help:

Transcript

For the second year in a row, honeybees are dying at a startling rate. Mark Brush reports
beekeepers are asking the public for help:

Farmers rely on honeybees to pollinate a lot of the food we eat – apples, blueberries,
almonds, soybeans – the list goes on and on.

Beekeepers are losing about a third of their hives each year. The sudden die-off is
known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Researchers are still trying to figure out what’s
making the bees sick.

Dennis vanEngelsdorp is the President of the Apiary Inspectors of America. He says
when the bees get sick, they fly away from the hive to die because they’re social
creatures.

“If you belong to a social group, you don’t want to infect your sisters. And so what we
think is happening. Is these bees somehow are aware that they’re ill, and so they’re flying
away from the colony to die away from the colony.”

vanEngelsdorp says you can help the honeybees by growing plants that bees like in your
backyard, by supporting local beekeepers by buying their honey, or by becoming a
beekeeper yourself.

For the Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

Related Links

Bee Colony Collapse Mystery

  • Brownish-orange bumps on the backs of these bees are Varroa jacobson mites, a possible cause of the disappearing bees. (Photo courtesy of the USDA)

Scientists are scrambling to find out why honey bee populations are
collapsing. Lester Graham reports, there are a lot of theories. Some
of them are getting more attention than others:

Transcript

Scientists are scrambling to find out why honey bee populations are
collapsing. Lester Graham reports, there are a lot of theories. Some
of them are getting more attention than others:


Recently, beekeepers have seen entire colonies of worker bees leave and
never come back to the hive. It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder.
Some news reports have suggested wireless phones or cell phone towers
might be throwing off bees’ navigation.


Barry O’Connor is Curator of Insects at the University of Michigan’s
Museum of Zoology. He says so far, that’s just a theory:


“This phenomenon has been seen in a lot of places where there aren’t
cell phone towers. And so it’s not the whole story if it’s even a part
of the story.”


Other theories for the collapse include stress from moving bees around
to pollinate crops, a newer class of nicotine-based pesticides, a
genetically modified corn with a built-in insecticide, or a combination
of environmental problems.


Growers say food production could drop a lot without honeybees to
pollinate crops.


For the Environment Report, this is Lester Graham.

Related Links

Mite Zapper Might Help Bees

Beekeepers in the Midwest and elsewhere are turning to innovative ways to protect their hives from tiny, blood-sucking mites. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sarah Hulett reports, farmers depend on the health of commercial honeybee colonies:

Transcript

Beekeepers in the Midwest and elsewhere are turning to innovative ways to protect their hives
from tiny, blood-sucking mites. As the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sarah Hulett reports,
farmers depend on the health of commercial honeybee colonies:


Apples, cherries, and cucumbers are among the crops that depend on bees for pollination. But in
the mid-80’s, a parasite called varroa wiped out wild honeybees in the U.S. And the mites have
also taken a toll on commercial colonies as well.


The problem is especially serious in California. Almond growers there have had difficulties in
the last few years getting enough bees to pollinate their half-million acres of almond trees. But
Zachary Huang, a honeybee researcher at Michigan State University, says beekeepers in the
region still have about twice the number of bees needed to meet farmers’ demands.


“It’s not so bad yet that we’re having trouble getting bees to pollinate our fruit trees.”


Chemicals have been developed to kill the mites. But so far, they’ve proved only partly effective,
or the mites become resistant. Huang has patented a device called the “mite zapper” that kills the
parasites in the hives. He hopes to be able to market it to beekeepers next year.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Sarah Hulett.

Related Links

Creating Fragrant Flowers

When was the last time you got a bouquet of flowers that had a
fragrant smell? While there’s no shortage of beautiful looking flowers
for
sale, many have little if any scent anymore. As the Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Tamar Charney reports it’s a problem one scientist has
gotten a whiff of:

Transcript

When was the last time you got a bouquet of flowers that had a fragrant smell? While there’s no shortage of beautiful looking flowers for sale, many have little, if any, scent anymore. Ast he Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tamar Charney reports, it’s a problem one scientist has gotten a whiff of:


Flowers have lost their smell as flower growers have bred them to be big and brightly colored. Eran Pichersky is a biologist at the University of Michigan. He studies the smell of flowers. Pichersky is focusing his genetics research on whether it’s possible to bioengineer a flower’s scent.


“We actually have some collaboration with biotech companies who are trying to use some of the genes and enzymes we’ve isolated to put them back into plants so that the plant makes more scent, or even new scent that they didn’t make before.”


But it’s not florists who are interested in this work, it’s farmers. Pichersky’s research means it might be possible to alter the smell of flowers in ways that entice bees to visit crops more often, or even attract other insects to do the pollination work. That increase in pollination could mean an increase in crop yields.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tamar Charney.

Bee Keepers Struggle With Declining Markets

Its estimated that the U.S. honeybee industry generates about $8
million in annual revenue. But the industry has taken a serious
financial hit from a mite infestation. Honey bees are being killed and
honey production is down. You might think that would mean higher
prices for honey. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester
Graham reports, the price of honey has actually gone down: