Saturday, May 2, 2015

How well did our honey bees survive this past winter?

These notes are from a presentation given by Ellen Topitzhofer, former University of Minnesota graduate, research assistant at Oregon State University, and crop analyst for the Washington/Oregon/Idaho area. She spoke at a recent fundraiser for the Woodlake Nature Center, a 150-acre preserve in Richfield, MN. (Author’s note: I made every attempt to verify my notes and apologize in advance for any misstatements or inaccuracies.)

Ellen opened her presentation with a perspective on honey bee losses over time. Looking back, declines started in the 1950s; the population in the U.S. was recorded at about 5 million colonies. Today, it’s half that number, 2.5 million. Extreme losses occurred in 2006-07, and since then, five of the last seven years have seen 30% or more loss. This past winter (2014-15), losses were in the range of 20-30%. The sustainable loss rate is 15% or less, so you can see why there is great concern!

The term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) came about when significant colony losses were observed in the U.S. in 2006-07. There are many reported causes for CCD. Among them, malnutrition due to lack of access to diverse food sources, mono farming and habitat loss; pesticide use and the sublethal effect of multi-chemical applications; pests (i.e. varroa mites) and pathogens.

Multiple factors are likely contributing to stress, loss and overall weakening of bee and colony health. For example, the average lifespan for a queen bee is reported to be about 2 years, down from an average of 2-5 years.

For other information and potential causes, read the UMN Bee Lab newsletter, April 2015, Marla Spivak, Bee Lab Research Update. (Congratulations to Matthew Smart for successfully defending his PhD dissertation and furthering bee research / discovery.)

Honey bees perform very critical functions for us humans. First and foremost, they pollinate plants and crops in ways that we cannot. These small creatures transfer pollen from plant to plant to increase crop yields for farmers, and they pollinate about 30% of the food we put on our tables every day! I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention their delicious honey, naturally produced for us to enjoy.

Economically, bees are responsible in large part for industrial crop production, like almonds for example. California produces 80% of the world’s almond supply across 750,000 acres. Each acre requires 2-3 colonies, which calculates to about 1.5 million colonies, just for almonds alone!

While there is much to do at the agricultural level to address these issues, we can help support our local honey bees in a few simple ways. Ellen suggested creating nesting habitats, reducing pesticide use and planting bee-friendly gardens.

Post Note:  Carefully select native plants, and purchase them from trusted resources. Be sure they’re really organic. Bill HF2029 is currently being debated in the MN legislature, and the final vote could negatively impact the labeling of ‘bee-friendly’ plants. Contact your legislators ASAP and insist on full, transparent labeling.

Minnesota legislators attempt to roll back protections for bees - Pesticide Action Network North America, March 27, 2015 article.