Honeybees work a comb in a commercial hive

Honeybees work a comb in a commercial hive. Though losses have stabilized in recent years, a reduction in honeybee populations threaten to affect a number of agricultural crops because of the insects’ value as pollinators.

IFT photo by Nat Williams

MILLSTADT — At least one beekeeper believes the publicity about problems with honeybee populations is a good thing.

“On the positive side, this has created a huge awareness about pollinator habitat,” said Mike Wuerffel. “It’s caused a bull market in honey.”

Wuerffel produces vegetables and beef at his farm near here in St. Clair County. He also markets honey from on-farm hives, so he has a double reason to be concerned about the health of bees.

Farmers, entomologists and environmentalists across the country have for years expressed concern about so-called colony collapse disorder, or a sharp reduction in the number of honeybees in the United States.

Preliminary results of a nationwide study indicate beekeepers across the country lost 33 percent of their colonies over the past year.

As bad as that sounds, there is some good news in that statistic: It shows a slowing in the population decline. Winter losses this past year were the lowest recorded since the survey began in 2006-07.

Reasons for the problem vary. Hive-invading mites and insecticides used in agriculture are often considered major contributors. While neonicotinoids used in production agriculture may play a role, farmers aren’t the only ones to blame, according to Jerry Hayes of Monsanto.

“Everybody points fingers at production agriculture,” said Hayes, who heads up Monsanto’s bee efforts. “But there are 40 million acres of suburban lawns in the United States, taking 18 million pounds of chemicals to make them look like the 18th hole at Augusta.”

But a recent Purdue University report not only shows a link between some insecticide seed treatments and colony collapse, but indicates the treatments may not even boost yields.

The ag industry has been working for years to address the problem because a third of agricultural output is dependent on pollinators. Monsanto — which recently sponsored a pollinator field day in Millstadt in southern Illinois — is among companies closing in on a solution to stop the losses.

Scientists agree the Varroa mite is one of the biggest threats facing honeybee sustainability. The tiny parasite spreads disease, causes disfigurement in larvae and ultimately kills bees.

The struggle is not new.

“Since we started producing crops there has always been a battle between the farmer and the bug. Bugs love the same things we love,” Monsanto entomologist Preston Schrader said.

“Farmers have been trapped in this cosmic struggle between producing food and protecting that food from the insects that also love to eat their food.”

The St. Louis-based company is seeking a solution through a gene-suppressing technology known as RNA interference, or RNAI. Other ag companies are also engaged in research aimed at slowing honeybee losses.

“Beekeepers have to put pesticide in a honeybee colony to kill a little bug on a big bug,” Hayes said. “Monsanto has some technology that we hope is in development that will control the growth of mites without the use of pesticides, bringing sustainability back to the beekeeping industry, health back to the beekeeping industry and health back to the environment.”

The largest beekeeper in the U.S. has 100,000 colonies, and many others have tens of thousands of hives. Mega beekeeping operations may cause stress, Wuerffel said.

Loaning hives to farmers has become a huge industry in itself, especially in Western states, where pollination is even more critical to agriculture than in the Corn Belt. The California almond industry, for instance, is virtually 100 percent dependent on honeybees.

“The pollinator industry is where the money’s at in bees,” Wuerffel said. “Honey production is in hundreds of millions of dollars. Income from pollination is in the billions.”

The USDA recently awarded a grant to introduce a certification program in which farmers can inform consumers they are farming in ways that benefit bees. The Bee Better Certified program is one means of raising awareness.

“This relationship between an insect and a flowering plant is an amazing thing,” Hayes said. “We have to support those insects and those plants in the environment so that we can all benefit.”

NAT WILLIAMS writes for Illinois Farmer Today, a Lee Enterprises sister publication of The Southern.

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