Declining bee populations could have big impact on food supply

Christina Kelso       July 20, 2013       The Florida Times-Union
Original Publication Link: Declining bee populations could have big impact on food supply
Jeanette Klopchin, laboratory manager for the UF Honey Bee Research and Extension Lab, brushes past a worker bee as she reaches to pick up a queen, located at the bottom center with the white spot, and move her to a different hive. (Christina Kelso/ The Florida Times-Union)

At any given moment inside the oozing walls of a honey bee hive, a legion of inch-long, yellow-striped residents are on the move.

The workers. The drones. The queen.

Each has a job to do. They bustle in and out of the hive, with the goal of supporting the intricate structure of their honeycomb city.

But what these six-legged laborers don’t know is that their actions are at backbone of a much larger system. The 2.62 million managed honey bee colonies in the U.S. are critical to producing a third of the food that hits American plates.

As U.S. beekeepers continue to experience damaging losses to their colonies each year, it’s a dependence teetering at the edge of disaster.

Since October 2006, U.S. beekeepers, commercial and backyard, have experienced an average loss of 30.5 percent of their colonies over the winter seasons, according to a survey by the Bee Informed Partnership in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America and the USDA. While some winter loss is normal, the acceptable range is considered to be no more than 15 percent. After seeing numbers dip to 21.9 percent in winter 2011-12, losses were 31.1 percent in winter 2012-13.

“The situation hasn’t gotten any worse, but it hasn’t really gotten any better either,” said Jamie Ellis, University of Florida associate professor of entomology and head of the Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory.



It’s an unnerving phenomenon that is expected to have major economic implications.

Although honey bees are not native to the U.S. — they initially tagged along with the first European settlers — pollination is responsible for the production of many staples the American diet, such as watermelons, apples, cantaloupes, blueberries, strawberries, broccoli, onions, avocados, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers and some citrus. Additionally, fodder crops such as clover and alfalfa that feed cattle and chickens for the meat industry, rely on honey bees.

The USDA estimates that one in every three bites of food an American eats is a product of honey bee pollination, and without the insects, would not be able to be farmed.

“Imagine sitting down to a meal and raking off a third of the food before you even get a chance to get started,” Ellis said.

Decreases in honey bee numbers have made pollination services a hot commodity within recent years, resulting in an increase in both the costs of hives and the distances they are being shipped. If honey bees were to continue to decrease in number, pollination costs would be expected to continue to rise and potentially lead to increased food prices, Ellis said.

One industry in which this can be seen is almonds. Produced in California, almonds rely almost solely on the pollination efforts of honey bees. Each February, 1.4 million honey bee colonies, 60 percent of the nation’s managed colonies, are shipped to California to pollinate almond groves.

“I’ve heard a colleague describe it like the sound of a vacuum, every year in February sucking all the bees out to California,” Ellis said.

The phenomenon of bee die-offs is attributed to Colony Collapse Disorder, in which, for unknown reasons, the adult bees in a colony disappear. It is understood to be a product of multiple stressors, including poor nutrition, pesticides, stress from traveling long distances, pathogens and pests, Ellis said.

The odds have swarmed against honey bees. The longest journeys of their lives no longer take place over meadows under the power of their own wings, but over cross-country stretches of asphalt in the rolling cargo holds of 18-wheelers. Once they arrive on scene and begin to forage, they run the risk of encountering nectar laced with harmful pesticides and fungicides. Placed in monoculture environments where they can only feed on the nectar of one type of plant, bees are often malnourished, unable to receive all of the amino acids that would come with a natural varied diet. Infestations of parasites such as the varroa mites, which feed on the body fluids of honey bees, can weaken bees, spread pathogens and destroy entire colonies when left untreated.



Florida’s honey bee numbers are not typical of national averages. In a time of national honey bee losses, Florida has seen a vast increase in the number of colonies.

In 2006, the state had approximately 150,000 colonies and just under 1,000 beekeepers, Ellis said. In 2013, Florida has reached 350,000 colonies and 3,000 beekeepers, a growth that Ellis attributes to education and extension programs, increased consumer and media interest in honey bees, and careful record-keeping done by the state.

While researchers throughout the country continue to work out the mysteries behind honey bee losses, there are a number of things people can do in their daily lives to help the bees. By using the power in their pocketbooks to purchase and support organic produce, planting pollinator-friendly gardens, supporting research and extension programs, being careful with use of pesticides and fungicides or trying their hands at backyard beekeeping, people can have an impact, said Robert Horsburgh, apiary agriculture and consumer protection specialist with the Florida Department of Agriculture.

Honeybees crawl across the exterior of a frame that has been separated from the hive at the UF Honey Bee Research and Extension Lab Apiary in Gainesville. Bees are important in pollinating several key crops.

“A lot of people see a bee on a flower and they may be a little bit intimidated by it,” Horsburgh said. “Honey bees are actually a lot calmer than a lot of people would think. Enjoy seeing the bees in your yard and realize they are helping the environment, they are not out to sting anyone.”

Ellis, whose lifelong infatuation with the honey bee began when he first started beekeeping as a hobby at the age of 12, recommends that people try keeping bees of their own.

Able to thrive anywhere from large yards to subdivisions to rooftops, most people can actually keep bees, Ellis said. These honey bees will pollinate up to an 80-square-mile radius around the hive, foraging, pollinating and bringing life to neighborhood gardens all the way to the wildflowers and palmetto thickets up to 2 miles away.

“You can approach keeping honey bees from the artistic perspective, you can approach it from the agriculture prospective, you can approach it from the hard work or the carpentry perspective because you have to build hives, from the nature perspective or from the intellectual perspective,” Ellis said. “Honey bees really do offer a lot for everyone.”

Plus, there is an added, even sweeter perk.

“The best honey on the planet is what comes out of your own backyard,” Ellis said.

Throughout Florida, there is an immense network of support for individuals interested in keeping bees. Northeast Florida boasts some of the largest beekeeping associations in the state, with organizations in Duval, Clay, St. Johns and Putnam counties.

“One of the best things people can do is take the time to learn about the anatomy of the bee,” said Jeanette Klopchin, laboratory manager and research technician for the UF Honey Bee Research and Extension Lab. “You can’t really help something if you don’t understand it.”

For anyone interested in learning about honey bees or beekeeping, UF hosts an annual Bee College, a two-day event where people can take beginning, advanced, or youth classes on the topic of bees. The next opportunity will take place on Aug. 16-17 in Fort Lauderdale for the first South Florida Bee College. In Northeast Florida, Bee College will take place March 7-8 in St. Augustine.

“It’s very easy for people to get involved in bees and be part of this bee fraternity as we all kind of race together to try to save the bee,” Ellis said.