Focus, Food Service & Agriculture, and Higher Education

MSU research project to save bees is underway

Bee-killing pesticides are seen as a significant threat to crops.

August 14, 2015
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Bee hive
Without effective pollination, the food industry would face higher costs and potential shortages. ©

LANSING— Bees are declining in the northeastern United States and southern Canada, according to a recent study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded Michigan State University a $6.9 million grant to develop sustainable pollination strategies for specialty crops.

Bee pollination is necessary for the production of many crops, including apples, blueberries, grapes and leafy greens.

“Bees play a key role in the productivity of agriculture through the pollination of fruits and vegetables,” according to the Honey Bee Research Centre at the University of Guelph in Ontario. “Without effective pollination we would face higher food costs and potential shortages.”

National Geographic magazine recently reported beekeepers in the United Statees lost about 25 percent of their hives in 2013.

Three main factors contributed to the bee decline, according to Sarah Scott, who studied zoology at Michigan State University and now works to improve forage conditions for honey bees on USDA lands: the varroa destructor, loss of natural bee pollination habitat and pesticides.

Scott is a field technician and research assistant for the U.S. Geological Survey’s Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center.

In 2005, a huge loss in the honeybee population was caused by the varroa destructor, an external parasitic mite — but, Scott, said, “It’s not just one specific issue; it’s an interplay among many different factors that are impacting bees’ survival. If we didn’t have bees, someone would have to walk around with a tiny cotton swab to pollinate crops.”

Scott said she doesn’t think more bees are necessary to address the problem. Instead, she suggests more bio-diverse sources for them to pollinate from, such as small potted flowers and wildflowers in home and community gardens.

Another reason for the loss of hives is colony collapse disorder, or CCD, linked to pesticides. According to a study published by the Harvard School of Public Health, “Since 2006, there has been significant losses of honey bees from CCD. Recent findings suggest that CCD is related specifically to neonicotinoids pesticides, which may impair bees’ neurological functions.”

Recently, Ontario environmental commissioner Gord Miller said bee-killing pesticides are a bigger threat to crops than the now-banned insecticide DDT.

What individual beekeepers do also matters in efforts to sustain the honeybee population, said Jessica Steller, co-owner of Steller Apiaries in Jackson.

Her company describes its practices as a natural alternative to the commercial chemical-based beekeeping industry.

“After two years of 100 percent losses, we began to really research what it took to tend bees, not to keep a hive, and we discovered alternative beekeeping,” she said. “Learning about the cycle and lifestyle of the bee has made me a much more in-tune beekeeper.”

Dan Zikursh, a beekeeper in Mentor, Ohio, said the decreased bee population is because of bad beekeeping practices. He has had more than 20 hives without a single incident of CDC.

“I don’t really believe in CDC. I believe people have gotten lazy, and bad beekeeping practice has become a common wisdom,” he said.

Zikursh doesn’t blame pesticides as the main cause of CDC.

“Less honey per hive is more work if you want healthy bees. Sure, the best option is less pesticide to begin with, but that means less produce for the farmer. There are trade-offs either way,” he said.

The MSU research project is intended to develop integrated crop pollination recommendations on ways to “most effectively harness native bees’ potential for crop pollination,” according to the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Integrated crop pollination combines different pollinator species, habitat improvement and crop management practices to pollinate crops.

The MSU-led team includes scientists from USDA and several other universities. The new grant builds on work done under a $1.7 million grant awarded in 2012.

Sonny Ramaswamy, the director of the food and agricultural institute, said, “With the recent declines in pollinator numbers, especially honeybees, this grant is extremely important for the profitability of the specialty crop industry, which adds more than $50 billion to our nation’s economy every year.”

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