Farm Groups Sweet on Improving Honey Bee Health

Posted: 2/28/2018

By Dale Thorenson

Varroa mites first arrived in the United States about 20 years ago, and in just two decades, they have had a devastating impact on honey bees. Consider how you would cope with several rat-sized, blood-sucking parasites attached to your body, feeding on you and infecting you with numerous life-threatening viruses. This is the plague honey bees are facing today.  

I’ve come to appreciate the challenges of honey bees and beekeepers during my involvement as a representative of the U.S. Canola Association to the Honey Bee Health Coalition (HBHC). The HBHC was formed in late 2014 to seek solutions to the recent decline of honey bee health. It has identified three major factors negatively impacting it: 1) increased Varroa mite infestations, 2) decreased bee habitat resulting in poor nutrition and 3) incidental insecticide exposure. Combined, these factors are the likely cause of colony losses of 30 percent or higher.

Researchers are working to find more effective ways to control Varroa mites but for now, they are controlled with insecticides. Yes, insecticides are actually applied on an insect to control an insect! We all agree a better way must be found. 

Beekeeping has evolved along with all other segments of agriculture throughout the years. The number of honey bee hives or colonies has declined from a high of 6 million during the 1940s to 2.5 million or so in recent years. But the need for pollination services for fruit, vegetable and seed production in the United States – estimated at a $12.3 billion in 2010 – has grown at the same time. However, as hive numbers have dropped, the size of beekeeping operations have increased. The largest U.S. beekeeper has a whopping 100,000 colonies and it’s not uncommon for beekeepers to have thousands of hives. Most of their colonies are placed in crops that need pollination for production, such as almonds in California.

But honey bees need space to forage and feed between pollination jobs – 20-acre plots of flowering plants are simply not sufficient to accommodate lots of hives. Efforts are underway to convert portions of the nation’s Conservation Reserve Program acreage to flowering plants, but this will take time, and it will be costly to convert and maintain. This is where canola can help.

Canola is an almost perfect food source for bees and it can bloom for up to four weeks or more. Flowering canola fields offer a great place for honey bees to have some R&R after performing pollination services. Many canola fields can also be up to 150 acres or more, offering a venue of adequate size for commercial honey beekeepers to place hives nearby. 

The U.S. Canola Association, National Sunflower Association and American Honey Producers Association are jointly cooperating to increase canola and sunflower acreage across the country to provide more habitat for honey bees. To that end, the associations teamed up with Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) to draft language for the 2018 Farm Bill that would incentivize planting a portion of a farm’s acreage to these crops to provide habitat for honey bees. While discussing legislative options with technical staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Conservation Resource Service (NCRS), it was determined that an incentive could be put in place administratively without a change in current law.

Senator Heitkamp wrote a letter to the NRCS urging it to do just that, and attached proposals recommended by the three associations. The NRCS said it is working on an incentive for farmers to plant canola and sunflowers for honey bee habitat for fiscal year 2019. The associations and the senator have pledged to work with the NRCS to ensure that the incentive maximizes benefits for honey bees and wild pollinators while minimizing any unintended consequences. 

Dale Thorenson is assistant director of the U.S. Canola Association and policy expert with Gordley Associates in Washington, D.C.

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