Commercial and wild honeybee populations have been declining for more than a decade in the U.S. and across the globe, a loss that poses a major threat to the world’s food supply. Scientists have scrambled to determine exactly what’s causing the bees to die, and what can be done to help save them.
Now, in an attempt to boost honeybee numbers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is investing $3 million into a program that pays farmers in Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin to reseed their fields with bee-friendly cover crops like clover and alfalfa, as well as providing incentives for farmers to make changes to their farm so that their farm animals can move freely from pasture to pasture, allowing vegetation in pastures to recover and grow plants that bees are attracted to. The USDA chose the five Midwestern states because most beekeepers bring their bees there during the summer — the Midwest acts as a “resting ground” for the bees, which gather pollen for the winter months there.
The USDA says 65 percent of the approximately 30,000 commercial beekeepers in the U.S. bring their bees to the Midwest each year, and some farmers are beginning to take up the practice because fields in their region don’t provide enough food for their bees. Tim Tucker, a beekeeper with hives in Kansas and Texas, told the AP he’s considering taking his bees to South Dakota this year.
“There used to be a lot of small farms in our area that had clover and a variety of crops, whereas in the last 20 years it’s really been corn, soybean and cotton and a little bit of canola,” Tucker said. “But those crops don’t provide a lot of good nectar and pollen for bees.”
The USDA has ramped up its attention on bee issues in recent years, as beekeepers in the U.S. have reported hive losses as high as 50 percent. The agency has partnered with the Apiary Inspectors of America and the Bee Informed Partnership to survey winter honey bee colony losses. It also maintains the Bee Research Laboratory in Maryland, which among other things has studied ways to manage honey bee pests like the varroa mite.
The varroa mite is just one of the factors that scientists think are contributing to widespread bee losses, which they attribute mainly to a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder, in which adult bees in a colony simply disappear (rather than die in or in front of the hive). One of the main drivers has been found to be neonicotinoid pesticides, which at least 30 scientific studies have linked to bee die offs. Last April, the European Union implemented a two-year ban on three neonicotinoids, but the U.S. has been slower to act, recently calling instead on more research into neonicotinoids. A July study authored in part by USDA researchers found that fungicides, too, are playing role in bee deaths, increasing their susceptibility to a parasite called Nosema ceranae.
The USDA estimates that one-third of all food consumed in the U.S. are dependent directly or indirectly on honey bees for pollination, with crops such as almonds and squash relying most heavily on bees to produce seeds.