Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Industry stakeholders seek to take the sting out of threats to bees’ health

By Elizabeth Crawford contact

- Last updated on GMT

Spring has finally sprung, which means birds are chirping, crops are blooming and bees are pollinating – at least those that survived the winter, and the varroa mites, damage from pesticides, the dearth of natural food sources and problems related to a lack of genetic diversity.

According to the most recent annual survey​ conducted by USDA and the Apiary Inspectors of America, beekeepers in the US lost about 28% of their colonies over the 2015-2016 winter – this is up from 22.4% the previous winter. 

And while this is bad, what is worse is that for the past two years the percentage of bees lost in the summer – a time when colonies should thrive and grow – rivaled those of the winter rates.

Given that about 1/3 of global food production volume relies on pollinators to some degree and more than 90 crops are pollinated by commercial honey bees, the threats that bees face also threaten the larger food and beverage industry.

According to The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services pollinators directly contribute to the production of $235 billion to $577 billion worth of annual global food production, including apples, coffee and chocolate. They also contribute to the production of biofuels, fibers, medicine and even construction materials.

Many players in the food and beverage industry and stepping up to help protect pollinators, including the Almond Board of California which has committed millions of dollars to fund research to improve colony health and identify best management practices.

“The plight of the honey bee goes back more than a decade. The almond board has been funding honey bee health research since 1995,”​ to help combat the “number of stressers on honey bees, one of the most important is the varroa mite, another is lack of forage, another is pest and diseases and the Almond Board is engaged in research in these areas,”​ said Bob Curtis, the board’s associate director of agricultural affairs.

Seeds for bees

In particular, the Almond Board has worked aggressively to improve the variety of plants available for bees to forage for food by promoting a program called Seeds for Bees, which allows growers to access free seeds and directions for planting forage in or near their orchards.

“This is very important from the standpoint that there is a dearth of pollen and food resources for bees just prior to almond bloom and after almond bloom,”​ Curtis said. “Ongoing research … shows that the bees that had access to forage perform better after leaving almonds than those that don’t.”

Individual manufacturers also are actively engaged in improving forage for bees. For example, WhiteWave Foods, which makes Silk almond milk and So Delicious Dairy Free products, was out at Natural Products Expo West in mid-March to raise awareness and money for restoring bee habitat and forage.

“We are here today to raise awareness and raise money for the Xerces Society. They are a non-profit that supports habitat restoration and education for invertebrates all around. So we are asking people to take a pledge to”​ plant flowers that provide nectar and pollen for bees, homes for bees, to avoid pesticides and spread the word to neighbors, Deanna Bratter of WhiteWave Foods said. “If we can get whole communities together doing this, there is a better chance that we will be able to support pollinators.”

Addressing threats from pests and pesticides

In addition to providing ample forage for bees, the Almond Board of California also is working to mitigate the threat to bees of pests and pesticides.

The varroa mite, which is like a big spider, is the “devastating to bees,”​ Curtis said. “We need more material and strategies for control of the varroa mite,”​ such as those provided by the Bee Informed Partnership.

The Bee Informed Partnership is a partnership of research labs and universities in agriculture and science dedicated to understanding the decline of the honey bee in the US that has created six teams across the US to work with bee keepers to monitor hives, provide reports and advice on how to keep hives healthy and minimize losses.

As far pesticides go, the biggest threat comes from a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Jessica Shade, the director of science programs at the Organic Center talked at Expo West about the impact of neonics on pollinators and how organic farming can help.

She explained that the “hottest research”​ in the last couple of years has been on neonicotinoids and found that the pesticides compromise honey bees’ immune defense. Research also shows that even a non-lethal exposure can harm bees and lead to population decline, and supports organic farming as a solution.

Neonics are not an issue for almond farmers because they aren’t used. But the Almond Board did create a best practices guide to help growers appropriately use pesticides during the bloom so that as not to impact honey bees that are foraging the crop.

Diversifying bees' genes

The last major stressor to bee health is a lack of genetic diversity in the honey bee stock, which the Almond Board and others are addressing by importing and preserving germplasm from overseas to improve US honey bee breeding and stock.

Curtis remains optimistic that as the community continues to address these challenges the bee population will improve in coming years, helping to secure the future of agriculture and provide environmental sustainability.

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