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The Honey Bee Crisis

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Since 2006, it has been hard to ignore news related to Western honey bees (Apis mellifera) and their fluctuating populations globally. Reports on losses of managed honey bee colonies (colonies kept by beekeepers) have been covered by major international news agencies, discussed on the internet and in popular/trade journals, and investigated by scientists around the world. Regarding the latter, there has been a significant increase in the number of refereed publications concerning honey bee diseases, parasitology, and other stressors that may be contributing to colony losses globally. Research dollars have poured into bee laboratories around the world as scientists scramble try to find the “answer” to why bee populations are declining. With a giant spotlight on honey bees, the general public is beginning to understand human reliance on pollinators and the role they play in the global food chain. Yet, many wonder if anything can be done to save a species on which much of agriculture relies. Herein, I discuss the crisis facing the honey bee and what is being done to address this vexing problem. There are roughly 2.6 million managed honey bee colonies in the US and the vast majority of those colonies belong to commercial beekeepers. The definition of commercial beekeeper is somewhat vague, but the term typically refers to an individual who owns/manages 500+ honey bee colonies and whose primary source of income is derived from keeping bees. Unlike in much of the world where a beekeeper's main use of honey bees is to make honey, commercial beekeeping in the US is largely centered on crop pollination at a value of over $14 billion. This involves the movement of honey bee colonies on large trucks around the country (often >3000 km). Farmers who grow crops that need pollination (blueberries, cucumbers, squashes, etc.) pay beekeepers “rent” for their colonies. The beekeepers then place their colonies adjacent to the farmer's crop during the 3–6 week bloom period. Honey bees (and all bees for that matter) have an insatiable appetite for pollen and collect it from flowers and use it as required nutritional support for the production of new bees. The collection of pollen from flowers and movement of that pollen from flower to flower results in a crop that has increased fruit set (i.e. a higher percentage of flowers that produce fruit), larger fruit size, and enhanced fruit quality. Almonds are a driving force in the US honey bee/crop pollination industry. Almond growers recognize that their crops will fail if honey bees are not present during the late winter/early spring bloom. Because of this, almond growers rent bee colonies at a price higher than that offered by growers of any other crop, thus luring beekeepers from around the US to California (where most of the almonds are grown) in February. Due to the value in almond pollination and the unusually early bloom period for a US crop, many US beekeepers overwinter their colonies in southern states to take advantage of favorable winter climates. Colonies can be kept stronger during warm winters and are ready to pollinate almond crops earlier than are colonies in the northern US.


Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2012

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