WIUM Tristates Public Radio

USDA Report on Honey Bee Health

May 3, 2013

A new report from the USDA identifies multiple reasons why honey bees are dying off in the United States.

Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy says most people do not realize how dependant we are on honey bees and other insects or animals that transfer pollen.

Dr. Ramaswamy is the Director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

He says up to $30-billion, annually, in agricultural product depends on pollinators.

The system just isn't supporting the bees as it used to

"Crops like almonds, cucumbers, apples, blueberries, alfafa seed and a whole host of others are directly dependent on pollination in order to be able to produce set fruit."

That process is in jeopardy, though, as large numbers of honey bees continue to die.

Zac Browning is a fourth generation beekeeper from North Dakota.

He says he lost more bees in the last year than he did in the previous year.

Browning says this is why we are on the brink of not having enough honey bees.

"There are certain periods where there is a pretty high demand for honey bees," says Browning, "where we are nearing or perhaps even beyond our capacity to fulfill.  Specifically, related to the almond pollination early in the winter in California where hive numbers are naturally at their lowest through the course of the winter."  

A wide range of stakeholders met last fall to figure out why the honey bees are dying.

A report released this week by the USDA summarized the conference.

Dr. Ramaswamy says the biggest takeaway is that there is not a smoking gun.

"The decline in pollinator health that we have observed in recent years is truly due to a whole host of factors," says Dr. Ramaswamy.  "Parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure, so you can't really parse one out as being the smoking gun."

According to the report, the number of honey bee colonies has been cut in half since the late 1940’s.

Colonies are also dying at a rate of 30% per year over the last few winters.

Ramaswamy says the effort to reverse those trends is far reaching.

He says agencies are working to add pollinator-friendly habitats to federal lands and to encourage ranchers and farmers to do the same.

Zac Browning says making additional land available is important especially as large-scale farming operations have overtaken the natural habitat for honey bees.

"The system just isn't supporting the bees as it used to," says Browning, "in that there is not habitat and what is left on the perifery is not enough of a buffer to keep the pesticides and contaminents out of their food and out of their hives."

The EPA says it is also working with farmers, seed companies, beekeepers and pesticide companies on the best practices for pesticide use.

The agency says it is not going as far, though, as the European Union in banning certain products that have been blamed for killing honey bees.

Those involved in last fall’s conference say this report is the first step in the lengthy process of restoring honey bee colonies to their previous levels.