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Poisoned Pollinators: Protecting bees in the Cowboy State
Jackson Hole, WYO – Thirty-nine species of ubiquitous mosquitos easily outnumber 10 to 20 million honeybees working 300 commercial hives on ranchlands around Jackson Hole. Controlling mosquitos, and other undesirable insect and plant species, in a manner that allows commercial bees and wild pollinators to thrive – thus safeguarding food crop vitality – is no easy task, though Teton County Weed and Pest takes honeybee health seriously.
Beekeepers elsewhere, however, often lack such conscientious consideration. “Colony collapse,” in which entire commercial honeybee populations die off, is a globally pervasive crisis. The decline of wild pollinators, as essential to the reproduction and productivity of flowering plants as honeybees, is no less catastrophic.
More than 75 percent of humanity’s food crops require pollination. In the United States, honeybees pollinate more than 100 different crops. According to USDA, pollinators help produce one out of every three bites of food Americans eat, and add an estimated annual $15 billion in agricultural crop value. Yet commercial honeybees – as well as bumblebees, moths, butterflies, bats, wasps and other native pollinators – face serious declines worldwide, purportedly due to pesticide poisoning, habitat loss, mite infestation and stress-related diseases.
Two winters ago, U.S. beekeepers lost 30.5 percent of managed honeybee colonies, according to a recent USDA press release. This past winter, losses declined to 23.2 percent, still above the 18.9 percent beekeepers claim is the maximum threshold for sustainable economic viability. Average U.S. colony loss over the past eight years was 29.6 percent, more than 10 percent too high.
USDA sounds the alarm
“Healthy pollinator populations are critical to the continued economic well-being of agricultural producers,” wrote USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack in the press release. “While we’re glad to see improvement this year, losses are still too high and there is still much more work to be done to stabilize bee populations.”
Earlier this year, USDA initiated a new $3 million program to support honeybee colonies in five upper Midwest states: Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North and South Dakota. As many as 65 percent of the nation’s commercial honeybees hail from these states, where in spring beekeepers truck them across the country to pollinate commercial crops. USDA’s new program encourages farmers and ranchers to grow alfalfa, clover and other flowering habitat to benefit bees and other pollinators on working agricultural lands.
President Obama‘s fiscal year 2015 budget proposes an additional $71 million for coordinated pollinator health communication strategy between USDA agencies, targeting research to identify and address multifactorial stressors and their interaction, implement measures to improve and increase pollinator habitat on federal and private lands, prevent introduction of invasive bees, diseases and parasites, and document health factors associated with honeybee losses and production. The USDA announced it will host a summit in October in Washington, D.C., to address pollinator nutrition and forage needs, and the agency launched a People’s Garden Apiary bee cam to boost awareness.
“Six to eight years ago, we saw a problem with our bees being sick; five years ago, we lost 50 percent of our colonies,” said Milt Miller, Wonderful Wyoming Honey Owner and beekeeper of Crowheart, Wyoming. To understand the scale of Miller’s loss, he explained that a recently overturned semi in Ohio held about 460 hives containing 20 million to 40 million honeybees. Miller oversees 1,600 hives.
Miller grew up in the honey business. His dad, Fremont Miller, started it while in high school in the late 1930s. “We started working with dad when we were about in the fourth grade,” he said. Fremont’s grandson, Kyle, now works with his dad, Milt.
When asked about problems he encounters, Miller said, “Nosema disease is a bacterial spore that affects their stomach – you might notice their stomach is protruded, but three quarters of the time it doesn’t show positive and you can’t see it.”
Harsh antibiotics made matters worse, and one winter Miller lost 75 percent of his colonies. Though he discovered a natural medicine that isn’t so hard on them, he said there are other threats including a fungus that hits hives, a bacterial spoor – foulbrood “that’s been around forever” and a couple of viruses. “We are careful because we have to get approved for treating with anything that would get into the food chain,” he said. He also mentioned the mites that suck bee blood and lay eggs on bee larva.
One mite will hatch three to four offspring on each larva every 21 days, Miller explained. “The mite is the basis of the colony collapse problem – viruses are transported from bee to bee by mites – like how you get tick fever, same way,” he said. “But also other causes … different insecticides … the new nicotine sprays linger in soil longest … get into the roots and the pollen … not enough to kill bees, but weakens their immune systems enough that they’re susceptible to diseases. Then they put the insecticides in the seeds and the powder blows away and lands on the flower and in the dirt.”
Miller said bees on Roundup-ready alfalfa made as much honey as anywhere else, but acknowledged, “They don’t really know the full impact of what [that type of] alfalfa does. Where there’s nothing but corn for hundreds of miles, they spray the crops so there’s not weeds, so the bees can only eat [insecticide engineered] corn,” which kills them.
“In California, it’s beautiful for two to three weeks, but then it’s just a desert for bees,” Miller said, referring to almond groves and other crops.
Under natural circumstances, bees collect pollen from many different plant species, instinctively going to ones providing the vitamins needed most, Miller said.
When asked about possible heat stress, Miller explained, “Bees drink as much water as cows if you really get right down to it – they sip up water to bring back to the hives and make their own little air conditioning system. On one side they’re pointing in, the other side they’re pointing out, and they’ll sit there fanning their wings to circulate the air.”
“What stresses them most nowadays is the lack of variety of food sources,” Miller said. “To counter that, we give them pollen patties – brewers yeast with all the vitamins and minerals they need – we started using them in 2003. The very best food is honey, so we try and leave some in the hive.”
Bees only live two to three weeks when they make honey because they’re working so hard, Miller explained. “Winter-bees” may live from October until February. “Don’t ask me how,” he said, “but they store food in their ‘yoke sack’ for when the queen starts laying eggs, until the new young bees can take care of the hive.”
Miller said his dad told him he’d never get over the awe because bees always tell you something new. “If the queen’s no good, they’ll make a different sound – when you take the lid off, you can tell – just like a kid who’s lost their mother,” he said. “They’re dopey … but when you give them a new queen and they have a job, they perk right up.”
Mature house bees take care of the queen and produce “royal jelly” out of a gland in their head, Miller explained. “It’s a real high protein material – if they want to raise a new queen, that’s all she’s fed – she’d be the same bee that’s next to her except she’s only fed royal jelly – it makes her sex organ mature so she can hold semen.”
Bees in the crossfire
“People don’t realize, when they have mosquitos or something they don’t like in their yard, if there’s a flower nearby and [repellant] gets on there, it will wipe out a whole bee colony – it happened down there in South Park back 10 or 12 years ago – somebody getting their yard ready for July Fourth to get rid of mosquitos, and the bees got into it and every hive in the area was destroyed,” Miller recalled.
Miller said the introduction of pesticides after World War II was “a big change, a harsh change, but the way farmers farm now is different, too – they farm from road to road – there’s no more hedgerows – when they lose their pheasants, they try to get farmers to leave a place for the pheasants – now they’re trying to get them to do that for bees too.”
“Over around Jackson where all those pastures turn yellow – it’s beautiful to see and it produces nectar and pollen for the bees – we have one ranch over there – they can run more cattle because the pollination produces more clover,” Miller said.
“They’ve been doing pretty good, though there’s very little alfalfa and sweet clover left in Jackson,” Miller said, noting his Crowheart bees produce 80 to 90 pounds of honey per hive per year, compared to only 40 pounds produced by Jackson bees.
Miller’s biggest concern, however, is keeping bees alive. “We have to keep them healthy, they need a variety of food sources, you can get packages of seeds that produce nectar and they’re beautiful – not everybody likes dandelions, but people can leave part of their yards more natural,” Miller said. “Bumblebees are needed for bigger flowers like pumpkins and squash – hollyhocks are wonderful for bumblebees.”
Miller said he would like to figure out how to have healthier bees naturally so he wouldn’t need to spend so much time taking extraordinary measures just to keep them alive. “People need to pay attention to pesticide labels that tell you when not to spray – a lot of applicators don’t pay attention to labels,” he said.
Improved mosquito mitigation
Miller recalled 40 years ago in Jackson, “the mosquitos were so thick you’d breathe them in – so they sprayed real heavy and we had a huge bee loss,” he said. “But the researchers said you don’t have to spray that thick – I told them they could spray at certain times, as long as the bees weren’t flying – so one guy over there who had worked for a beekeeper went over to a bee yard and said when the bees start flying we’ll cut the planes off – Weed and Pest worked good with us.”
“They’ve changed their whole attack on the mosquitos – hitting the larva – that’s helpful for bees – they’ve been using good research – up in the Bighorn Basin they spray – they just want to get it over with – they’ll warn the bee keepers, but it can be real hard if they need to get rid of pests – they’re doing a good job in Jackson,” Miller said.
Weeds and pests
“Even before colony collapse was a household term, we were trying to be mindful of these things,” said Marta Iwaseczko, Teton County Weed and Pest assistant supervisor.
“Our first step is knowing where honeybees are,” she said, noting they update their GPS with where beehives are kept. “So even if we haven’t seen hives on the property, we know we should be looking for them.”
Iwaseczko says they’ve shifted into a more integrated, effective, efficient, species-specific approach. “I’ve had to spray near hives and I’ve always wondered about hive health,” she said.
In dealing with adult mosquitos, specialized equipment ensures they are using the right droplet size – “big and dense enough to kill the mosquito but not other species,” Iwaseczko said. “And since we know where hives are, we give them a buffer. We time our adult control events; we can time them down to 15 minutes – our spray needs to land on them while they’re flying. We minimize bee activity and maximize mosquito activity.”
Iwaseczko said little attention’s been paid to wild pollinators. “What we’re questioning now are the cumulative effects. I don’t know enough about pollinators in general – ask me anything you want about mosquitos.”