What’s the Buzz on Bees

Apr 5, 2017 | Sustainable Agriculture | 0 comments

The Dirt:

Agriculture and pollinators and are in a sticky situation. Many farmers depend on insecticides to protect or prevent their crops from chewing insects— but many crops depend on insects for pollination. Headlines shout, “without pollinators, we have no food!” And while that statement is absolutely true, the answer to the decline in honey bee and other pollinator populations is much more complex than just the use of pesticides. So, what do you need to know about this issue?  Here is the buzz…

Honey bees, bumble bees, monarch butterflies and other pollinators have experienced population declines over the last decade. Considering 90% of the world’s flowering plants and three quarters of our major food crops use pollinators,  this is a certainly a very serious matter. Fruits, vegetables and other commodity crops are more plentiful, more nutritious, and tastier with the help of pollinators.

The problem is that many farmers around the world rely on neonicotinoids (insecticides) to manage diseases and pests in their crops. And while the class of neonicotinoids replaced a more toxic and more harmful older group of chemicals, they can still be lethally or sub lethally dangerous to the bees and other insects that are so necessary for successful crop production.

So the challenge is: how to manage pesticide application and protect pollinators?

Entomologists, biologists, environmentalists, geologists, beekeepers, farmers, the EPA, the USDA and yes, even the chemical companies themselves are working hard to come up with solutions to manage and solve pollinator declines.

While the Activist Community is United against Neonicotinoids…. 

Activist groups, such as Friends of the Earth, The Organic Trade Association, Greenpeace, Beyond Pesticides, and the Pesticide Action Network are united around one explanation: the use of neonicotinoids (“neonics”) as the primary cause of pollinator decline.

…The Scientific Community believes there is more to the story

The scientific community, which includes entomologists, scientists, beekeepers and other researchers agree that there is not just one thing that is hurting our pollinators— it is a combination of many  subtle and complicated stressors that have serious effects on pollinator health.

Pollinators: The Champions of Agriculture

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 71 of the 100 crops that account for 90% of the food eaten around the globe rely on bee pollination.

These crops include forage and legume crops, such as alfalfa, clover and buckwheat; fruit crops such as apple, avocado, peach, pear and plums; nut crops such as almond, cashew and macadamia;  oilseed crops which include cotton, canola, and soybeans: vegetable seed crops which include broccoli, brussel sprouts, carrots, and cauliflower and lastly vegetable crops which include beans, cucumbers, pumpkin, squash and watermelon.

We certainly would not be enjoying our plentiful variety of colorful and nutritious foods without the help of pollinators!

In search of nectar and/or pollen, pollen from the flower stamens gets stuck on a pollinator’s legs or body. When they move to another flower to feed, some of the pollen rubs off onto this new plant’s stigma, thus pollinating that plant’s flower.

The Remarkable Honey Bee

There are many types of honeybees, and they all vary in traits such as temperament, disease resistance, and productivity. Pictured here is the Italian honeybee (Apis mellifera) which is common in North America. Beekeepers utilize different strains to suit their particular purpose, whether it be pollination, a honey crop, or bee production. image source

While there over 20,000 species of wild bees, the honey bee is one of the world’s most capable pollinators and represents about 80% of insect pollination. They also make a favorite sweetener…honey!

Since it is imperative that pollination occurs— and it is difficult to completely depend on wild bees and other insects to visit and pollinate crops— most commercial crop pollination rely on “managed” honey bee colonies, which (in the U.S.) are cared for by close to 2,000 large scale commercial beekeepers.

These beekeepers run migratory operations shuttling their bees in trucks or tractor trailers from orchard to orchard around the country. Since life as a honey bee is stressful under these circumstances, the health of these bee colonies is also studied closely.

The Journey of the Honey Bee
First stop: California

California’s almond groves in the early spring (usually February or March) are the first and very important stop on the journey of the honey bee.

Over 2 million hives (75% of all U.S. commercial hives), are transported to the almond groves from as far away as Texas and Florida. This means well over 44 billion bees are sent to work to pollinate 90 million trees during the two-week bloom time.  This certainly takes the definition “busy as a bee” to a new level! The almond blossoms provide a rich source of food for the bees, which will help them regain strength after their long winters and travel, and help sustain them during their future pollination trips.

Buzzing on to other crops…

After the almond bloom, some beekeepers will transport their hives north to pollinate raspberry, pear, apple, and blueberry farms in Oregon and Washington state. Some hives will go to southern California to cherry, citrus, avocado or sunflower orchards. Others will move east to pollinate melons and cucumbers in Texas or Florida, and some will even travel east across the country to end up in Maine blueberry patches. Many hives spend part of the summer in the alfalfa and clover fields in North and South Dakota, Montana and Minnesota, where they will produce most of their honey.

After all this hard work, at the end of pollination season, bees are typically returned to overwintering sites in the southern states.

Source: USDA

Pollinators are critical to the U.S. Economy

Who would have thought that bees have a direct link to energy, healthcare, and real estate! This “higher order economic dependence” is referred to as the cascading effect of pollination services.  In the study Economic Dependence of U.S. Industrial Sectors on Animal-Mediated Pollination Service, researchers describe the direct and indirect links of pollination services.

Each industrial community is denoted by a distinct color. Darker, larger nodes in each of the groups are the top 10 industry sectors dependent on animal-mediated pollination service. The larger the node, the more dependent it is on pollination service.

“The interactions between industrial sectors highlights the critical importance of animal-induced pollination services for the U.S. economy, and the need to account for the role of ecosystem goods and services in product life cycles.” (Source: Economic Dependence of U.S. Industrial Sectors on Animal-Mediated Pollination Service)

Honey Bee Die-offs and Number of Honey Bee Colonies

Bee “die-offs” during the winter and summer months are a normal occurrence in beekeeping. Weather fluctuations, the amount of honey storage in the hive, and health of the colony all play a part in colony survival rates.

What is of great concern to beekeepers, entomologists, and farmers, however, is that now winter and summer losses are estimated at 30-45% by the Bee Informed Partnership. Interestingly enough, while the winter and summer die-offs are growing exponentially, the overall number of honey producing colonies in the U.S. has remained relatively stable since 1994 (which incidentally is about when neonicotinoids appeared on the market).

While beekeepers can replace these losses within a season (bees proliferate quickly) the die-offs are concerning and unsustainable to all stakeholders. Beekeeping it is taking more effort and more expense to maintain the number of hives necessary for crop pollination. So instead of these massive efforts to keep up with supply and demand, the focus is shifting to eradicate the sources of colony death.

Source: Bee Informed

The most noticeable decline in number of colonies is after the first appearance of the Varroa mite in 1985.

According to bee expert Dr. Keith Delaplane, “One unique aspect of bee husbandry is this insect’s amazing ability to make a lot of new bees in a short time period. How else can beekeepers who have lost over fifty percent of their colonies take a deep breath and calmly state that they will rebuild their losses, often in one spring buildup season? Without this numerical reproductive advantage, the bee industry could be in a much more desperate state in light of all the dramatic colony losses that have been reported.” 

So why are bees dying?

As we mentioned earlier, it is easy to blame the neonics for the pollinator decline. ‘Ban all insecticides” say the activists.  However, it is not that simple. There are many factors involved with honey bee health, and bees are no different from the rest of creation. Their immune systems are compromised with too much activity, poor nutrition, exposure to toxic substances, and lots of stress– all which contribute to bee population decline. We are asking a lot of these bees: traveling the country, exposure to other bees, pollinating many crops, and traveling back home. It is no wonder they are stressed!

As you can see, the declines in bee population is multi-faceted:  mites, pesticides, loss of habitat, and even a reduced genetic pool. The loss of their habitat plays a significant role. Wildflowers and clover, for instance, are nutritious sources of food for the bees. When these disappear from the landscape, it is harder for the bees to find food.  Farmers that depend on pollinators can help by planting wildflowers and other nutritious hedgerows to border their crops.

“The meta problem may be that our agricultural system is simultaneously dependent on honey bees and contributing to their demise. Relying on a single bee species to pollinate nearly 100 different crops is untenable.” Source: (Scientific American)

Varroa Mites = Biggest Bee Threat

According to the national strategy outlined in the Pollinator Research Action Plan, the Varroa mite has the greatest impact on honey bees.

Additionally, the USDA annual survey on honey bee losses reported that the Varroa mites are number one stressor for bee operations. This has also been confirmed by researchers in the field. The blood-feeding ‘Varroa destructor’ spreads quickly, transmits pathogens like viruses and bacteria and, left untreated, is lethal to bee colonies.

The Varroa mite is unavoidable for beekeepers. Tools for Varroa management include chemical and non-chemical solutions, but most importantly beekeepers need to vigilant in monitoring their mite levels and treating when needed.

Young honey bee with deformed wings and varroa mites.
Image Source

“No other pathogen [beside Varroa] has had a comparable impact on both beekeeping and honey bee research during the long history of apiculture. The Varroa mite attacks bees at both the larval and adult life stages, shortening life-span, altering behaviors, vectoring or activating a host of bee viruses, and suppressing immune systems. Moreover, the synthetic miticides used to control Varroa are themselves hazardous to the bees they are intended to protect.”
(Source: Scientific Bee Keeping)


You are probably wondering at this point— what about neonicotinoids? Well, the reason they are not the focus of this piece is because they aren’t the primary issue affecting our pollinators!

“Neonics” are insecticides. They are used in agriculture and home gardens to eliminate sap-sucking and chewing insects from crops. Some of these pesky insects are more crop specific, like corn rootworm or wireworm and the Colorado potato beetle. Neonics are applied either as foliar sprays, dusts, or injected into the root of the crop. Staple crops such as corn, soy, and canola, use seeds that are pretreated with neonicotinoids.

 Neonicotinoids represent the most popular and widely used insecticide in the world and nearly 140 agricultural crops are treated with neonics at some point in their growth period.

But…Neonics are still a valuable tool for famers.

Although neonics can be damaging to some useful insects, this insecticide remains an important tool for fighting off crop-decimating insects. For some pests, there are no alternatives available. So, what’s a farmer to do? Do you eliminate a class of insecticides at the risk of increasing use of substances that are more toxic to pollinators, humans, mammals, birds, fish and other non-target organisms?

See…the answer is not that easy!

In a 2015 report by Ag Infomatics entitled, The Value of Neonicotinoids in North American Agriculture, growers expressed concern that the “loss of neonicotinoids would force them to rely on the few older classes of insecticides, which are more toxic, costly, less targeted, and time consuming to apply. Growers also say that a loss of neonicotinoids would reduce crop yield and quality and in some cases cause catastrophic damage due to the lack of alternatives to manage invasive pests.

What the research says about Neonics…

After decades of research we know that pesticides are harmful to pollinators, but to what extent it is one product over another is very difficult to ascertain.

A recent meta analysis on neonic use concluded: “despite considerable research efforts, there are still significant knowledge gaps concerning the impacts of neonicotinoids on bees. We found that studies were not representative of the diverse and global use of neonicotinoids that are applied in a multitude of insect pollinated crops and non-crop plants that are often visited by multiple bee species. Additionally, we found opportunities for methodological improvements.”

“Research has generated new strategies for better management of pollinator populations and their environments, and these strategies will be further refined and expanded as we address the existing gaps in our knowledge.” Christina M Grozinger, Penn State

Pollinators come into contact with many pesticides

Maryann Frazier, Senior Extension Associate, from Penn State University explains that pesticide exposure is not limited to just one product, and there are many ways that bees can come in contact with pesticides. The effect of the combination of these pesticides is not tested or known. Honey bees, for instance, travel over 3.7 miles from the hive on a regular basis, and can cover 27,932 acres. Given this wide foraging radius, even beehives on organic land are likely to come in contact with pesticides in their travels.

The solution: Integrated Pest and Pollinator Management

So, the challenge is how to manage neonic use and integrate other strategies (like Integrated Pest and Pollinator Management (IPPM)) so that pest management can be achieved and pollinator health can be preserved.


Researchers at Penn State concluded, “while pesticides can be harmful to pollinators, when they are used in an integrated pest and pollinator (IPPM) context, both pest management and pollinator protection can be achieved. Used judiciously, targeting pests at critical timings as in the following example in apple production, neonicotinoids can be effective while saving pollinators as well as other beneficial organisms in conservation biological control programs.”

Applied at the times of the day when bees are not active or before peak blossom time will greatly reduce the risk of killing pollinators. Research by Penn State is showing that by adjusting current application practices by just 12 days has an enormous effect on the impact on bees and still keeps the plant free of the damaging insects.

“Neonics – and other pesticides – are valuable tools for growers, but we know that pesticides kill bees as well under the “right” conditions.  And bees are exposed to a heck of a lot of pesticides because we are asking them to pollinator our crops.  We may not know exactly the extent to which pesticides are responsible for bee populations declines – particularly since so many factors interact – but we know what to do about it – IPPM!” —Christina M. Grozinger, Director, Center for Pollinator Research, Penn State University.

What YOU can do – encourage all pollinators!

Growers are making efforts to plant wildflowers and other nutritional hedgerows to provide extra nutrition for the bees and other insects that pollinate their crops. So can you.

You don’t have to be a large scale grower to help the bees. A neighborhood or home that provides nutritious forage for bees and other pollinators will produce more vegetables and fruit, and more abundant flowers. There are many conservation strategies that can be employed across your farm or in your garden to help maintain healthy native bee populations. You can easily create a pollinator garden, and for the extra brave, you can become a beekeeper and manage your own bees!

“The more native bee species pollinate our crops, the less we depend on honeybees, which means less migration and less disease spreading; the more wildflowers we sow, the more both native bees and honeybees have to eat. It all adds up to healthier bees.” (Source: Scientific American)

The Bottom Line:

Current scientific opinion is that pollinator declines are likely caused by multiple interacting pressures which include habitat loss, disappearance of nutritional forage, pests and pathogens, as well as insecticides and other agricultural pesticides. Using pesticides only when needed, selecting pesticides that are less toxic to pollinators, and adjusting the timing and method of pesticide applications will help to reduce the risks to pollinators. Additionally, industry stewardship, sound science, and cooperation amongst all stakeholders is paramount to leading the way for regulatory frameworks and consumer education on the protection of all pollinators.


Besansky, Nora, Christina Grozinger, and Jay Evans. “Current Opinion in Insect Science.” Vectors and Medical and Veterinary Entomology. University of Pennsylvania, Aug. 2015. Web.

Bond, Jennifer, Kristy Plattner, and Kevin Hunt. “Fruit and Tree Nuts Outlook: Economic Insight.” USDA Economic Research Service. United States Department of Agriculture, 26 Sept. 2014. Web.

“California Almonds: We’ve Come a Long Way.” California Almonds. Almond Board of California, 09 Mar. 2017. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.

Center for Pollinator Research. Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences. Penn State, n.d. Web.

“Colony Collapse Disorder and Honey Bee Health Action Plan.” USDA Economic Research Service. CCD and Honey Bee Health Steering Committee, 21 May 2015. Web.

Department of Entomology. University of California, Davis <http://beebiology.ucdavis.edu/>.

Entine, Joy. “Beepocalypse Myth Handbook: Dissecting claims of pollinator collapse.” Genetic Literacy Project. Genetic Literacy Project, 28 Dec. 2016. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.

Entine, Jon. “Bee Deaths Reversal: As Evidence Points Away From Neonics As Driver, Pressure Builds To Rethink Ban.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 06 May 2014. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.

“Entomology: UGA Honey Bee Program.” UGA College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences. University of Georgia , 20 Jan. 2017. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.

Evans, Jay. “Bee Research Laboratory.” USDA Agricultural Research Service. United States Department of Agriculture, n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.

“Facts & Figures.” Bee Care | Bayer. Bayer, n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.

Fishel, Frederick M. “Pesticide Toxicity Profile: Neonicotinoid Pesticides.” University of Florida: Electronic Data Information Source. University of Florida, 09 Mar. 2016. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.

Goodman, Russell. “Honeybee pollination of fruit tree crops.” Agriculture Victoria. Department of Environment and Primary Industries, 15 Oct. 2015. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.

Klein, Alexandra-Maria, Bernard E. Vaissière, James H. Cane, Ingolf Steffan-Dewenter, Saul A. Cunningham, Claire Kremen, and Teja Tscharntke. “Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. The Royal Society, 07 Feb. 2007. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.

Marks, Raissa , Rob Pauline, and Marcia Maslonek, Et. Al. “Native Pollinators.” National Resources Conservation Service. NRCS: Habitat Management Institute, May 2005. Web.

“Managed Bees as Crop Pollinators.” Cornell University College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. Cornell University, n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.

Northcutt, Greg. “Bee supply expected to meet demand for almond pollination.” Western FarmPress. N.p., 07 Feb. 2015. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.

“Pollinators 101.” Native Pollinators in Agriculture. N.p., 15 May 2012. Web. 05 Apr. 2017. <http://agpollinators.org/pollinators-101/>.

Pollinator Health Center. Montana State University. <http://www.montana.edu/pollinators/>.

“Pollination.” MAAREC. Mid-Atlantic Apicultural Research & Extension Consortium, Feb. 2000. Web.

Sekhran, Nik. “Pollinators vital to our food supply under threat.” FAO – News. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 26 Feb. 2016. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.

“The Xerces Society.” The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2017. <http://xerces.org/>.

WSU Honey Bees and Pollinators. Washington State University.

“Vegetable Crops That Do Not Need Pollinators.” Horticulture: The Art and Science of Smart Gardening. Horticulture, 21 Jan. 2014. Web. 05 Apr. 2017.