Bee shortage is a bitter problem
Numbers of honeybees, wild bumble bees and other pollinators have declined, raising the risk of plant extinction and threatening the nation's food crops, says a report from the National Research Council.
In Utah, the Beehive State, officials made a belated change in pesticide regulations this summer but more needs to be done to protect honeybees, beekeepers say.
The nationwide shortage is significant enough that honeybees had to be brought in from Canada and Mexico last year for the first time since 1922, when the Honeybee Act banned imports for fear they would introduce non-native pests, according to the report.
Those fears were justified. Studies show that U.S. honeybee populations have dropped since the 1980s with the introduction of non-native parasitic mites that have killed off thousands of colonies in Utah and across the nation.
Honeybees in particular are critical to the U.S. food supply, pollinating more than 90 food crops. In California, it takes about 1.4 million colonies of honeybees to pollinate 550,000 acres of almond trees.
"Honeybees are the premier pollinator, accounting for $10 billion to $20 billion worth of food per year in America alone," said Gene Robinson, head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and member of the panel that issued the report. "The declines in population threaten our nation's food supply."
Long-term trends for wild pollinators, such as butterflies, bats, hummingbirds and bumblebees also are showing population declines, the report noted. The bumble bee - like the honeybee - has been hurt by the introduction of non-native parasites and losses in the bat population that can be attributed to the destruction of cave roosts.
Although consequences of wild pollinator declines in nonagricultural settings are difficult to track, one result could be a greater vulnerability of some plant species to extinction. Few plants rely on a single pollinator but certain plant species could be at risk, says the report by the Research Council, which is part of the National Academy of Sciences, both nonprofit institutions under a congressional charter.
In Utah, beekeeper Darren Cox lost more than 1,000 of his hives in 2003 and again in 2004, when nearly 500 more hives were lost from irresponsible pesticide spraying that drifted over to his hives, he said.
And beekeeper Roger Allen said he lost half his hives last year in North Ogden and Plain City, around the time farmers and mosquito-abatement districts were spraying neighboring lands.
Cox, Allen and other beekeepers fought to bring state regulations into compliance with the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and and Rodenticide Act, enacted by Congress in 1947 to control the sale and use of pesticides.
Although pesticide labels instructing users not to spray during times when bees are foraging have the force of federal law, Utah property owners and land managers had enjoyed unprecedented exemptions. Until this summer, they could use "pesticides known to be harmful to honeybees," according to an administrative rule of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, and they could spray the toxic chemicals during daylight hours when bees pollinate crops and plants.
Department spokesman Larry Lewis said the administrative rule was changed July 25, and now must follow federal labor instructions. Information pamphlets have been distributed to insecticide companies and farmers.
Utah beekeepers say even more needs to be done to protect honeybees. State regulations require beekeepers to erect signs indicating where their hives are, while exempting anyone using pesticides from giving beekeepers advance notice. By contrast, California landowners are required to post notices of spraying, including dates, times and type of pesticide to be used.
Cox thinks fewer bees have died since the state pesticide regulation was changed, although he won't know for sure until January, when his hives come out of hibernation. A new problem is that life cycles of his queen bees have inexplicably become shorter, down from there or four years to 12 months. When queens die, hives cannot reproduce.
"Unlike worker bees, queens are fed pollen all their lives," said Cox. "If the pollen is contaminated, her fertility is affected, just like hemlock is to a cow."
Beekeepers theorize that pesticides are to blame, or perhaps chemicals used in hives to kill parasite mites also might be killing off bees. But there is no scientific research with answers.
In fact, the Research Council report noted that effective conservation and protection of pollinator populations require a level of knowledge that does not exist. The report urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture and other federal agencies to support research aimed at protecting pollinator populations.
Why are pollinator populations down in Utah and the rest of the country?
* A non-native parasite mite introduced in the 1980s attacks honeybees. The U.S. imported pollinator honeybees for the first time since 1922 last year, raising fears of more non-native pests.
* Africanized bees and antibiotic-resistant pathogens are killing off North American honeybees.
* Long-term trends for wild bumblebees, butterflies, bats and hummingbirds show population declines.
* Some declines are linked to non-native parasites and habitat loss, which could disrupt entire ecosystems.
* More research is needed because protecting pollinator populations requires a level of knowledge that does not yet exist.
Source: The National Research Council