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How Does Drought Impact Honeybee Populations? - 19 March 2013

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Tuesday 19th March 2013.
Sarah Mikesell - TheCropSite Senior Editor

Sarah Mikesell
Senior Editor


How Does Drought Impact Honeybee Populations?

Greetings from a cold and blustery Midwest! This week I’m going to share more from the honey bee experts at the Ag Issues Forum, an event I attended in late February sponsored by Bayer CropScience.

Why more on bees? Well, despite the fact that I’m the first Mom to usher my kids away from any sign of insects with a stinger, I was fascinated by the topic and was shocked by the reminder of how important honeybees are to farmers - and not just fruit, nut and veggie growers, but soybean and alfalfa farmers need honey bees to pollinate their crops.

David Westervelt, assistant chief of the Florida Bureau of Plant and Apiary Inspections, said his inspectors watch for pests like the Tropilaelaps mite, which is an Asian mite that he expects could arrive in the US in the next two to three years. His team is also watching honey bee numbers. 

He said the key issues affecting honeybees right now are bacteria, viruses and pests. Many of which hadn’t been detected until the last two to three years when USDA spent about $40 million on honeybee research looking for causes of colony collapse. Honeybees have now been studied more in the last six years, than they’ve been studied in the last 500 or 600 years.

There is unanimity among beekeepers’ research and anybody who works with bees that the varroa mite is the single most detrimental pest to honeybees. If beekeepers don’t have good control of this pest before bees go into winter, they can expect to see higher over-wintering losses.

Westervelt said migratory beekeeping starts out in May, June and July, when it’s nice and warm up in the northern states, and beekeepers will start bringing their hives into Florida, Louisiana or Texas. In the south, bees don’t have to hibernate and will start pollinating in early December. The beekeepers come south to build their bees up to go to almond pollination in California.

At the time of the presentation, Florida had sent out about 135,000 hives of bees, in a month and a half’s time, to pollinate in California. Of those bees, 90 percent came back by mid-March to pollinate oranges. Almonds require pollination from honeybees. He said if almond growers can’t get two hives of bees per acre, they can’t get crop insurance.

With the drought in the US Midwest, Westervelt said it’s been severe for local beekeepers, with reports of 80 to 90 percent losses. Honeybees require water to cool their hives. As a super-organism, they maintain 94.5 degree internal temperature. When it gets super-hot, they can’t cool the hive, and they require a lot of moisture. So the severe drought was very detrimental to Midwest beekeepers.

That said, he noted that beekeepers are great at recovering losses. Beekeepers actually can take a hive and multiply it four, five, eight or 12 times in a year through management. He said beekeepers are very good at rebuilding hives, and some do by getting bees in the late fall and taking them to Florida to increase numbers. Although he said bee keepers can’t consistently do that because they lose money.

Insect pollination in the US is a $29 billion industry, and honeybees are responsible for $16 to $19 billion. There are 2.5 million hives in the United States.

Have a great week!

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