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Attention swarming around honey bee population concerns

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Andrea Anderson
June 29, 2014

ELKHORN—Before you swat at a honey bee, think about this: One in every three bites of food you eat is dependent on bees for pollination.

Now think about this: The number of managed U.S. honey bee colonies went from 6 million in 1947 to 2.5 million in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And finally: The honey bee population adds more than $15 billion value per year to the agricultural industry and pollinates up to one-third of the world's crops, according to PJ Liesch of the UW-Madison Department of Entomology.

The world's dependence on the honey bee, the bee's unstable population and the impacts on the economy are more than enough to cause concern for John Kendall, president of the Walworth County Beekeepers Club.

“There are all different aspects that we just don't think of and understand,” Kendall said. “If we don't have this honey bee, we're in trouble.”

Factors, including but not limited to, loss of habitat, parasites, pesticides and nutrition have contributed to the dwindling population.

More than 130 fruits and vegetables depend on the honey bee.

Kendall has been dealing with bees and hives for much of his life.

Over the years, he has seen the population struggle and watched anywhere between 40 to 60 percent of a beehive's population die during winter.

The winter, particularly March and April, is the hardest time for bees to hang on because of temperature and moisture, Kendall said.

In the 2013-14 winter, the loss of managed honey bee colonies was 23.2 percent nationwide compared to the 30 percent average for the previous eight years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Liesch is cautiously optimistic and glad to see the percentage decrease.

"It's a good sign," Liesch said.

Kendall won't say the bee population is on the rise, but he does say beekeepers are what's keeping the pollinators around.

Kendall, other commercial and hobby beekeepers and researchers are wondering what leads to colony collapse disorder—a phenomenon that causes what appear to be healthy bees to abandon their hives as a collective group, leaving behind few, if no, dead bees, a plentiful supply of food and unborn bees.

Colony collapse has been a major issue for the past decade, Liesch said.

“Prior to 1985, a beehive would last you a long time,” Kendall said. “It would last years and years and years. Where as today, if you get four years, you're lucky in the northern part of the United States. We have so many issues it's hurting us. The longevity just isn't there like it used to be.”

Funding

Last week, President Barack Obama may have become the honey bee's new best friend.

In a presidential memorandum, he established a Pollinator Health Task Force to devote resources to researching how to help pollinators recover from population losses, create an action plan and goals and educate the public on how they can help the situation.

The “severe yearly declines create concern that bee colony losses could reach a point where commercial pollination industry would not be able to adequately recover,” the memo states.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture also announced $8 million in incentives for Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota farmers and ranchers who create new habitats for honey bees.

The president's proclamation is a step in the right direction, Kendall said.

“I feel that it's time the government is going to step in and acknowledge the honey bee is in a stressed situation right now,” Kendall said. “If something isn't done, it will be very devastating.”



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