As U.S. Honeybee Populations Decline, Scientists Look for Solutions

By Justine Hofherr
BU News Service

Lena King, an intern at The Best Bees Company, grasps a wooden frame from the inside of a handmade honeybee hive and with a finger, she traces leftover honeycomb stuck to the frame. At the top of the frame is a dead worker bee, entombed in crystallized golden honey. Scattered around the gray concrete floor are more dead bees.

“There are more dying this winter because it’s very cold,” King said, at the company’s headquarters, located in the basement of Boston Body Works, a car repair shop in Boston’s South End.

While the number of honeybee colonies not surviving winter is increasing annually, honeybees in the United States are dying in general. The total number of managed honeybee colonies has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to 2.5 million today, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. Winters from 2006 to 2011 saw an average 33 percent loss of honeybee colonies each year, with 2012’s unusually warm winter being a rare exception at 22 percent.

Both King, a 21-year-old biology major at Northeastern University studying the healing properties of honey and beeswax, and professor Noah Wilson-Rich, the founder of Best Bees, think a trifecta of disease, habitat loss, and herbicide, pesticide and fungicide use are to blame the honeybee population decline.

None of Best Bees’ some 200-honeybee colonies survived this winter.

For under $1,000, The Best Bees Company delivers, installs and manages honeybee hives for restaurants and businesses like Follow the Honey in Cambridge, hotels such as the Four Seasons in Boston, and residents around eastern Massachusetts. Customers usually either want to improve garden productivity, produce their own honey or beeswax on site, or they concerned about honeybee population decline, King said.

“They see it as a way to help,” King said. “There’s a large population of people who love bees because they’re so complicated. They have a very sophisticated way of life.”

Best Bees also keeps a bee sanctuary in the parking lot behind the South End urban beekeeping lab. The sanctuary serves as a “homeless shelter for bees,” Wilson-Rich said in a phone interview.

“Any time we get a call that there’s a swarm of honeybees in the city, we go get them,” said Wilson-Rich, who studied biology at Tuft’s University before attending The Bee School at The Essex County Beekeeper’s Association in Topsfield, Mass.

The sanctuary provides Wilson-Rich, the lab’s chief scientific officer, with a controlled environment to conduct his bee vaccine trials. He’s experimenting with levels of injections to find the one that’s most effective in preventing common bee diseases; a patent on the vaccine is pending, he said.

Honeybees pollinate over $15 billion dollars worth of U.S. crops each year, according to the USDA. Tree nuts, almonds, melons, berries, apples, cucumbers, avocadoes, blueberries, pumpkins and broccoli are just some of the food crops that rely on bees for pollination.

If indirect products like milk and beef from alfalfa or corn-fed cattle are included, the dollar amount goes up.

There are around 4,000 species of bees that are native to North America, but the common honeybee—the one we deploy to pollinate our crops and make the honey we buy in our supermarkets—is not one of them. The common honeybee is a European import, and is the only bee that’s been domesticated. The native bees are mostly solitary insects, while the honeybee lives in large social units that are easily transported to wherever crops need pollinating.

“If we don’t figure out how to make bees healthier, the cost of food will continue to rise,” Wilson-Rich said. “Almonds, for example, are only pollinated by honeybees and the price for them has gone up because the cost of renting bees has gone up.”

Honeybees eat nectar and pollen from the flowers they visit, King said. When bees enter flowers, they crawl deep inside to get the sticky liquid nectar from the flowers’ stamen.

While they drink, powdery yellow pollen covers their hairy bodies and gets stored in bees’ pollen basket on their hind legs.
When bees move on to other flowers, pollen from the first set of flowers rubs onto the second set of flowers, and pollination, or the movement of male pollen to the female part of flowers occurs, forcing plants to drop their flowers and make fruit with seeds.

Plants depend on honeybees; honeybees depend on plants. This threatened symbiotic relationship, so important to the U.S. economy, has the attention of farmers, beekeepers, environmentalists and scientists.

While some researchers, like Wilson-Rich, focus on how to make honeybees healthy, others, such as professor Bryan Danforth at Cornell University are trying to understand other pollination options farmers have. Danforth’s research focuses on wild and native bees and their role in pollinating apple orchards in central New York. He said he has found that native bees play a way larger role in agricultural pollination than they are given credit for.

“We see what kind of changes we can make in agricultural settings to enhance native bee abundance,” Danforth said. “That’s not to say native bees will solve the problem.”

Danforth said that native bees will not be able to help much with industrialized agriculture in the Midwest and California, but their increased presence in eastern Massachusetts, where native bee populations are abundant and thriving, could help smaller-scale farmers.

Although Danforth agrees with King and Wilson-Rich that pesticide, herbicide, and fungicide use by farmers and gardeners has a devastating impact on honeybee and native bee populations alike, he said honeybees are unique in that they have far less resistance to disease. The domesticated bee, Danforth said, is predisposed to be loaded with viral, fungal and bacterial pathogens.

“They’re like cows,” Danforth said. “Any domesticated animal heavily burdened by parasites combined with the stresses of long-distance moving experiences pathogen overload.”

Honeybees, Danforth said, are shipped from farm to farm in flatbed trucks in incredibly large numbers, where they are fed a steady diet of corn syrup and yeast rather than their preferred honey. They often face Varroa mites and parasitic flies that kill then feed on young and adult bees with weak immune systems. The biggest colony losses have been in the migratory beekeeping operations managing 10,000 colonies or more, mostly located in the Midwest, he said.

The plight of the non-native European honeybee, Danforth said, leads him to believe that backyard beekeeping in the United States, particularly in the Northeast, is not a worthwhile pursuit.

“I don’t think it helps anything,” Danforth said. “It doesn’t reduce pesticides or pathogens, and it doesn’t service crops. It’s not the right approach to maintaining bees in the broad sense.”

Instead, Danforth said he advocates for people to be backyard naturalists who plant a diversity of native wildflowers and till dirt for ground nests, where most native bees prefer to live.

“Large-scale agriculture that we’ve created is something that’s going to be a challenge,” Danforth said. “There are some things that are just not sustainable.”

Wilson-Rich said he fully acknowledges that there are food crop pollinators other than the honeybee. Over 200,000 in America, he said, if you’re counting bats, birds and other arthropods.

In fact, he said that many farmers paying for honeybees are unaware that native bees are actually pollinating their crops. But still, native bees are not domesticated, and that makes them unpredictable and unstable for farmers to rely on.

“Honeybees will go to wildflowers if they can,” Wilson-Rich said. “Not crops.”

Despite the dismal winter, King said Best Bees has seen a steady increase in beehive installation and beekeeping sales. Last year, they managed 200 hives in suburban, urban and rural habitats. This year, they will oversee around 400.

Wilson-Rich said they have just started the spring 2014 season by beginning to build wooden hives for new customers. The bees arrive in April.

Customers are warned about the likelihood of a hive dying over winter, King said. When this happens, researchers and interns at Best Bees visit the site of the hive, look into what might have caused the collapse, offer to extract any leftover honey and extend a contract renewal to the customer.

“It’s all very natural,” King said. “Bees die.”