NC1173: Sustainable Solutions to Problems Affecting Bee Health

(Multistate Research Project)

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Insect pollinators provide essential pollination services to growers of U.S. fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Honey bees are the premier managed pollinator and account for $11.7 billion of the $15 billion of agricultural output attributable to insect-mediated pollination (Calderone, 2012). To satisfy the demand for pollination about 2 million of the 2.6 million managed honey bee colonies in the U.S. are rented and placed in nearly 100 different crops each year.

Efficient delivery of managed pollination services is threatened by the poor state of U.S. honey bees. Since the mid-2000s beekeepers have consistently witnessed the loss of 30-35% of colonies over winter (Spleen et al., 2013). While beekeepers can often make up for these losses through intensive management of surviving colonies, current management tools are costly and may not be sufficient to indefinitely sustain the honey bee colony numbers or colony strength needed for pollination.

Wild pollinators also contribute substantially to agricultural pollination in many crops (Garibaldi et al., 2013). Unfortunately, the long-term health and abundance wild pollinators is under threat as well.

The causes of honey bee and pollinator declines in the U.S. are varied, complex, and defy a simplistic explanation, as multiple stressors are almost certainly involved. Significant progress in identifying contributing factors to bee declines has been made by many current members of the NC1173 multi-state project through a $4.1M, 4-year USDA CAP project that was funded in 2008 to study the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and other factors affecting bee populations. Current members are also part of the $5M CAP through the USDA Global Food Security program to establish the Bee Informed Partnership, an extension-only effort to collect and disseminate information about the health of the managed bee population.

Many of the findings from these large collaborative projects were presented and synthesized at the Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health convened by the USDA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in October 2012. The summary of this conference provides a roadmap for future research to be addressed by members of the NC1173 multi-state project:

1. Parasites and pathogens -
The Varroa mite and the viruses it helps to transmit remain a top concern for beekeepers. The gut parasite Nosema has been implicated some honey bee colony losses and other species of Nosema affect managed and wild bumble bees. A range of other bacteria, fungi, and animals negatively affect bee health. Improved understanding of the interaction between bees and their parasites and pathogens will yield better management and control strategies.

2. Breeding and genetic diversity -
Breeding resistance to parasites and pathogens in bees is a viable means to mitigate colony losses, but stock improvement through breeding is in no way complete and success will only be achieved through constant incremental improvement. Additionally, the genetic diversity and mating success of honey bees also plays a role in colony success.

3. Forage availability and nutritional stress -
The nutritional requirements of honey bees and other pollinators are not met by the floral landscape in some parts of the U.S. Research is needed into land- and farm-management practices associated with high levels of colony and pollinator success.

4. Pesticides and environmental contaminants -
Insecticides designed to kill insects may harm pollinating insects as well. Other pesticides and environmental contaminants also have the potential to affect bees. Additionally, drugs used to control pests and pathogens may have unintended side-effects. Work is needed to determine the effects of pesticide exposure on colony health, honey production and delivery of pollination services.

The consensus is that these multiple stressors, working in concert, are together responsible for the honey bee and pollinator health issues manifest in the U.S. While advances are currently being made in all four of these key research areas, a real solution to honey bee and pollinator health will only come by taking them all together a task that is too big and too complex to be managed by any researcher working independently. As such, the collaborative work fostered by the NC1173 multi-state research project is critical to building a holistic understanding of honey bee and pollinator health.

As such, there is a clear need defined by the stakeholders to mitigate the continued decline of honey bees and other insect pollinators. The consequences of inaction are a further destabilized food-production system, decreased yields and quality of fruits and vegetables, and potentially higher produce prices. The technical feasibility of the proposed working group is greatly facilitated by the existing practice of adjoining the American Bee Research Conference (ABRC) the annual professional meeting of the American Association of Professional Apiculturists (AAPA) with one of the three national apiculture associations in the US in alternating years: the American Beekeeping Federation (ABF), the American Honey Producers of America (AHPA), and the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA). This tradition of interfacing with the clientele and other professional groups concerning beekeeping is ideally suited to collaboration, interaction, and discussion of current problems that face the industry. Thus there is a clear advantage of fostering this multi-state effort, because there is great similarity in the threats to American beekeeping across all regions. The impacts from these ongoing interactions have been significant (see above), and therefore a continuation of the NC1173 working group will advance these successes going forward. We should note that a CRIS search was conducted for the expiring NC1173, so there is no overlap with any ongoing projects.
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