The Davis Enterprises By Felicia Alverez May 12, 2015
The air was abuzz with new beekeeping studies and strategies at the first Bee Symposium held Saturday at the UC Davis Conference Center. Nearly 400 academics, farmers and beekeepers were in attendance to hear a full day of speakers who explored topics in management, pesticides and balanced bee diets.
As pollinators, bees are a critical resource for agriculture. Some crops, such as almonds, cannot pollinate and produce a crop without the help of bees.
Today, bees face an array of difficulties in the form of nutritional stresses, disease, pesticides and harmful mites that can knock out entire colonies. Attendees at the symposium discussed how to combat these challenges.
Pesticides were a main concern, with several talks debating the extent to which different pesticides harm bees.
Brian Johnson, an assistant professor of entomology at UCD, picked apart the topic of neonicotinoids, a common class of insecticide. Seattle, Portland and the European Union have banned the use of neonicotinoids, Johnson said.
Though there aren’t any bans on these insecticides in California, “You could imagine a city like San Francisco trying to pass a similar ordinance,” he said.
Taking a look at the way bees encounter the contaminant, however, may be able to determine how harmful these insecticides are to bees. Johnson emphasized that honeybees don’t eat the nectar that comes into contact with pesticides; bees forage the nectar and then give it to other bees that process the nectar to turn it into honey.
“Bees detoxify their food,” Johnson said, pointing out that the bees have an enzyme that can break down the pesticide, keeping it away from the honey.
Johnson’s lab found that neither the bees processing the nectar nor the bees foraging the nectar had measurable effects from the pesticide.
“Neonicotinoids are not all bad,” Johnson said, in his concluding remarks. “They’re better than pesticides of the past.”
Compared to the agricultural benefits seen in the pesticide, Johnson said he isn’t sure if honeybees would see benefits worth removing the pesticide from shelves.
Not all bees are safe from pesticides, however.
Keynote speaker Marla Spivak, of the University of Minnesota, pointed out that while honeybee larvae feast on honey, other native species feed off of nectar directly.
Spivak presented research detailing how other species of bees hibernate in the ground, leaving their larvae to feed off of the pollen during the winter months. If the nectar is contaminated with a pesticide, it could kill off the young bees, she said.
Spivak’s research also compared survival rates in bee colonies in different types of farms. In areas where corn, soybeans and wheat were the primary crops, up to 45 percent of a bee colony was lost compared to more open, pasture settings that saw losses up to 12 percent.
Adequate and varied food sources for bees was a topic addressed throughout the symposium.
Like humans who need a balanced died with a variety of food sources, bees also need a variety of floral sources to collect different types of pollen, said Elina Niño, a bee specialist with UCD Cooperative Extension.
Anyone can lend a hand to bees, she said: “Even if you’re not a beekeeper … try to plant a variety of plants in your garden to help the bees.”
Niño offered other tips for beekeepers to keep their colonies healthy, such as washing equipment to keep diseases at bay and maintaining good hygiene throughout a beekeeping operation.
“Even though it might be a beekeeper badge of honor to have that black beekeeping suit, you might want to consider washing it,” she joked.
For agriculturists trying to keep bees in mind, Niño suggested that if spraying pesticides is necessary, spraying should be avoided during bloom when bees are most active. Growers also could apply pesticides in the afternoons and evenings when bees have returned to the nest, Niño said.
The Bee Symposium concluded with a reception at the Haagen-Dazs Honey Bee Haven on the western part of UCD’s campus, a physical example of the ways that bees can thrive peacefully among varied foliage and agricultural settings.