ARS Scientist Leads $1 Million Funded Consortium to Seek Honey Bee Disease Controls

By Kim Kaplan
March 13, 2018

The deadly parasitic Varroa mite on the back of this honey bee is one of many insect pests that sugar esters may be useful in controlling. Sucrose octanoate, a sugar ester, can kill the mite without harming the bee. Photo by Scott Bauer.Agricultural Research Service (ARS) entomologist Steven Cook will be leading a $1 million funded international consortium of scientists to seek new controls for Varroa mites, honey bees' number one problem.

Cook, with the Bee Research Laboratory, a part of ARS's Beltsville (Maryland) Agricultural Research Center, will be the principal investigator of a group that will include scientists from the United States, Canada and Spain. ARS is the in-house research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The researchers will be screening a variety of chemical compounds for their ability to control Varroa mites with minimal damage to honey bees on an individual and colony level. Laboratory and field studies will be conducted at facilities in Alabama, Georgia, Maryland and Ohio, as well as in Alberta, Canada.

In laboratories in Nebraska and Spain, scientists also will be using advanced methods to work out an understanding of the molecular mechanisms by which Varroa mites develop resistance to various chemical controls.

Improving knowledge of such mechanisms would provide a better guide to researchers and narrow the field in the future for selecting chemicals worth screening as new control agents for Varroa mites.

The largest single grant for this project is an award of $475,559 to Cook from the Pollinator Health Fund established by the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) in response to the agricultural threat posed by declining pollinator health. Other funding is coming from participating universities, Project Apis m. and in-kind support from a number of regional beekeepers.

The Honey Bee Health Coalition, a diverse network of key groups dedicated to improving the health of honey bees and other pollinators, also will provide their expertise to facilitate the researchers' efforts.

Bees in Peril - Working Together to Find a Solution

Costco Connection   July 2017 Edition     By Stephanie E. Ponder

(NOTE: Thank you very much to Costco Connection and Stephanie E. Ponder for permission to include this excellent article on honey bees in peril and the many issues facing beekeepers who are striving to keep their bees alive and thriving. The Los Angeles County Beekeepers Association would like to extend our gratitude to Costco for their generous donations to honey bee research. Since 2012, Costco has made contributions totalling over 2.3 million dollars to PAm.) Read at Costco Connection: Bees in Peril.   

DID YOU KNOW that, through pollination, bees play a vital role in roughly one out of three bites of food we take, including nuts, these industrious and beneficial insects are being reduced in number and ravaged by pests and other problems.

Here’s a look at the issues facing bees and beekeepers, and what’s being done to help them.

An ominous sign
According to the not-for-profit group Bee Informed Partnership (, beekeepers lost more than 40 percent of their honeybees between April 2015 and April 2016. It’s a trend of loss that has held a steady course since 2006.

Almond growers were among the first to see a decline in the number of bees. It’s little surprise considering that, according to the Almond Board of California, almond pollination requires two-thirds of the nation’s commercial honeybees. The pollination average for almond orchards is two hives per acre. In the 2015–2016 growing season, California had nearly 900,000 acres of almond trees, translating to a need for almost 2 million hives.

Bee colonies in winter holding yard in central California waiting to go into almond orchards for pollination. Photo above and below Project Apis m BEES © IRSN-K/SHUTTERSTOCK

Honeybees pollinate flowers while they’re out collecting nectar. Pollen from the flower’s stamen sticks to the hairs on the bee’s body, and when she—all pollinating honeybees are female—visits the next flower, some of the pollen rubs off, allowing for the fertilization of the plant.

Robert Huckaby, vice president, farm services, for Costco supplier Wonderful Orchards of Shafter, California, tells The Connection that back in 2006 the company was having “a difficult time meeting the number of bees that [we] needed in the orchard.”

As almond farmers struggled to source the necessary quantity of bees, they also started talking to beekeepers, who reported a significant loss of bees during the year and didn’t have enough for the pollination season, which meant a crop loss.

“That was kind of the [indicator] that there was an issue. It wasn’t just something that was a short trend or an anomaly,” Huckaby says.

A beekeeper opening a brood comb for signs of Varroa mitesSearching for answers

At the same time that almond growers saw a problem, they found an ally in the nonprofit organization Project Apis m. (PAm; project, whose name was inspired by the scientific name for the European honeybee, Apis mellifera. PAm’s mission is to fund and direct research to enhance the health and vitality of honeybee colonies while improving crop production.

When PAm joined forces with almond growers in 2006, the biggest issue facing honeybees was colony collapse disorder (CCD), which happens when the worker bees leave the hive, abandoning the queen, young bees and plenty of food.

A decade ago no one was really thinking about bees, and there was little awareness about bees’ place in the food chain. But as CCD spread, the plight of bees made headlines across the country.

Danielle Downey, PAm’s executive director, says there were also few funds for research in 2006, and there was certainly no real clearinghouse for information. So the almond growers and beekeepers said they’d put up money and support research projects to happen right now, instead of putting out a proposal that might take over a year waiting for funds. Says Downey, “It was really kind of a guerrilla tactic to get some answers, so we’ve always been working closely with beekeepers, researchers and almond growers.”

As for the current research, Downey explains that CCD isn’t something they’re seeing these days. But bees are still in trouble. “We don’t see those same symptoms, and yet beekeepers are losing 40 percent of their hives every year. If you had 100, in that year you will get down to 60 and have to rebuild.

BEE: © MARCEL JANCOVIC / SHUTTERSTOCK, MITES: © KUTTELVASEROVA STUCHELOVA / SHUTTERSTOCK“The single worst thing that has tipped those losses so much higher is the Varroa mite. The Varroa mite arrived from Asia; it jumped from one species to another, and it kills our bees if we don’t do anything about it,” she continues.

These tiny pests lay eggs that develop within the honeybee brood and grow up to pierce an adult honeybee’s exoskeleton and feed off its internal fluid and fat. As if that’s not enough, the Varroa mite can also infect bees with deadly viruses.

PAm, with the help of Costco (see “Bee students”), is helping to fund research to combat the problem, including researching honeybees that are resistant to the Varroa mite.

Addressing the issues

Unfortunately, the Varroa mite (pests) is just one of the “four P’s” facing honeybees; the other three are pathogens, pesticides and poor nutrition.

While research is ongoing into pathogens and pesticides, when it comes to poor nutrition, almond growers are taking an active role by planting bee-friendly flowers among their rows of almond trees to help facilitate a diverse diet for honeybees.

Martin Pohl, a founder of Costco supplier Hughson Nuts of Hughson, California, compares a honeybee’s diet during pollination to that of a human who is given only steak for every meal for weeks on end. It’s boring and lacks nutrition. “Almond trees don’t have a lot of nectar,” says Pohl, who explains that he and his fellow farmers have been planting more flowers and letting weeds and grass grow between their trees. “You have to feed the bees if you want good bees.”

It’s not just the practice of planting only one crop that limits a honeybee’s diet. “Now people spray their yards to get rid of clover, but clover is something that bees love, so it’s not only the agricultural side, but it’s also on the everyday side that we’ve eliminated what bees are eating,” says Downey.

Bee-ing proactive

Planting wildflowers that all bees enjoy is one action that nonexperts can undertake to help honeybees. But what else can be done to help?

First, it’s important to know that buying and consuming honey is good for bees.

It used to be that beekeepers made their money from the sale of honey. These days, beekeepers travel with their bees, following the pollination seasons—including those of almonds, blueberries and cranberries—before getting honey from the bees in the fall.

“Beekeepers need your support,” says Downey. “Beekeepers have it harder than ever, trying to keep bees healthy in this country, and having those strong markets makes a big difference in what they’re able to do.”

Brent Barkman, of Kansas-based Barkman Honey, one of Costco’s Kirkland Signature™ Honey suppliers, adds that selling honey helps beekeepers take care of their bees and fund research that helps to keep their bees healthy.

“The beekeeping industry cannot survive on honey production alone anymore,” Barkman says. “About half of [beekeepers’] operating income comes from pollination practices—not just almonds, but other foods that pay for pollination.”

Installing a beehive in your backyard may not be the best way to help honeybees. Downey makes this comparison: “ ‘Pandas are in trouble; I’m going to get one.’ This makes no sense at all, but people often think that keeping bees is the only way to help them … unfortunately it’s not simple to keep bees alive and thriving, and if the colony is dead a year later, nobody wins. Providing habitat and supporting research are good ways to help.”

Lack of proper care can also create a host for pests to grow in; then those pests can move to another bee colony, Barkman says.

Future buzz?

Perhaps you’ve seen the quote, falsely attributed to Albert Einstein, that if the bees disappear, then so will we. Downey offers a counter version of a bee-less future: “If bees disappear, we will still have food. We won’t have the variety. It won’t be affordable. It will definitely change our quality of life and change our choices.”

Despite the very real issues facing bees and beekeepers, both Downey and Barkman stand firm that bees and beekeepers will prevail.

“As beekeepers, we’re still in business, and we’re still continuing. … We don’t see a doomsday. Bees are very resilient, and they proliferate very quickly,” says Barkman.

Huckaby, from Wonderful Orchards, adds: “It’s kind of mind-boggling just how much bees actually do for us. We know we need the bees, and we rely on them. I think there are a lot of farmers and a lot of people who are behind the research to make sure that we do have bees in the future.”  


FROM THE beginning of the Kirkland Signature honey program, Costco corporate foods buyer Shauna Lopez knew there were issues in the bee and honey industry that needed to be addressed. The Costco buying team set out to find a nonprofit organization that shared their priorities. Enter Project Apis m. (PAm). “PAm stood out as a clear front-runner,” says Lopez, who adds that PAm already had deep connections within the industry, along with an international scope, and was already set up to fund research projects.

Costco Photo StudioSince 2012, Costco has made a contribution to PAm for each Kirkland Signature honey item sold, totaling more than $2.3 million.

Some of the donated funds facilitate stock improvement to help breed honeybees that are resistant to Varroa mites, limiting mite reproduction. There is also a project supporting a repository for bee germplasm—reproductive genetic material—to help increase and preserve honeybee genetic diversity in the U.S.

Money has also helped fund several tech transfer teams who help beekeepers maintain their colonies. The teams perform a lot of work that beekeepers might not be able to do on their own, including collecting disease and pest samples and sampling colonies for stock improvement.

A honey bee carrying pollenCostco and PAm also award scholarships and fellowships to fund bee research at the Ph.D. level. The current scholarship winner is Morgan Carr-Markell at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul, who is studying the potential benefits of native prairie flowers on honey bees. She’s receiving $50,000 for three years.

Rodney Richardson, a student at Ohio State University, will also receive $50,000 for three years to study immune functions in honeybees along with molecular identification of bee-collected pollen.

Cameron Jack, at the University of Florida, received $15,000 for one year to support his studies on methods to rear Varroa mites in vitro, and to facilitate research on integrated pest management.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there about bees and beekeeping, and that’s why I like that we’re fostering research that can be verified and shared,” Lopez tells The Connection. “I suggest that people visit PAm’s website [project] or the Honey Bee Health Coalition []. If people want to help, I suggest supporting organizations that understand the crisis and the issues.”—SEP

Read and download Costco Connection: Bees in Peril

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New Research Proposals Aim to Improve Honey Bee Health

Bayer Crop Science News Release  February 18, 2016

Project Apis m. to spearhead multi-year research funded by Bayer’s Healthy Hives 2020 initiative

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. (Feb. 18, 2016) – Bayer and Project Apis m. today announced they are partnering to sponsor research to improve the health of honey bee colonies in the United States within the next five years.

A multi-year, $1 million research effort, Bayer’s Healthy Hives 2020 initiative brought together a diverse group of bee experts to prioritize the most urgent research areas needed to improve the health of U.S. colonies by the end of 2020. Project Apis m., the leading non-profit organization dedicated to pollination research, will oversee the administration of the Bayer-funded research grants which are focused on the following major research objectives:

  • Conducting an economic assessment of the “true” cost of commercial beekeeping operations to help beekeepers maximize efficiency and production;
  • Creating a set of “Best Management Practices” for commercial beekeeping based on definitive colony health performance data;
  • Evaluating the use of “smart hive” technology to monitor honey bee colony health during commercial migratory operations; and,
  • Assessing honey bee genetics for traits that are relevant to colony resistance to pests and diseases, as well as pollination efficiency and honey production in the United States.

“While the overall number of honey bee colonies continues to increase, they are still being impacted by a wide range of health-related issues,” said Christi Heintz, executive director of Project Apis m., Peso Robles, California. “In issuing a request for proposals, our goal is to identify scientists and promising research initiatives that can help solve some of the most critical concerns facing beekeepers today.”

Proposals should address one or more of the key focus areas and include qualifications of the research team, proposed timelines, deliverables and budget. According to Heintz, the intent is to conduct multi-year investigations with annual reports on progress toward achieving project goals. The deadline for submissions is 5 p.m., PST, Tuesday, March 1, 2016.

The new research effort arose out of Bayer’s Healthy Hives 2020 initiative, which launched in 2015 with a two-day workshop that brought together some of the nation’s leading bee health experts and stakeholders at the Bayer North American Bee Care Center in Research Triangle, North Carolina. The 17 summit workshop attendees identified a wide range of bee health concerns which were later reviewed by the Healthy Hives 2020 Steering Committee and prioritized into the most promising areas of research that were announced today.

“Today’s announcement represents a collaborative effort of some of the country’s leading bee health stakeholders including beekeepers, academic researchers, governmental officials and industry representatives,” said Dr. Steve Sheppard, professor of entomology and departmental chair at Washington State University, Pullman, Washington, who chairs the Healthy Hives 2020 Steering Committee.

Healthy Hives 2020 is one of several activities of Bayer’s North American Bee Care Program. “We have supported and promoted bee health for nearly 30 years,” said Dr. David Fischer, director of pollinator safety, Crop Science, a division of Bayer. “Because of the critical role honey bees play in crop pollination, we have long recognized that a vibrant beekeeping industry is vital to maintaining sustainable agriculture.”

Other Bayer bee health programs include:

  • Establishing the North American Bee Care Center two years ago as a focal point for education, research and collaboration, hosting more than 6,000 visitors;
  • Launching Feed a Bee, a major honey bee forage initiative that engaged more than 250,000 consumers last year to distribute seed to plant more than 65 million flowers; and,
  • Forming more than 70 partnerships with a wide range of organizations to plant thousands of acres of forage for honey bees.

For more information on Bayer’s bee health programs, please visit

News from Gordy Wardell on Almond Pollination and Honey Bee Health

Catch the Buzz - From Project Apis m Newsletter    February 10, 2016

One million acres.  It’s not a Dr. Evil quote from an Austin Powers movie; it’s the number of acres of almonds in California needing pollination this year.  This is a huge production opportunity and at the same time a huge pollination demand.  Never before has the industry needed to deliver an estimated two million pollination-strength colonies to California by the first week in February.  This is certainly a testament to the proficiency and tenacity of our nation’s commercial beekeepers.

Most certainly this is not an easy year to accomplish this feat.  Record losses are being reported across the country – some estimate losses in their operations as high as 40% to 60%.  Earlier this winter we knew that the Upper Midwest was experiencing heavier than normal losses that were most likely due to mite pressure that just never let up, and now we are getting reports of colonies out of the Southeast that aren’t building populations as would normally be expected.  A warm fall and winter seemed to throw off the typical floral patterns, and the customary winter forage just wasn’t available.  Simply put, the colonies didn’t grow like they normally would.  Beekeepers in Florida, Georgia and Louisiana all are reporting the same phenomenon.  Everyone’s numbers are down.

What does this mean for the bee supply for almond pollination?  At present, while individual beekeepers’ numbers appear to be down, there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of colonies for almond pollination this year.  While the supply might be tight, I don’t foresee major shortages.  Rental prices are up this year, averaging $170 to $185 per colony.  This is $10 to $15 over rental prices last year.  These prices are fair increases considering the amount of feeding needed to ready the colonies for February pollination and the increases in transportation costs.

After the severe colony losses of 2005 and 2006, beekeepers in Florida and the Southeast stepped up to fill the growing need for colonies in California almonds.  Increasing almond rental fees coupled with relentless sprays in Florida citrus to control the Huanglongbing , also known as citrus greening disease, beekeepers began shipping more colonies to California instead of staying in Florida to make orange blossom honey.  The increase in rental fees made it cost effective for beekeepers to ship colonies across the country.  These additional colonies were welcomed in California almond orchards, and their numbers and frame counts have been consistent for the past ten years.  This year, however, colonies out of the Southeast are experiencing many of the health challenges as seen across the country.  Culling heavily this year, beekeepers are recognizing that inconsistency is one of the consistent trends seen this year.  While individual beekeepers are experiencing higher than normal losses many had planned for losses by making more splits.  This coupled with new beekeepers entering the industry has eased the shortfall for this year’s almond pollination.  With bloom just around the corner, colonies are starting to show up in orchards, and the greatest commercial pollination event in the world is getting started.  Good luck beekeepers and growers alike.

Other News From Project Apis…

At CSBA’s annual convention held in Sacramento this past year, PAm’s Chairman, Dr. Gordon Wardell received the Distinguished Service Award.  Gordy’s many contributions to the beekeeping world were acknowledged.  He has been a professional apiculturist for over 30 years and has worked with bees on three continents. Gordy is Director of Pollination Operations for Wonderful Orchards. He owned and directed S.A.F.E. Research and Development in Tucson, were he developed Mega-Bee, the honey bee nutritional supplement.  Previously, he was the extension apiculturist for the State of Maryland and has authored numerous scientific publications on honey bees.

ND Ag Commissioner Awards Nearly $109,000 In Honey Bee Research Grants

AG Week Report on December 31, 2015

BISMARCK – Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring has awarded grants totaling $109,300.67 for five projects relating to honey bees. Four of the projects will focus on researching honey bee health issues and one project will concentrate on the education, outreach and promotion of honey bees.

“The goal of the honey bee research grants is to find practical solutions to honey bee health issues such as bee diseases and parasites,” said Goehring. “In addition, the promotion grants will help increase our knowledge and educate others about these small but important pollinators.”

The recipients of the grants are as follows.


  • University of Minnesota - $24,541 to develop a transfer team program for the commercial beekeeping industry.
  • Project Apis m. - $22,000 to work on varroa mite control and develop carriers for natural miticides.
  • University of Minnesota - $18,316 to research bee breeding and management.
  • University of Minnesota - $17,729 to evaluate the potential benefits of native prairie flowers for honey bees.


  • North Dakota Beekeeper’s Association - $26,714.67 for promotion, outreach and education of honey bees.

Funding for the honey bee research grants was appropriated by the 2015 North Dakota Legislature and through honey assessments. Funding for the honey bee promotion grants comes from honey assessments.

More information about the grant program is available at

Field Notes from White House: Alliance for Bee and Monarch Butterfly Recovery

Make Way for Monarchs   By Gary Nabhan  April 30, 2014

Field Notes from White House: Listening to an Unprecedented Alliance of Stakeholders for Bee and Monarch Butterfly Recovery

It was a dark and stormy day in Washington DC when sixty thought leaders from the farm community, industry, government and non-profits met next to the White House grounds to discuss pollinators; we could hardly see First Lady Michelle Obama’s new pollinator garden through all the pouring rain. Nevertheless, it was cause for celebration: a landmark meeting in the history of insect conservation, because the White House had brought together diverse stakeholders to deal with recent catastrophic declines in pollinators and plan their recovery on a continent-wide scale.

Dr. Michael Stebbins PhD, the meeting facilitator for White House Office of Science Policy, set the stage:

“There are many different stressors impacting various pollinators: herbicides, pesticides, habitat loss, climate change, and parasites like the varroa mite. Because of that, we need a hands-on approach to better leverage everyone’s investments to reverse the loss of pollinators. We are not at all interested in pointing fingers but we do want to know what roles chemical producers, among many others, are willing to play in helping solve this problem.”

The President’s Science Policy Advisor, Dr. John Holdren, added his welcome to the group of farmers, beekeepers, nurserymen, scientists, educators, corporate CEOs and faith-based community leaders Wednesday at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington DC:

“This is an issue that President Obama personally cares about: ways of protecting and nourishing natural capital, including ecosystem services. We are happy to see this intersection between people inside government and outside government trying to figure out how we can meet the challenges we face. Bees and butterflies have become like the canaries in the coal mine and that should be a wake up call for all of us.”

For nearly two hours, the group discussed the best means to avert further pollinator decline and prevent negative consequences for food security in North America. As noted by Ed Flanagan, a Maine wild blueberry farmer and president and chief executive of Jasper Wyman & Son

“As a farmer of berries, without pollinators, we are out of business. So we have begun taking a sort of Hippocratic Oath as farmers just as doctors do: “First, do no harm.”

In particular, Dr. Stebbins asked every person in the room to identify the following assets:

1) Activities, policies, or other initiatives for which federal agencies could enact to address pollinator health;
2) Potential public-private partnerships to be formed to address these issues; and
3) Significant commitments that organizations are making which the White House could help raise up to increase attention to these issues.

It became a hundred twenty minute session that this issue has emerged to be one of the most pressing and pervasive issues affecting our food supply and the health of the natural systems and ecological relationships that provide support services for agriculture.

Dr. Marla Spivak, a MacArthur Genius award-winning bee scientist at the University of Minnesota bluntly summed up many participants’ concerns: “Americans need good, clean diverse food, and so do pollinators.” As concluded by Laurie Davies Adams, Executive Director of the Pollinator Partnership:

“We need to come away from this meeting with a larger collective vision that incorporates the good work of hundreds of organizations and businesses.”

And so commitments began to be made for the voluntary involvement of farmers, beekeepers, nurserymen, seedsmen, garden clubs, wildlife habitat restorationists to design a pollinator recovery plan to include both the for-profit and non-profit sector at an unprecedented scale. These commitments will need to affect more than 100 million acres of American farmscapes that have been depleted of their pollinators over the last decade. While the causes and consequences of the pollinator declines remain different for each species of insect that has become imperiled, there was a ready consensus: habitat restoration of milkweeds for monarchs and other butterflies will also aid honeybees and imperiled bumblebees.

Christi Heinz of Project Apis put the entire concern into perspective: “Pollinator health is really a land use issue. Bees in particular are responsible for much of the food we eat. It should be a requirement to set space aside for them.”

To which Dave Nosman of Pheasants Forever added, “What farm or ranch couldn’t need better quality wildlife habitat?”

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Honey Bee Forage Field Day

The Almond Board

Lack of alternative forage is often cited as one of the causes of decline in honey bee health. Planting a bee forage cover crop is one way to enhance honey bee health through nutrition.

Growers are invited to attend a field day hosted by Project Apis m. to view various plants in a demonstration bee pasture, and to learn more about the benefits of planting a bee forage cover crop. The event will be held April 26, 1:30 p.m., at the Capay Ranchin Hamilton City. Topics to be covered are:

  • Choosing the proper seed
  • Ground preparation
  • Planting methods
  • Weed control

RSVP to the event by sending an email to