Microbes on the Menu for Bee Larvae

PHYS.ORG (ARS News Service) By Jan Suszkiw (US Department of Agriculture) August 20, 2019

Newly hatched blue mason bee larvae feeding on pollen provisions within a hollow reed.  Photo Credit: Shawn Steffan

Newly hatched blue mason bee larvae feeding on pollen provisions within a hollow reed. Photo Credit: Shawn Steffan

MADISON, WISCONSIN, August 20, 2019—Bees only feast on nectar and pollen, right?

Wrong. Turns out, Nature's famously busy insect isn't strictly vegan, after all.

Reporting online in this month's American Naturalist, a team of Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and university scientists has shown that bee larvae (brood) have a taste for "microbial meat."

ARS entomologist Shawn Steffan and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, Cornell University, and Hokkaido University in Japan coined the term to describe an important ingredient in the brood's pollen provisions—namely, the protein of beneficial bacteria and fungi.

The microbes are naturally occurring in the pollen and feed and multiply within it. In the process, they increase the pollen's nutritional value to brood by enrichening it with amino acids—the building blocks of protein—that flowering plants alone may not always provide.

"Bees actually require the non-plant proteins of these pollen-borne symbionts to complete their growth and development—which makes them omnivores," explained Steffan, with the ARS Vegetable Crops Research Unit in Madison, Wisconsin.

In fact, the team observed an appetite for microbial meat among brood that spanned 14 species distributed across all major families of social and solitary bees—Melittidae, Apidae and Megachilidae among them.

The microbes don't just serve themselves up as critical sources of amino acids, though. They also secrete enzymes that help break down and age raw pollen into a more nutritious and digestible form known as "beebread." Nurse bees may recognize this benefit and encourage the microbes' growth in pollen fed to brood, note the researchers in their paper. This microbial mix-mash may also check the growth of harmful bacteria or fungi that can ruin beebread or sicken the hive.

For their study, the researchers used isotope- and gas chromatography-based methods to calculate the ratio of nitrogen in two types of amino acids (glutamic acid and phenylalanine) in the tissues of adult bees and in beebread. The team chose the method because of its accuracy in determining an organism's trophic position—where it stands on the proverbial food web of life based on the flow of nutrients and energy from producers to consumers of these resources.

In this case, the team's isotope analysis showed that bee brood's consumption of both plant and microbial proteins warranted raising the insect's trophic status from that of a strict herbivore to an omnivore.

More broadly, Steffan said, the findings underscore the need to examine what effects fungicide use on flowering crops can have on the microbial make up of pollen fed to brood and, in turn, their development.

The Agricultural Research Service is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific in-house research agency. Daily, ARS focuses on solutions to agricultural problems affecting America. Each dollar invested in agricultural research results in $20 of economic impact.


More Bad Buzz For Bees: Record Number Of Honeybee Colonies Died Last Winter

NPR The Salt By Susie Nielsen June 19, 2019

Honeybee hives stand on a field at the Central Maryland Research and Education Center in Beltsville, Maryland. An annual survey of U.S. beekeepers shows the rate of colony death last winter — nearly 40% — was the highest reported since the survey began 13 years ago.  Olivia Falcigno/NPR

Honeybee hives stand on a field at the Central Maryland Research and Education Center in Beltsville, Maryland. An annual survey of U.S. beekeepers shows the rate of colony death last winter — nearly 40% — was the highest reported since the survey began 13 years ago. Olivia Falcigno/NPR

It's a sweltering morning in Beltsville, Md., and I'm face-to-face with bee doom. Mark Dykes, a "Bee Squad coordinator" at the University of Maryland, shakes a Mason jar filled with buzzing honeybees that are coated with powdered sugar. The sugar loosens the grip of tiny Varroa mites, a parasite that plagues bees; as he sifts the powder into a bowl, they poke out like hairy pebbles in snow.

"Right now there [are] three mites per hundred [bees]," says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, associate professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and president of the Bee Informed Partnership, which studies bee survival rates. That's a high rate of mites, vanEngelsdorp says: "If this were September and you were seeing that number, you'd expect the hive to die" during the lean months of winter.

Varroa  mites, tiny pests that can weaken and destroy honeybee colonies, are on display in a small jar.  Olivia Falcigno/NPR

Varroa mites, tiny pests that can weaken and destroy honeybee colonies, are on display in a small jar. Olivia Falcigno/NPR

Bee colony death continues to rise. According to the Bee Informed Partnership's latest survey, released this week, U.S. beekeepers lost nearly 40% of their honeybee colonies last winter — the greatest reported winter hive loss since the partnership started its surveys 13 years ago. The total annual loss was slightly above average.

The survey included responses from nearly 4,700 beekeepers managing almost 320,000 hives, making up about 12% of total managed honey-producing colonies in the United States.

Bee decline has many causes, including decreasing crop diversity, poor beekeeping practices and loss of habitat. Pesticides weaken bees' immune systems and can kill them. Varroa mites (full, ominous species name: Varroa destructor) latch onto honeybees and suck their "fat body" tissue, stunting and weakening them and potentially causing entire colonies to collapse.

Honeybees crawl through a modern-day hive. This past winter saw the most dramatic losses of managed honeybee colonies in 13 years, according to researchers.  Olivia Falcigno/NPR

Honeybees crawl through a modern-day hive. This past winter saw the most dramatic losses of managed honeybee colonies in 13 years, according to researchers. Olivia Falcigno/NPR

"Beekeepers are trying their best to keep [mites] in check, but it's really an arms race," says Nathalie Steinhauer, science coordinator for the Bee Informed Partnership and co-author of the report (vanEngelsdorp is also an author). "That's concerning, because we know arms races don't usually end well."

Steinhauer says Varroa mites are the "number one concern" around wintertime. They've become harder to control, she says, because some of the tools that beekeepers have been using — chemical strips that attract and kill mites, essential oils and organic acids — are losing their efficacy.

Pollinators are responsible for one of every three bites of food we take, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Most of these pollinators are domesticated honeybees. They have become essential for many flowering crops, including blueberries, almonds and cherries. Wild insects can't be relied on to pollinate hundreds of acres of these crops, so fruit and nut producers call in commercial honeybee colonies instead.

Beekeepers use this device, called a smoker, to calm honeybees.  Olivia Falcigno/NPR

Beekeepers use this device, called a smoker, to calm honeybees. Olivia Falcigno/NPR

Beekeeping has thus become an essential cog in the machine of American industrial farming. But it's a tough industry. Commercial beekeepers are so migratory that it's difficult to track how many live in each state, and all that moving around is expensive and stressful. Beekeepers have to monitor thousands of hives for sickness and pests.

These winter losses have made business even tougher, says vanEngelsdorp.

"We're not worried about honeybees going extinct. What we're worried about is commercial beekeepers going extinct," he says. When hives die, beekeepers can split healthy hives to replace their numbers — but it's costly to do so. "The question is, how long can they do that and stay economically viable?"

If the beekeeping industry shrinks, he says, crop production will suffer. "If we want to continue to have a food supply that has the variety that we want, we need a movable pollination supply, and those are honeybees," he says. "If we don't have commercial beekeepers managing those, then we won't be able to meet that demand."

Dennis vanEngelsdorp pulls out a frame from a hive. Managed honeybee hives are usually made of stackable, separable components so that beekeepers can closely monitor the colony's health.  Olivia Falcigno/NPR

Dennis vanEngelsdorp pulls out a frame from a hive. Managed honeybee hives are usually made of stackable, separable components so that beekeepers can closely monitor the colony's health. Olivia Falcigno/NPR

Maryann Frazier, a retired senior extension associate for the College of Agricultural Sciences at Pennsylvania State University, who was not involved with the survey, says its results are limited by the fact that they rely on self-reported data from beekeepers. Beekeepers who've lost a lot of bees may be more likely to contribute to the survey, she says.

Still, she says the results are troubling, if unsurprising. Stressed, sick bees in close proximity are likely to die during the winter months. And bees face increasing levels of stress. Until all parties work together to address the sources of that stress, she says, steep winter die-offs will continue.

"I don't expect to see a change in losses over time for this reason. There's been no significant effort to correct what's causing the decline," she says.

Take pesticides, she says. "There's a huge amount of data [and] research showing pesticides are a significant player in the decline of honeybees and other insect species. And yet there's been so little done to make a change on that front," she says. "The EPA has been incredibly ineffective."

She says that pesticide industry leaders often try to shift blame for bee declines solely onto Varroa mites and viruses when in fact, she says, "there is so much evidence that pesticides are a major player in the decline of honeybees."

"And these things are synergistic," she adds. Pesticides can compromise immune systems, so when a mite or other pest hits "a bee compromised by pesticides, it's a downward spiral." Other sources of stress, like changing landscapes, have not been corrected.

Bees crawl over larvae and capped honey cells on a hive frame. Larvae are especially vulnerable to pests like  Varroa  mites.  Olivia Falcigno/NPR

Bees crawl over larvae and capped honey cells on a hive frame. Larvae are especially vulnerable to pests like Varroa mites. Olivia Falcigno/NPR

Honeybees are a "sentinel species," Frazier says, meaning that their losses may warn humans of the larger trend of insect decline worldwide, including the decline of other pollinators like beetles and wild bees. "The picture is well beyond honeybees," she says. "The whole system is crashing."


[NOTE: The beekeepers in this story are working the bees in short sleeves and without protective clothing. They are located in the state of Maryland. They do not have the danger of Africanized Honey Bees. If you are in areas such as Southern California, which have AHB, we advise that you DO NOT work your bees without protective clothing.]

Two Women Stung By Swarm of Bees While Hiking in Mission Trails

FOX 5 News    By Shelly Wilford    May 11, 2017

Two women hiking Mission Trail were stung by a swarm of bees on May 11, 2017.SAN DIEGO – Two women hiking in Mission Trails Regional Park were repeatedly stung by a swarm of bees Thursday morning.

The women were hiking in the western area of the park near Tierrasanta with a dog when they were stung.

Paramedics were at the scene assisting the women. It’s not known if the dog was also stung.

Check back for more information on this developing story.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture lists the following precautions to protect yourself from bees:

Stay away from honey bee colonies.

Africanized honey bees sting to defend themselves or their nest.

If you can avoid disturbing them in any way, they usually will not sting.

To avoid approaching a nest by accident, listen for the steady buzz produced by a colony and look for flying insects

Look for bees to nest in cavities such as holes in the ground, crevices in rocks, hollow trees, discarded tires, saguaro cactus cavities, or water meter boxes.

Homeowners commonly encounter colonies when doing yard work.

Do not climb a tree, kick over a log or roll over a rock without checking first for bees.

If you do see a colony, do not stand in front of the entrance or in the flightpath.

Treat honey bee colonies as you would any other venomous creature, such as a snake or a scorpion.

Be alert and stay away!

Wear appropriate clothing.

When hiking or hunting in the wilderness, wear light-colored clothing.

The animals most likely to attack a bee colony are skunks and bears, so honeybees respond most violently to anything that is dark-colored or fuzzy.

Wear white socks, because honey bees are known to sting the ankles of persons wearing dark socks.

Always wear full-length pants when hiking and long-sleeved shirts if possible.

Avoid wearing shiny jewelry and leather, which attract bees.

Avoid wearing perfumes or scents.

Bees are sensitive to odors such as perfumes, soaps, after-shave lotions, and hair spray. These odors may either attract or provoke bees. Even sunscreens may have odors that increase your chances of an attack.

Avoid excessive motion when near a colony.

Bees are able to detect movement, and are much more likely to respond to an object in motion than one that is stationary.

Avoid flailing your arms or swatting at bees.

Do not panic if you spot a bees’ nest, just move away slowly and deliberately.

Avoid operating any machinery (mowers, line-trimmers or chain saws) near nests.

If you are attacked by several bees, then the best strategy is to run to shelter as quickly as possible.


(Note: For more information on Africanized Honey Bees see our LACBA Africanized Honey Bees Page: /africanized-bees/)

How the Varroa Mite Co-Opts Honey Bee Behaviors to Its Own Advantage

Entomology Today    By Entomology Today   May 10, 2017

While the Varroa destructor mite is not a highly mobile insect on its own, it takes advantage of the behaviors of honey bees in managed beekeeping settings to spread. In particular, bee colonies in close proximity to each other and less swarming allow mite populations to grow, according to new research. (Photo credit: Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org)

As the managed honey bee industry continues to grapple with significant annual colony losses, the Varroa destructor mite is emerging as the leading culprit. And, it turns out, the very nature of modern beekeeping may be giving the parasite the exact conditions it needs to spread nearly beyond control.

In an article published yesterday in Environmental Entomology, researchers argue that the Varroa mite has “co-opted” several honey bee behaviors to its own benefit, allowing it to disperse widely even though the mite itself is not a highly mobile insect. The mite’s ability to hitchhike on wandering bees, the infections it transmits to bees, and the density of colonies in managed beekeeping settings make for a deadly combination.

“Beekeepers need to rethink Varroa control and treat Varroa as a migratory pest,” says Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman, Ph.D., research leader and location coordinator at the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Agricultural Research Service’s Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, Arizona, and lead author of the research.

In the wild, bee colonies tend to survive despite Varroa infestations, and colonies are usually located far enough apart to prevent mites from hitching rides to other colonies on foraging bees. Wild bee colonies’ natural habit of periodically swarming—when the colony grows large enough that a portion of its bees splinter off to create a new colony elsewhere—also serves as a mechanism for thinning out the density of mite infestations and their associated pathogens. In managed honey bee settings, though, these dynamics are disrupted, DeGrandi-Hoffman says. Colonies are kept in close proximity, and swarming is prevented.

DeGrandi-Hoffman, USDA-ARS colleague Henry Graham, and Fabiana Ahumada of AgScience Consulting, conducted an 11-month study of 120 honey bee colonies in one commercial bee operation, comparing those treated with mite-targeting insecticide (miticide) in the spring and fall with those treated only in the fall, and they found no significant difference in the results: more than half of the colonies were lost across the board. This aligns with what has been seen by beekeepers and researchers alike in recent years: Varroa populations continue to grow even after being treated with effective miticides. But why? The answer may be in its dispersal mechanisms.

The researchers also conducted mathematical simulations of Varroa mite population dynamics to examine the effects of both migration of foragers between colonies and swarming. When bees can wander into other colonies—either to “rob” them of their honey or because they’ve simply lost their way—Varroa populations across colonies climb. Likewise, prohibiting colonies from splintering periodically via swarming also leads mite populations to rise.

In the wild, DeGrandi-Hoffman and her colleagues note, driving a colony to collapse is against Varroa mites’ own interest; if the colony dies, the mites die with it. But in commercial beekeeping settings, increasing infestation of a colony activates the dispersal mechanisms the mites need to spread. Weakened foragers are more likely to wander to other colonies, and weakened colonies are more likely to see foragers from healthy colonies visit to rob them of honey. In both cases, mites can hitch a ride from one colony to another.

It all adds up to a critical point for managed honey bee industry. The researchers cite the need for new integrated pest management strategies to treat Varroa destructor as a migratory pest, as well as for further research into the specifics of Varroa dispersal.

“Colony losses in the U.S. are at unsustainable levels for commercial beekeepers. These beekeepers supply colonies for the pollination of crops that represent one-third of U.S. agriculture and are essential components of heart healthy and cancer-prevention diets,” says DeGrandi-Hoffman. “This research provides evidence that the tried and true ways of controlling Varroa are no longer feasible, and that new methods that are designed for control of a migratory pest are required.”


Read More:
Are Dispersal Mechanisms Changing the Host–Parasite Relationship and Increasing the Virulence of Varroa destructor (Mesostigmata: Varroidae) in Managed Honey Bee (Hymenoptera: Apidae) Colonies? “Are Dispersal Mechanisms Changing the Host–Parasite Relationship and Increasing the Virulence of Varroa destructor (Mesostigmata: Varroidae) in Managed Honey Bee (Hymenoptera: Apidae) Colonies?”  Environmental Entomology

Organosilicone Adjuvant, Sylgard 309, Increases the Susceptibility of Honey Bee Larvae to Black Queen Cell Virus

CATCH THE BUZZ    By Alan Harman    January 19, 2017

Healthy bee larva developing on day six. (Penn State photo by Julia Fine)A chemical that is thought to be safe and widely used on crops such as almonds, wine grapes and tree fruits to boost the performance of pesticides, makes honey bee larvae significantly more susceptible to a deadly virus.

Researchers at Penn State and the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that in the lab, the commonly used organosilicone adjuvant, Sylgard 309, negatively impacts the health of honey bee larvae by increasing their susceptibility to a common bee pathogen, the Black Queen Cell Virus.

“These results mirror the symptoms observed in hives following almond pollination, when bees are exposed to organosilicone adjuvant residues in pollen, and viral pathogen prevalence is known to increase,” says Julia Fine, graduate student in entomology at Penn State.

  “In recent years, beekeepers have reported missing, dead and dying brood in their hives following almond pollination, and exposure to agrochemicals, such as adjuvants,  applied during bloom, has been suggested as a cause.”

Chris Mullin, Penn State professor of entomology, says adjuvants in general greatly improve the efficacy of pesticides by enhancing their toxicities.  Organosilicone adjuvants are the most potent adjuvants available to growers.

“Based on the California Department of Pesticide Regulation data for agrochemical applications to almonds, there has been increasing use of organosilicone adjuvants during crop blooming periods, when two-thirds of the U.S. honey bee colonies are present, Mullin says.

 Fine says the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies organosilicone adjuvants as biologically inert, meaning they do not cause a reaction in living things.

“As a result,” she says, “there are no federally regulated restrictions on their use.”

To conduct their study, reported in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers reared honey bee larvae under controlled conditions in the laboratory. During the initial stages of larval development, they exposed the larvae to a low chronic dose of Sylgard 309 in their diets. They also exposed some of the larvae to viral pathogens in their diets on the first day of the experiment.

“We found that bees exposed to the organosilicone adjuvant had higher levels of Black Queen Cell Virus,” Fine says.

“When they were exposed to the virus and the organosilicone adjuvant simultaneously, the effect on their mortality was synergistic rather than additive, meaning that the mortality was higher from the simultaneous application of adjuvant and virus than from exposure to either the organosilicone adjuvant or the viral pathogen alone, even if those two mortalities were added together.

“This suggests that the adjuvant is enhancing the damaging effects of the virus.” The researchers also found that a particular gene involved in immunity – called 18-wheeler – had reduced expression in bees treated with the adjuvant and the virus, compared to bees in the control groups.

“Taken together, these findings suggest that exposure to organosilicone adjuvants negatively influences immunity in honey bee larvae, resulting in enhanced pathogenicity and mortality,” Fine says.

Mullin says the team’s results suggest that recent honey bee declines in the U.S. may, in part, be due to the increased use of organosilicone adjuvants.

“Billions of pounds of formulation and tank adjuvants, including organosilicone adjuvants, are released into U.S. environments each year, making them an important component of the chemical landscape to which bees are exposed,” he says.

“We now know that at least Sylgard 309, when combined at a field-relevant concentration with Black Queen Cell Virus, causes synergistic mortality in honey bee larvae.”

Other authors on the paper include Diana Cox-Foster, USDA-ARS-PWA Pollinating Insect Research Unit.


Honeybee Hive Collapse Mystery Rooted In Hive Size

Phys.Org     February 24, 2016

Honeybee. Credit: Adam SiegelUniversity of Idaho professor Brian Dennis is helping scientists understand a baffling but vitally important puzzle: What is causing the decline of honeybees? Working in collaboration with William Kemp, a U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist and UI alumnus, Dennis has built a mathematical model that lays the blame squarely on the bees themselves.

"The tightly organized social lives of honeybees, once such an amazing adaptation for success in the world, turns out to lack resilience against the numerous environmental degradations contributed by humans across the landscape," said Dennis, who has a joint appointment in the UI College of Science and College of Natural Resources.

Humans depend on honeybees for pollinating many crops, especially orchard crops and vegetables. In the U.S. alone, the economic value of honey bees' crop pollination services has been estimated as high as $15 billion a year. If honey bees continue to decrease, it would lead to disastrous upheavals in agriculture and the food on our tables. The decrease is already pushing many beekeepers to the edge of economic viability.

North American scientists have been noting with alarm the increasing collapse of honeybee colonies, during the last decade. In a typical hive collapse, the bees in the hive fail to thrive and end up abandoning the hive or dying. Research studies have tried to pinpoint the cause of hive collapse, investigating such factors such as viruses, fungi, poor nutrition, parasites, pesticides and global warming.

Dennis and Kemp's model indicates that any or all of the suspected environmental factors, alone or in combination, could lead to hive collapse by destabilizing a hive's adult bee population.

Hive Size Matters

Adult worker bees cooperate to make the hive function almost as a single organism. The workers feed and tend to the egg-laying queen and eggs, larvae and pupae; regulate the temperature of the hive; fight enemies and predators; search for food and communicate its location; and gather food and transport it back to the hive.

Beekeepers know that a hive that has too few workers will tend not to thrive. Dennis and Kemp noted the reason for this: a queen can lay only so many eggs in a time interval, and too few adult workers cannot maintain all the functions of the hive at a quality level where new workers are produced faster than deaths of existing workers. Like a hotel with inadequate staff, the hive with too few bees fails to serve its residents.

If the number of adult bees drops below a threshold known as critical hive size, the bees decrease in number, leading to collapse. Normally, critical hive size does not pose a problem for bees. With favorable environmental conditions, the critical size for a beehive is quite small, in the neighborhood of 1,000 bees. Commercial bee packages for starting a hive contain well over 10,000 bees.

However, Dennis and Kemp's model found an unexpected surprise: Critical hive size turned out to be extraordinarily sensitive to any degrading of cooperative hive functions.

Dennis and Kemp built a mathematical model of the growth of adult worker numbers in a beehive. The presence of more adult workers reduced the deaths of adult workers. Likewise, having more adult workers improved "rearing effectiveness," or how well eggs, larvae and pupae are nurtured and raised to adulthood.

The critical hive size increases in response to any environmental factors that reduce rearing effectiveness or increase deaths of  in the hive. In the presence of such an environmental factor, a beehive could find itself below the new, larger critical hive size. Loss of viability and hive failure would result.

Dennis and Kemp point out that a beehive is a severe example of an "Allee effect," a concept in ecology named after animal ecologist Warder Allee. Working in the 1930s, Allee suggested that a critical population size might exist when organisms become rare—for example, when mates cannot find each other, or when groups of cooperatively hunting predators are too small for effective hunting.

Help for Honeybees

In light of this study, how can honeybees be helped? Dennis and Kemp conclude that much might be gained from coordinated regional management of pesticides for beekeepers and crop producers and from conservation programs that contribute to improving foraging resources for all pollinator species.

Dennis and Kemp further warn that evidence of Allee effects has been found in many other species, and the prospect that minimum critical population sizes exist argues for adopting more stringent precautionary principles in environmental management.

Explore further: Honeybees entomb to protect from pesticides

More information: How hives collapse: Allee effects, ecological resilience, and the honey bee, PLoS ONEdx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0150055 


USDA Inspector General to Investigate Alleged Censorship of Scientists

  MPR    By Dan Gunderson   February 12, 2016

Entomologist Jonathan Lundgren filed a whistleblower complaint alleging the USDA retaliated against him because of his research on the adverse effects of neonicotinoid insecticides on bees and monarch butterflies. Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2015The U.S. Department of Agriculture's inspector general said Friday that she plans to investigate alleged censorship of agency scientists working on controversial issues.

USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong told a U.S. House subcommittee her office will soon open a broad investigation following a "significant volume" of complaints from the department's scientists.

"We have been aware and have been made aware of the concerns of research scientists," she said. "This is an issue that is very troubling and we certainly take it very seriously."

A South Dakota scientist recently claimed he was punished for talking about his research on neonicotinoid insecticides. That class of insecticide has been linked to bee deaths. 

• Related: USDA whistleblower launches new bee research effort 

Late last year the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) sued the USDA over what it called a weak scientific integrity policy. It wanted the USDA to offer its scientists more protection.

"The fact that the IG is receiving 'a significant volume' of complaints from USDA scientists indicates that a major problem exists," said Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director.

Ruch said the USDA recently obtained a 60-day extension to respond to the group's lawsuit.



Happy National Honey Bee Day!

Due to the important role honey bees play in our agricultural economy and food system, Secretary of Agriculture, Thomas J. Vilsack proclaimed August 22, 2015 as National Honey Bee Day.
Check out this cool video video about the USDA rooftop honey harvest.

The process is shown from pollinator plants, to bees and the colonies in the rooftop apiary on the U.S. Department of Agriculture headquarter building in Washington, D.C. The honey is harvested from the colony, extracted, packaged and delivered to Secretary Tom Vilsack for use in his office, when talking about the importance of pollinators and at public awareness events. USDA Multimedia by Lance Cheung.


Winter Losses Still Too High

CATCH THE BUZZ    By Kim Flottum   May 15, 2014

WASHINGTON, May 15, 2014—A yearly survey of beekeepers, released today, shows fewer colony losses occurred in the United States over the winter of 2013-2014 than in recent years, but beekeepers say losses remain higher than the level that they consider to be sustainable. According to survey results, total losses of managed honey bee colonies from all causes were 23.2 percent nationwide. That number is above the 18.9 percent level of loss that beekeepers say is acceptable for their economic sustainability, but is a marked improvement over the 30.5 percent loss reported for the winter of 2012-2013, and over the eight-year average loss of 29.6 percent.

“Pollinators, such as bees, birds and other insects are essential partners for farmers and ranchers and help produce much of our food supply. Healthy pollinator populations are critical to the continued economic well-being of agricultural producers,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “While we’re glad to see improvement this year, losses are still too high and there is still much more work to be done to stabilize bee populations.”

“Yearly fluctuations in the rate of losses like these only demonstrate how complicated the whole issue of honey bee heath has become, with factors such as viruses and other pathogens, parasites like varroa mites, problems of nutrition from lack of diversity in pollen sources, and even sublethal effects of pesticides combining to weaken and kill bee colonies,” said Jeff Pettis, co-author of the survey and research leader of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland. ARS is USDA’s chief intramural scientific research agency.

There is no way to tell why the bees did better this year, according to both Pettis and Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a University of Maryland assistant professor who is the leader of the survey and director of the Bee Informed Partnership. Although the survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Maryland Bee Informed Partnership shows improvement, losses remain above the level that beekeepers consider to be economically sustainable. This year, almost two-thirds of the beekeepers responding reported losses greater than the 18.9 percent threshold.

More than three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants rely on pollinators, such as bees, to reproduce, meaning pollinators help produce one out of every three bites of food Americans eat. The winter losses survey covers the period from October 2013 through April 2014. About 7,200 beekeepers responded to the voluntary survey.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also announced today that it will hold a summit this Fall aimed at addressing the nutrition and forage needs of pollinators. The summit will take place in Washington D.C. on October 20-21 and will be attended by a consortium of public, private, and non-governmental organizations. Attendees will discuss the most recent research related to pollinator loss and work to identify solutions.

Also today, USDA launched the People’s Garden Apiary bee cam at the USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. as an additional effort to increase public awareness about the reduction of bee populations and to inform Americans about actions they can take to support the recovery of pollinator populations. The USDA “Bee Watch” website (www.USDA.gov/Beewatch) will broadcast honey bee hive activity live over the Internet 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. Created in 2010, the People’s Garden Apiary is home to two beehives. The bees are Italian queens, the most common bee stock and the same used in many honey bee colonies throughout the United States.

In March of 2014, Secretary Vilsack created a Pollinator Working Group, under the leadership of Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden, to better coordinate efforts, leverage resources, and increase focus on pollinator issues across USDA agencies. USDA personnel from ten Department agencies (ARS), National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), Farm Services Agency (FSA), Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), Economic Research Service (ERS), Forest Service (FS), Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), Risk Management Agency (RMA) and Rural Development (RD) meet regularly to coordinate and evaluate efforts as USDA strives toward improving pollinator health and ensuring our pollinators continuing contributions to our nation’s environment and food security.

Earlier this year, USDA made $3 million available to help agriculture producers in five states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan) provide floral forage habitats to benefit pollinating species on working lands. The Honey Bee Pollinator Effort is intended to encourage farmers and ranchers to grow alfalfa, clover and other flowering habitat for bees and other pollinators.

Recognizing the importance of pollinators on the health of the rural economy and the Nation’s food supply, the President’s FY2015 Budget proposes the creation of 3 new Innovation Institutes including one on Pollination and Pollinator Health (PPH). The budget requests up to $5 million a year over five years to be allocated for research to combat pollinator decline and colony collapse disorder. If established, the PPH will support the activities already identified in the joint USDA-Environmental Protection Agency action plan and build on current pollinator research and extension projects.

A complete analysis of the bee survey data will be published later this year. The summary of the analysis is at http://beeinformed.org/results-categories/winter-loss-2013-2014/.

Read at:  http://home.ezezine.com/1636/1636-2014.

This message brought to us by CATCH THE BUZZ: Kim Flottom,  Bee Culture, The Magazine Of American Beekeeping, published by the A.I. Root Company. Twitter.FacebookBee Culture’s Blog.

Beekeepers and Disaster Assistance

(This message brought to us by CATCH THE BUZZ: Kim Flottom,  Bee Culture, The Magazine Of American Beekeeping, published by the A.I. Root Company. Twitter.FacebookBee Culture’s Blog.)

 Alan Harman        4/8/14

Beekeepers and other agricultural producers can begin signing up for federal disaster assistance programs – some backdated to 2011 – beginning Tuesday, April 15, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says the quick implementation of the programs, re-established and strengthened by the 2014 Farm Bill, has been a top priority for USDA.

“These programs will provide long-awaited disaster relief for many livestock producers who have endured significant financial hardship from weather-related disasters while the programs were expired and awaiting Congressional action,” Vilsack says.

Enrollment begins April 15 for producers with losses covered by the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honeybees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program (ELAP) and the Tree Assistance Program (TAP).

ELAP assistance is provided for losses not covered by the Livestock Forage Disaster Program (LFP) and the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP). It was authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill as a permanent program and provides retroactive authority to cover losses that occurred on or after Oct. 1, 2011.

TAP gives financial assistance to qualifying orchardists and nursery tree growers to replant or rehabilitate eligible trees, bushes and vines damaged by natural disasters.

A total $125,000 annual limitation applies for payments under the LIP, LFP and the ELAP programs.

ELAP provides emergency assistance to eligible producers of livestock, honeybees and farm-raised fish for losses due to disease, adverse weather, or other conditions, such as blizzards and wildfires, not covered by LFP and LIP.

For beekeepers, it covers assistance for honeybee feed, colony and hive losses.

Total payments are capped at $20 million in a fiscal year.

The Direct and Counter-Cyclical Program and the Average Crop Revenue Election program are repealed and replaced by two new programs – Price Loss Coverage and Agricultural Risk Coverage.

The Marketing Assistance Loan program and sugar loans continue mostly unchanged.

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), USDA’s largest conservation program, continues through 2018 with an annually decreasing enrolled acreage cap. The contract portion of the Grassland Reserve Program enrollment has been merged with CRP. The Biomass Crop Assistance Program is extended and funded at $25 million a year.

The Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance Program has been expanded to include protection at higher coverage levels, similar to buy-up provisions offered under the federal crop insurance program.

The Supplemental Revenue Assistance Program (SURE), which covered losses through Sept. 30, 2011, is not reauthorized.

The USDA says the changes in the act give the Farm Service Agency (FSA) greater flexibility in determining eligibility including expanded definitions of eligible entities, years of experience for farm ownership loans, and allowing youth loan applicants from urban areas to access loans.

FSA’s popular microloan and down payment loan programs, important to furthering the administration’s objective of assisting beginning farmers, have been improved by raising loan limits and emphasizing beginning and socially disadvantaged producers.

The act also provides greater enhancements for lenders to participate in the guaranteed conservation loan program and eliminates term limits for the guaranteed operating program, allowing farmers and ranchers the opportunity for continued credit in cases where financial setbacks may have prevented them from obtain­ing commercial credit.

Adjusted gross income (AGI) provisions have been simplified and modified. Producers whose average AGI exceeds $900,000 are not eligible to receive payments or benefits from most programs administered by FSA and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Previous AGI provisions distinguished between farm and non-farm AGI.

The total amount of payments received, directly and indirectly, by a person or legal entity (except joint ventures or general partnerships) for Price Loss Coverage, Agricultural Risk Coverage, marketing loan gains, and loan deficiency payments, may not exceed $125,000 a crop year.

Enrollment will begin April 15 at all local FSA offices and additional details on the types of information required for an ELAP application will be provided as part of the sign-up.

The USDA says to expedite applications, all producers who experienced losses are encouraged to collect records documenting these losses in preparation for the enrollment in these disaster assistance programs. Information on the types of records necessary can be provided by local FSA county offices. Producers also are encouraged to contact their county office ahead of time to schedule an appointment.

Unintended Consequences Using RNAi Pesticides?

(The following is brought to us by CATCH THE BUZZ (Kim Flottum) Bee Culture, The Magazine of American Beekeeping, published by A.I. Root Company.) 

By Alan Harman

A new technology for creating pesticides and pest-resistant crops could damage beneficial species that present toxicity testing will miss, U.S. Agricultural Research Service scientists are warning.

Jonathan G. Lundgren and Jian J. Duan say standard toxicity testing is inadequate to assess the safety of the new technology, which has the potential for creating pesticides and genetically modifying crops.

In a report in the journal BioScience, Lundgren and Duan argue that pesticides and insect-resistant crops based on RNA interference, now in exploratory development, may have to be tested under elaborate procedures that assess effects on animals' whole life cycles, rather than by methods that simply look for short-term toxicity.

RNA interference is a natural process that affects the level of activity of genes in animals and plants.

Agricultural scientists have successfully devised artificial “interfering RNAs” that target genes in insect pests, slowing their growth or killing them. The hope is that interfering RNAs might be applied to crops, or that crops might be genetically engineered to make interfering RNAs harmful to their pests, thus increasing crop yields.

The safety concern is that the artificial interfering RNAs will also harm desirable insects or other animals. And the researchers say the way interfering RNA works means that simply testing for lethality might not detect important damaging effects.

An interfering RNA, for instance, might have the unintended effect of suppressing the action of a gene needed for reproduction in a beneficial species. Standard laboratory testing would detect no harm, but there could be ecological disruption in fields because of the effects on reproduction.

Lundgren and Duan suggest that researchers investigating the potential of interference RNA pesticides create types that are designed to be unlikely to affect non-target species as well as a research program to evaluate how the chemicals act in real-life situations.

This ezine is also available online at http://home.ezezine.com/1636/1636-2013.

Habitat Loss Increasing, Needs Help

(The following is brought to us by CATCH THE BUZZ (Kim Flottum) Bee Culture, The Magazine of American Beekeeping, published by A.I. Root Company.) 

Habitat For Honey Bees

See also: http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/02/opinion/flottum-bees-death/index.html?iref=allsearch

The Honorable Tom Vilsack, Secretary
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC  20250

RE:  Request for Actions to Increase Habitat for Honey Bees, Wildlife and Other Pollinators

Dear Mr. Secretary:

The undersigned organizations recognize the urgent need to develop substantial habitat and forage for honey bees, wildlife and other pollinators in the United States.  We encourage you to strengthen USDA’s commitment to grassland habitat and forage for honey bees and other pollinators through conservation policies and programs.

It is in the economic interest of U.S. agricultural producers and the American public to ensure a healthy, sustainable population of honey bees and native pollinators.  Pollinators are essential to the production of an estimated one-third of the human diet and to the reproduction of at least 80 percent of flowering plants.  Insect-pollinated agricultural commodities result in significant income for agricultural producers and account for $20 billion in annual U.S. agricultural production.  Additional background information is attached. 

Critical grassland and wetland habitat loss across the country, particularly in the Northern Great Plains, has presented a major challenge to honey bee health and colony numbers in recent years, posing a substantial threat to the pollination of our food supply.  Honey bees, the pollinating “work horse” of modern agriculture, require a rich supply of nectar and pollen from blooming trees, shrubs, and plants in order to thrive.  Changes in farming practices, wide scale agricultural herbicide use, urban sprawl, aggressive weed control measures, and altered land management policies have each significantly reduced the amount of sustainable habitat available for honey bees, wildlife and other pollinators.

We recommend and support USDA actions to focus on the following priorities:

  • Encourage maximum participation in grassland and wetland conservation programs, like the Conservation Reserve (CRP) and Wetland Reserve Programs (WRP), continuing to work toward acreage goals outlined in the Farm Bill. 
  • Establish and maintain the maximum amount of habitat possible with increased focus on the Northern Great Plains.  Protecting existing pollinator habitat and encouraging the establishment of new habitat should be a priority in all conservation programs and allowable management practices, including haying, grazing, and weed control. 
  • Establish affordable pollinator and wildlife-friendly seed mixes, including legumes which have been widely used in agriculture, at the larger scale needed for honey bees, to encourage wider use of such mixes on conservation lands and for cover crops.  
  • Offer cost-share assistance and incentives through EQIP and other programs to encourage larger scale, pollinator and wildlife-friendly plantings. 
  • Strengthen policies and programs to allow and encourage access for the placement of bee hives on CRP land, other agriculture conservation lands, and federal lands.

In summary, a diverse group of agricultural and wildlife interests remain concerned about significant habitat loss and its impact to our nation’s food security and wildlife populations.  We stand ready to work with USDA to achieve increased habitat and forage for honey bees, wildlife and other pollinators.

American Beekeeping Federation
American Farm Bureau Federation
American Farmland Trust
American Honey Producers Association
Blue Diamond Almond Growers
California Specialty Crops Council
California State Beekeepers Association
Ducks Unlimited, Inc.
National Association of Conservation Districts
National Cotton Council
National Council of Farmer Cooperatives
National Farmers Union
North Dakota Beekeepers Association
Partners for Sustainable Pollination
Pheasants Forever
Pollinator Partnership
Project Apis Mellifera
Quail Forever
United Fresh Produce Association
U.S. Apple Association

Habitat for Honey Bees and Other Pollinators 

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has provided millions of acres of vital habitat for honey bees since the late 1980s and has, in many instances, effectively buffered honey bees from the effects of other land use changes that have depleted traditional habitat.  Historically, the largest concentration of CRP has been located in the upper Midwest and Northern Plains where perhaps as many as 50% of the nation’s honey bee colonies spend the summer.  Sadly, this region has seen the most dramatic reductions in CRP acreage over recent years due to program acreage reductions, changes to the EBI ranking process and rising commodity prices that have far outpaced CRP payments.  Honey bees are transported to the Midwest following winter and spring pollination deployment to the south or coastal areas where pollination services are needed by f armers.  Habitat and forage needed to support large numbers of hives for a long period of time do not exist in these regions.   

Traditionally, CRP lands, with their abundant acres of legume-rich forage, have offered the hives a safe haven from the pressures of modern agriculture and have provided larger-scale, natural sources of pollen essential to healthy brood rearing needed to sustain colonies throughout the year.  This end of season stopover allows the bees to be revitalized after rigorous pollination activities and be readied to again provide vital pollination when and where they are needed.

Recently, changes to conservation policies have diminished the forage value of conservation lands for honey bees.  In addition, the forage capacity of CRP lands has deteriorated as, over time, nectar and pollen rich plants succumb to grass, weeds, and herbicides intended to control weeds.  In addition, millions of acres of CRP lands have been converted back to farmland in recent years.  Millions more acres are being reenrolled in the program, in many cases without provisions or incentives to reestablish beneficial plants needed for honeybees.  Furthermore, efforts to boost pollinator habitat through conservation programs have not kept pace with losses.

It is imperative that the benefits of grassland conservation as forage for honey bees, wildlife and other pollinators be recognized in future planning and targeting of CRP and other conservation programs.  Since its inception, CRP has been relied upon and predictable as a significant resource for honey bees, wildlife and other pollinators.  Provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill mandated that the needs of both native and managed pollinators (honey bees) be considered for all conservation programs.  This is fitting, since conservation lands, such as CRP acreage, provide prime habitat for pollinators.  

Opportunities exist to enhance pollinator forage on CRP lands.  For example—  

  • An affordable planting mix option should be developed and offered that includes common alfalfa and sweet clover varieties that were long utilized affordably in prior conservation programs.  These plants are excellent sources of nectar and pollen for honey bees and other pollinators.  While these plants are not native, they are widely used in agriculture and wildlife management, as they are affordable legumes that provide clear benefits to soil, water, and wildlife.  Sadly, to date programs designed to benefit pollinators have been too focused on rare and expensive native plants and only small tracts of land.
  • Producers should be encouraged to plant beneficial mixes for pollinators and wildlife on CRP lands and cover crops.  Current CRP contract holders, when reenrolling land, should be encouraged to replant with new seed mixes to upgrade acreage that is now largely devoid of original intended plants, or is harboring invasive weeds.  Incentives should be offered to current CRP contract holders with contracts which are not due to expire, to upgrade their plantings to benefit pollinators.  Appropriate seed mixes and management practices for cover crops can also provide forage for honey bees and other pollinators. 

Without the benefit of the past programs and existing CRP acres in key areas, like the Northern Great Plains, it is certain that U.S. honey bee declines would be even worse.  This poses a major threat to our nation’s agricultural producers and food security.  Time is of the essence as recent research has demonstrated a strong relationship between healthy, thriving honey bee colonies and habitat quality and availability – the prime example being in the leading honey production State of North Dakota where hive numbers have doubled since the CRP program went into place.  It is clear, that investing in habitat strategies through conservation will improve the health and abundance of pollinators and wildlife.