Building a Better Bee

You may remember the news headlines are started about 1516 years ago headlines about millions of bee colonies dying off or in some cases the bees just disappearing with the nation’s beekeepers losing 30 to 50% of their colonies every year. There was a lot of buzz about it for a few years. You don’t see much about that in the news these days, but there’s still an emergency in place. No one knows that better than Chris Hiatt, North Dakota beekeeper president of the American Honey Producers Association.

Last winter for us was very bad, probably worst 20 years, approaching, like 55% loss

Back in the 1980s. A 10% loss per year was normally easily managed. So even though honeybee losses are not making headlines like they once did, scientists continued to work on the puzzle of why bees are not as able as they used to be to withstand things like parasites, viruses and weather extremes.

We’re kind of taking a multifaceted approach to try to solve their problems and make healthier bees.

That’s Lanie Bilodeau, Research Leader at the Agriculture Department’s bee laboratory in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, one of the half dozen USDA Ag Research Service beat labs. We talked with her at a pollinator event here in Washington, DC now, scientists think there are many reasons for increasing the losses. One big one, climate change.

We know that that’s affecting them because it’s affecting when flowers are blooming because they’re flowering too earlier. They’re flowering too late and it doesn’t match when the bees need that energy. So we’re trying to come up with alternative forage that farmers can plant that beekeepers can plant that will help sort of compensate for that difference.

Lanie says another problem that beekeepers have had to deal with for a long time is the varroa mite. It’s a tiny parasite of bees, that literally sucks the energy out of them. And even if the bee is strong,

It’s a tough battle for them to fight and so our lab is breeding bees. That are resistant to the mite.

And there are breeding programs with other labs as well to make these not only more able to survive changing climates, diseases and parasites.

But also to make lots of money and build up quickly and overwinter well and have all of the favorable characteristics that we want the good commercial bee to be.

Meanwhile, honeybee losses continue to be high. Lanie, when will we be able to reduce those losses?

Over time. I can’t predict what that timescale is, but I think they’re gonna come down we’re trying.