Honey bee colonies across the United States, including Georgia, have been in decline since the mid 2000s. However, more bee colonies died this winter than in any other year in the previous decade, according to a new study done by Bee Informed Partnership with Auburn University and University of Maryland.
The problem could be bad news for some of the region’s farmers, as well as for bee keepers who sell local honey and honeybees nationally. As a result, bee experts continue to explore a variety of ways to combat the decline.
“Threats to pollination services could translate to food security issues, particularly among specialty crops that rely on honey bees,” said Geoff Williams, Auburn assistant professor of entomology and apiology. “At the moment, we have not seen noticeable effects of increased colony mortality on human food production.”
Honey bees pollinate $15 billion worth of food crops in the U.S., so their health is critical to food production and supply, according to a press release from Auburn.
Several Georgia and Middle Georgia crops including watermelon, blueberries and peaches depend on pollinators like honey bees. Those are the three crops with the highest economic values of pollination, according to research done by Keith Delaplane, the director of University of Georgia’s Honey Bee Program, and colleagues, which was published in 2015.
Delaplane explained that economic value of pollination is simply the income realized by the yield increase provided by pollination. Some crops are still able to produce without honey bees, but the yield could increase with the presence of honey bees.
In other words, farmers would still make money if the crops can produce without honey bees, but if honey bees are present, farmers would make more money because they would have a bigger yield.
“The annual economic value of pollination in Georgia alone is over $360 million dollars a year. $360 million. So it’s a pretty significant contribution to our local state’s economy,” Delaplane said in an interview with The Telegraph last week.
In Middle Georgia, the economic value of pollination in Peach County alone was between $10 million and $25 million in 2009, according to Delaplane’s research, which is the latest data available. This means that if all honey bees in Georgia were to disappear, Peach County farms could suffer an economic loss of up to $25 million.
Outside of pollination, Georgia also produces a large amount of honey bees, and the state sells honey bees nationally, contributing to the beekeeping industry.
“A lot of times people (wonder) ‘Where do honey bees come from?’ Well, there’s a sector of the industry that’s dedicated to producing honey bees for sale to beekeepers, and that is very large here in Georgia,” Delaplane said.
When honey bees decline, crop yields and farm gate values also decline. Farm gate value is the price a farmer receives for a crop.
In 2017, Crawford, Peach and Monroe counties had the highest farm gate values in Middle Georgia, and Crawford and Peach counties had two of the highest farm gate values for peaches in Georgia, according to UGA’s Georgia Value Farm Gate Report.
The threats to Georgia’s honey bee colonies
Delaplane said Georgia’s honey bee colonies are declining for three major reasons.
The first is the large variety and quantity of pesticides in their habitats.
“Honey bees are constantly sampling the habitat. It’s not so much that there’s any one particular pesticide that’s causing the trouble. It’s the combination of all of them and the fact that honey bees are very vulnerable to picking up a variety of them by virtue of their foraging behavior, so they get a lot of exposure to a lot of different agrichemicals,” he said.
The second reason is because of a tiny parasitic creature called a Varroa mite, which feeds on the blood of honey bees and also spreads viruses.
The last reason for honey bee loss is habitat degradation.
“If you think about an average Georgia landscape, it’s not very friendly for bees. Think about it. If you take a drive in your car between Macon and Cordele, you’re going to see a lot of beef pasture,” Delaplane said. “You’re going to see a lot of forest land. You’re not necessarily going to see a lot of flowering plants. So habitat is very often a contributor to our problem.”
How to help honey bees and beekeepers
There are several factors Georgia beekeepers can control to prevent high colony losses.
“Beekeepers are able to feed our honey bees to keep them from starving, and we’re also able to treat them for the parasitic Varroa mites. If beekeepers take care of those two priorities, that will dramatically shrink their annual colony death rate,” Delaplane said.
Even if you’re not a beekeeper, you can still help pollinator survivor rates.
“One of the best things (you) can do is plant things that bloom during the off season. And you don’t need to worry about spring because there’s already plenty of bloom out there, but right now when you’re getting into the middle of summer and late summer, things that bloom in that period of time is especially helpful for pollinators,” Delaplane said. “Things like sunflowers, purple coneflower, a lot of your sages, vitex, things like that.”
For more information about honey bee colony loss, visit https://bip2.beeinformed.org/.