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Help bring back the bees

John Walter 08/19/2013 @ 10:40am

Last spring, the buzz of honeybees grew ever quieter around the plants and trees that feed the world.  Half the hives serving food crops, such as orchard crops, vegetables, fruits and forages, were lost over winter, experts say.

About one third of U.S. foods are made possible by pollinators, which include honeybees, native bees, butterflies, birds, and other creatures. Pollinators contribute to the annual production of some 95 U.S. crops worth $20 to $30 billion.

Research shows, too, that various bees active in soybeans may boost yields by 10% to 30%, says Matt O’Neal, an Iowa State University entomologist. In addition to honey bees, about 20 species of bees have been found that visit both corn and soybean crops, he says.

Honeybee numbers have fallen to a critical-low stage in some areas of the country and at certain times of the year. Recent examples were occurrences of crop-pollination problems with blueberries in Maine and almonds in California.

The root cause of the collapse remains a mystery, experts say. Corn farming, however, is one of the areas of concern.

“Crop monocultures are tough on honeybees,” says Zac Browning, a North Dakota beekeeper and participant in a recent national summit meeting on honeybee health. “Modern farming practices are leaving very little land for pollinators.”

One area of new research is focused on ways to reduce honey-

bee exposure to dust emitted during planting of treated seed corn. Some 94% of corn in the U.S. is treated with insecticides.

Although new attention is turned to corn production, a recent major study involving USDA and the EPA indicates that no single source or smoking gun can be blamed for the honeybee health issue.

Experts cite multiple factors for the recent decline in honeybee colony numbers, including parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition, and pesticide exposure.

Researchers are looking for ways to balance agricultural practices, pesticide use, and healthy pollinator populations.

There is still a lot to learn, O’Neal says.

It is known, though, that “a mix of native, perennial plants that provide flowers throughout the season can increase the abundance and diversity of these beneficial insects,” he says.

What you can do

O’Neal offers a few ideas for how you can contribute to the cause.

  • Use CRP and other non-cropland acres to establish habitat with native flowering forbs. Conservation programs can provide cost-sharing and other assistance in establishing pollinator habitat.

  • Be aware of the impact on pollinators when using pesticides. Follow label instructions, including those related to activities to reduce the exposure of honeybees and other bees to insecticides. Don’t apply product when the crop is blooming.

  • Use Integrated Pest Management in your crop production. You can reduce negative impacts on pollinators and, at the same time, reduce the risk of insect pests developing resistance to any one tactic.

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