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Honey bees hurting

Jeff Caldwell 05/24/2011 @ 1:24pm Multimedia Editor for Agriculture.com and Successful Farming magazine.

Imagine having 1/3 of your corn and soybean yields erased every year.

That's exactly what's been happening to honey bee producers in the Midwest, according to a report from University of Illinois ag economist Kathy Baylis. The region's honey bee population has been devastated by myriad pests and diseases, and the current trend has the potential to start chipping away at the yields for crops that rely on bees for pollination.

"Many U.S. beekeepers lost an average of a third of their colonies over the past five winters. For some producers, these losses are much worse. While a quarter of commercial producers, defined as those with more than 500 colonies, have losses in the acceptable range of below 15%, another quarter have losses greater than 50% -- a devastating cost," Baylis says in a university report. "These losses not only affect the beekeepers themselves. Many crops that rely on pollination, like California almonds, have been struggling to find enough colonies to pollinate their crops. For those Illinois farmers who grow crops like pumpkins, bees and other pollinators are vital."

The dangers to honey bee colonies range from insect pests to diseases, the latter of which has specialists scratching their heads as to why and how they're causing such ruin in affected colonies.

"Many people may have heard about colony collapse disorder (CCD) – the mysterious ailment where beekeepers find that a colony has completely disappeared, with no dead bees to indicate what happened," Baylis adds. "But often colonies die from more conventional pests, such as varroa mites and nosema, and bacterial diseases like American Foulbrood. While many producers use conventional treatments for these pests, beekeepers vary greatly in their pest management approaches, and we’d love to have a better idea about what works and where."

Looking ahead, Baylis says specialists nationwide are working to nail down possible remedies to the most common bee colony diseases and pests, as well as best practices for farmers raising honey bees.

"Some of the surveys planned by the Partnership include the continuation of the colony winter loss survey, an annual survey of management practices and a survey of pollinator availability. Other surveys will focus on determining colony mortality, parasite loads and socioeconomic factors," Baylis says. "The idea is to then use statistical tools common to Epidemiology and Economics to identify common management practices and develop best practices on a regional and operationally appropriate level."

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