The Bee-utiful Bee

The dramatic decline in the population of honey bees threatens the world's food supply, because bees are needed to pollinate a majority of food crops. Researchers in Research Triangle Park are working to figure out what is causing the collapse and how to save the honey bee.

BLADEN COUNTY — There are blueberries as far as the eye can see as you walk along the sandy rows of bushes at Carter Farms, in White Lake, Bladen County. The berries hang in large clumps from the bushes; some blue, some red, some purple. Pickers will make several passes through the fields over a period of a couple weeks at the farm. Not all berries on a bush ripen at the same time.

“It’s amazing when you look at it,” says Ralph Carter, a blueberry farmer who owns the farm. “Everything has to do its part to get to where it is today, ready to pick. There are so many steps that have to take place.”
From the berries on the individual bush, to the rows of bushes in the sandy soil, to the pickers walking out from the rows carrying buckets of blueberries to a check-in station to get weighed: it all starts with the honey bee.

Honey bees must visit and pollinate every bloom on every blueberry bush before the flower will produce a berry. In fact, for a blueberry to reach normal size, honey bees need to visit each bloom about a half dozen times.

But here’s the problem. Honey bee colonies throughout the world are in decline. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports over the past eight years, almost 30% of honey bee colonies maintained by beekeepers have died each winter. And that shortage of bees puts the food supply at risk, because bees pollinate most fruits and vegetables, including blueberries, as well as cotton and coffee and many other farm products. In fact, bees are credited with pollinating one out of every three bites of food we eat.

For Ralph Carter, the decline of the wild honey bee means hiring beekeepers to bring in colonies of bees to pollinate his blueberry crop.
“To make sure we have an adequate amount of bees, we figure it takes two-to-three colonies of bees per acre so that each bloom can be visited six-to-seven times,” says Carter, as he watches the trailer fill with ripe blueberries. “We bring in a beekeeper from California, who visits other farms in the area as well.”

About 100 miles away from Carter Farms, a beekeeper is checking a colony at the Bayer North American Bee Care Center in Research Triangle Park. The colony was started a few months earlier at the high tech lab and it is doing well. There are 30,000 bees in the colony.

The bees in the colony will fly up to 10 miles away in search of food. Researchers at the center are monitoring the health of the bees in the hive as well as studying what types of microbes bees carry in and on them. Some of those microbes can help protect bees while others can wipe out a colony. The quest to better understand microbes is one of several research projects looking at the many issues threatening bee colonies. Those threats include parasites, diseases, extreme weather, a lack of food sources, and the effects of chemicals, including insecticides.

“I think everyone has to be worried about the health of the honey bee,” says Becky Langer, Program Manager for the Bayer North American Bee Care program. “Clearly there are numbers that show the health of the honey bee is declining in some areas and stable at best, and other areas where it is increasing. But because the bee is so important to agriculture, we have to make sure we are protecting the health of it. And by looking at all of these factors, we can understand what is happening and make sure we have honey bees to pollinate the crops.”

While the new bee colony sits outside the lab, alongside a screened-in viewing area where visitors can watch the beekeepers, inside the lab Jacob Dums is sorting through a pile of dead bees, placing each bee on a heavy paper that has a chart on it.

“These are sentinel bee samples we get that come to us frozen,” explains Dums, who is a graduate student at North Carolina State University, studying plant biology. “We sort them to determine what kinds of bees are dying and also if there is anything obvious we can see, such as varroa mites and deformed wing virus.”

Varroa mites may be the biggest natural threat to honey bees. The mite attaches to the bee and injects toxins into the insect while sucking out its blood. Researchers are trying to figure out how to control the mite without killing the bee.

The sentinel bee program works with farmers around the country who collect their dead bees and send them to the Bee Care Center for study. While honey bees only live for about 30 days, an entire colony can collapse in a few weeks if a virus takes hold. The sentinel colony project can alert farmers to potential problems.

But mites are just one problem facing the honey bee. While mites may be the biggest natural threat, it’s the possible effects of pesticides on bee colonies that is creating the most controversy. Each side in the debate wields scientific studies as evidence that chemicals do, or do not, harm honey bees.

“Pesticides can be a stress factor, and not just the pesticides farmers use to control crop pests, but also the pesticides that beekeepers use to control varroa mites and other pests that are often applied inside the hive,” explains David Fischer, Director of Pollinator Safety with Bayer Crop Science.

Fischer believes it will take a comprehensive approach to protect the honey bee, because there are so many stresses facing this insect that is so critical to the food supply. Researchers at the Bee Care Center are trying to understand just what that approach must be.

“What we need to do in agriculture is to get as much food as possible per acre so we don’t have to put so many acres into cropland, which means we can save more for nature,” says Fischer. “And to do that we need good agricultural crop protection tools and we need good pollination tools and honey bees are the most adaptable at providing those services.”

The good news on Ralph Carter’s blueberry farm is that it appears honey bees are making a comeback. Carter says there are more wild bees this year, but he is still worried about the honey bee and how it appears the public doesn’t understand the full importance of the honey bee and how it touches our lives.

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