Honeybees are the buzz at U of M, state capitol

Wearing protective headgear, Gary Reuter, a scientist with the University of Minnesota Bee Lab, inspects one of the lab’s bee hives.  Reuter has in one hand a smoker that beekeepers use to keep the bees calm. (Photo by T.W. Budig)
Wearing protective headgear, Gary Reuter, a scientist with the University of Minnesota Bee Lab, inspects one of the lab’s bee hives. Reuter has in one hand a smoker that beekeepers use to keep the bees calm. (Photo by T.W. Budig)

Recent legislation and the ambitions of University of Minnesota researchers seek remedies for a crisis among the crop rows.

While the Midwest is the nation’s honey pot, the region is suffering the same bee population losses seen across the United States.

“I refuse to let this bummer go on any longer,” Dr. Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesota Bee Lab said.

Signs of trouble seem unmistakable. Just 20 years ago, the average honey bee colony produced at least a 100 pounds of honey a year, Spivak said. Now the average bee colony produces about half the amount.

Fewer and fewer bees are surviving winter. Since 2007, the average loss of honey bee colonies has been about 30 percent — a spike of 10-15 percent from short years ago.

A slew of factors could be contributing to the losses.

“Bees are hard-wired to forage on a diverse set of flowers,” Spivak said.

In many areas of the state, though, mono-crop agriculture has farmers planting hundreds of thousands of acres in single crops.

“Bees do not really feed on corn and soybean,”  Spivak said.

Not that agriculture isn’t dependent on bees. Some 100 crops grown in the United States either need or benefit from pollinators, according to the Xerces Society, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting wildlife. The by-products of the work of bees, fruits and seeds, provide major sources of food for about a quarter of all birds and mammals.

“It’s really sad — for bees,” Spivak said of single-crop farming.

In addition to a lack of forage, bees are weakened by pesticides, making them more susceptible to parasites and viruses. Indeed, Spivak wonders whether the neurotoxins that bees are exposed to while foraging could inhibit their ability to perform their famous wagging dances, the means by which bees communicate the locations of food sources to other bees.

“At least then they wouldn’t find the pesticides,” Spivak grimly quipped of bees sent in the wrong direction.

There are other bees besides honey bees, but bumblebees, for instance, are also in decline.

Of the nine species of bumblebees in Minnesota, two are in severe decline, Spivak said.

Bumblebees can never replace honey bees in large, single-crop agriculture requiring pollination, Spivak said. A bumblebee nest may contain a few hundred bumblebees; a honey bee hive may hold up to 50,000 honey bees.

“They (bumblebees and other bees) provide the backup for honey bees, the insurance,” she said.

Lawmakers at the State Capitol are mindful of the plight of the bees. The commissioner of agriculture was required to develop a report examining the creation of a “pollinator bank,”  proposals to create and enhance pollinator nesting and foraging habitat, and to hold a special review of certain pesticides.

Rep. Rick Hansen, DFL-South St. Paul, who serves on the House Environment and Natural Resources Policy and Finance committees, views Minnesota’s efforts at protecting its bees as trailblazing, charting a course other states will follow.

Spivak wants to improve bee research at the University of Minnesota, which the university has been engaged in since 1918. The University of Minnesota is the only university in a four-state area with a bee research facility.

“And this is the highest honey-producing region in the nation,” Spivak said.

Specifically, Spivak looks to bonding to upgrade the bee research lab facility.

“We’re working out (of) a garage,” she said of one cramped lab located near the bee hives the bee lab keeps on the St. Paul campus.

Stored inside the lab are beekeepers’ traditional headgear and white jumpsuits — the latter useful because bees may mistake a dark-clothed human for a bear.

The new bee lab, costing about $3 million, could go up within a year if funded.

Bee researchers have been busily engaged. For instance, “Minnesota Hygienic Bees,” or bees that keep cleaner hives, were bred in Minnesota. University researchers are studying uses of propolis, a resin honey bees collect from trees to seal their hives. Propolis bolsters the bees’ immune system, and researchers are studying potential benefits to humans.

There are things everyone can do to help bees. A big thing is to plant “bee friendly” flowers.

“And then don’t contaminate that bee food with pesticides,” Spivak said.

Honey bees in Minnesota gain the most nutrition from clovers, alfalfa and basswood trees, according to the University of Minnesota Extension Office.

The bees, which will fly 2 miles on average while out foraging, also pollinate many native and introduced flowers.

Other means of improving bee habitat include planting flowering hedges around farm fields, setting aside park land and not mowing down flowers along the roadside.

Bee lab researchers, using smoke to calm the bees, will work on their hives wearing only head gear. But they also get stung.

When she gets stung,  Spivak said, she keeps in mind the sting lasts only 20 to 30 seconds — she doesn’t react to bee stings, she said.

“But when it’s (a sting) under your fingernail, that makes you sit down for a minute,” she said, smiling.

— By TW Budig, ECM Capitol Reporter

Contact Tim Budig at [email protected]