Watertown beekeeper says declining bee populations real, but not a mystery

Brian Fredrickson, owner of Ames Farm in Watertown, says concerns regarding the decline of honey bee populations are very real, both in Minnesota and in many other parts of the nation. 

He was quick to add, however, that he believes the reasons for those declines are far from mysterious.

According to Fredrickson, though, that’s largely the way things were portrayed in 2007, when a huge collapse over the winter caused many beekeepers to suffer huge losses. Fredrickson, whose Watertown-based “virtual farm” features 18 hive locations throughout Minnesota, including one in Watertown, said there are still arguments over what caused that collapse. However, he says it’s generally believed to be from a disease called nosema.

Fredrickson said the story that’s been told in the media since then, however, is largely one of mystery. The collapse of 2007 was largely attributed to what has been termed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), describing a phenomenon in which worker bees abruptly disappear for seemingly unknown reasons.

“The loss that happened and the visibility of it broke into the headlines, and this question of what caused it took some time to figure out,” Fredrickson said. “It’s been way overplayed.”

Fredrickson described CCD as a largely self diagnosed disease, used by inexperienced beekeepers who were unable to find any other way to describe their losses. CCD, he said, is rooted in very little actual science. In reality, Fredrickson said, it was mites that were killing bees in 2007, and mites that have always killed bees. He said mites are at the root of about 85 percent of honey bee losses.

“For a lot of people that hadn’t figured out that mites were killing their bees, they found a new scapegoat to assign their sloppy beekeeping too,” Fredrickson said of CCD. “It’s not a mystery. Mites are at the root of all losses. … CCD really is not a relevant issue. I don’t know a single beekeeper that’s had an issue with it for the last five years, but it keeps showing up in the news all the time.”

While Fredrickson maintains that honey bee declines are anything but a mystery, he also knows the problem is very real. He said the national average for beekeepers is about a 30 to 35 percent loss  each winter.

However, Fredrickson also sees a much bigger problem on the horizon. He said more and more natural bee habitat is being destroyed all the time. He said habitat destruction has virtually eliminated bee keeping in areas of the nation where it was once commonplace, like Iowa, Illinois and Indiana, and he believes that trend is slowly making its way into Minnesota.

“If you look at the map of hives in Minnesota, there’s nobody of any size south of Mankato,” he said. “There’s been a slow degradation of forage. Places like Iowa, Illinois and Indiana were at the center of American beekeeping around World War II, but since then, the whole industry is just about gone.

“Why? It’s all corn. There’s so little natural vegetation left, nothing for the bees. We’re slowly headed that way now (in Minnesota).”

For bees, natural vegetation is ideal for foraging. That includes clover, basswood trees, and alfalfa, which have largely given way to corn and soybeans. Fredrickson said many farmers are now even mowing natural prairie grasses along highways, which also is harmful for bees.

“CRP land is big (for bees), but a lot of the funding for that has been cut,” Fredrickson said.

Fredrickson said the increased transporting of bees across the country could also be playing a role in their population declines. The greatest need for honey bees is seen in California, where almond farms need a huge percentage of the nation’s honey bee populations for pollination. Beekeepers from around the country transport a total of 1.5 million colonies to California each year in the winter before bringing them back home in the summer. Fredrickson sees numerous concerns with that practice.

“I don’t take my bees out there,” he said. “I don’t want them mingling with other bees from all over the United States. This whole almond thing has changed the whole bee industry. If I load them up in a semi, now they’re mingling with other bees from all over the country. I could come home with all sorts of new problems.

In addition to his hive in Watertown — located just east of town near Oak Lake on County Road 20 — Fredrickson maintains 17 other hives throughout the metro area. Other nearby locations include Maple Plain, Mound, Independence and Minnetrista. There also used to be a hive at Crown College, but it had to be removed as the college made changes to its campus.

Fredrickson sells his single-source honey primarily at the Minneapolis and Mill City Farmer’s Markets, at various Whole Foods locations, at Harvest Moon in Long Lake, and at Marketplace Foods in Watertown. He said that while the national average has been a 30 percent loss to colonies in recent years, he has typically been closer to 10 or 15 percent.

“We have sustainable losses,” he said. “We’ve always lost colonies in the spring, but we’ve always replaced them in the spring. The question is, is it a sustainable loss, and for some of the big guys, it’s not.”

Commercial honeybees fly freely around the surrounding area, usually over the course of several miles, but have a sort of inner “GPS” to return to the same hive, Fredrickson said. However, if Minnesota keeps losing good forage land, fewer and fewer will be able to survive as time goes on.

Fredrickson said he thinks part of the reason for his low annual losses might be that there are so many hobby farms in the area, which aren’t as heavily mowed or maintained as many other bigger farms. Fredrickson added that there are small things anybody can do to help save forage land for bees.

“I think most farmers out there are good people, and if they knew how these practices have hurt honey bees, they might react differently, but they don’t have the information” he said. “Leave something wild for bees, whether you’re a homeowner or a farmer, even if it’s just an acre. Plant some clover, and leave some alfalfa to bloom.”

Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]