At State Fair, a New Hope for Bee Conservation

September 04, 2017 01:42 PM

Above, 20-year-old Hope Pettibon of Dallas, America's Honey Princess, and 22-year-old Sarah Doroff, the Minnesota Honey Queen, discuss ways to improve bee habitat.

There might be no more unlikely place to find a consensus on how to save a declining bee population than the Minnesota State Fair. 


Agriculture, after all, has been placed largely in the crosshairs by those looking to target a scapegoat in the disappearance of honey and wild bees in Minnesota and nationwide.

And to be fair, corn and soybean fields are not the most hospitable to pollinators. Their prevalence has grown steadily since World War II at the expense of native prairieland and natural meadowland, landscapes in which bees would thrive.

Ecologist and researcher Dan Cariveau, who works at the University of Minnesota's Bee lab, writes that tallgrass prairie covered 18 million acres in the state in the early 20th century. One hundred years later, only 1 percent of that coverage remains.

But while a changing habitat is one reason for the bee population decline, experts say, it isn’t the only one, and farmers certainly aren’t to blame.

Bee researchers and enthusiasts generally agree on three primary factors that have contributed to a decades-long decline in bees: loss of habitat, pests/disease (such as the Varroa mite) and pesticides. To another degree, the transportation of honey bees across the country for seasonal pollination has also been detrimental. 

Because there is a general acceptance as to the root cause, there’s broad agreement as to how the decline could someday be reversed. And many of the people at the forefront of reversing the trend could be found Thursday in a 1-mile radius centered at the state fair’s Agriculture Horticulture Building. 

According to the Bee Informed Partnership, average colony loss estimates in the United States year-over-year since it began keeping stats in 2006 has been nearly double acceptable loss.

“It’s totally unsustainable,” said Matthew Heyn, a scientist and beekeeper. Heyn was volunteering Thursday at the state fair's Bee and Honey exhibit.

Heyn is looking to propagate the genetic characteristics in bees that pick Varroa mites off of fellow bees and dispose of them outside the colony. The mites are parasites prevalent in honey bee populations that suck blood from adults and brood, weakening the bees and shortening their lives.

Heyn, who has PhDs in thermodynamics and molecular chemistry, says beekeepers often turn to a chemical toxin to rid bee colonies of Varroa, but that the toxin is still harmful – just less harmful – to the bees. Getting rid of Varroa would eliminate both the mite and the need for the toxin, and result in healthier colonies.

Meanwhile, Thom Peterson, government relations director for the Minnesota Farmers Union, said Thursday in the Ag building that the union supported Gov. Mark Dayton’s efforts to both encourage farmers to plant pollinator crops and to crack down on the insecticide called neonicotinoid, which is toxic to bees. 

Neonicotinoid was introduced as an alternative to harmful pesticides in the early-1990s, and its supporters touted its safety for mammals and low-toxicity to most beneficial insects. Often used as a seed coating, it was thought the toxins wouldn’t reach the pollinators above. But research has shown the insecticide indirectly harms bees by making its way up through the crop and into nectar and pollen.

Depending on the level of exposure, the toxin could affect bees’ ability to forage for nectar, remember where flowers are located, find their ways back to the hive or even survive, according to the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension website.

Peterson says the union supports moving away from neonicotinoid use, but not an outright ban, as it remains unclear what a better alternative might be. He said farmers have been doing a lot more planting of pollinator crops in ditches in an effort to mitigate the impact of the neonic, as it’s shortened to.

“Farmers need pollinators to cover other crops and pollinate, so it’s a piece we’re still working on,” Peterson said.

“A very important point about pesticides is that a lot of times farmers get demonized for using these things,” said Mike Wilson, a PhD research associate and scientist at the university's Bee Lab. “That is a very bad way to look at the current challenge, because they are using the tools they have in the toolbox. You have to manage insects, and they have to use pesticides. They are doing what they need to do to produce a crop.

“It’s not out of malicious contempt to harm the environment or harm bees. They’re definitely not our enemy.”

In fact, Wilson says, farmers are partners in the effort to help reverse the bee decline. 

“A farmer’s job is to sustain yields and, ultimately, feed a nation,” said James Wolfin, a native bee researcher at the Bee Lab, which is less than a mile from the state fairgrounds on the St. Paul campus. “When we’re looking at honey bee conservation, that’s ultimately what the goal is.

“We want to improve pollination, improve yields, and ultimately feed more people.”

Both researchers say the key to bee conservation is finding and using best land management practices. They said both farmers and non-farmers can help in the effort toward reversing the habitat. 

Homeowners can easily install pollinator-friendly plants throughout their yards, for instance. Local governments can plant bee-friendly grasses and plants such as the Angelica Plant, White Clover, English Daisies, Lily of the Valley and others. Marigolds and petunias don’t cut it for bees, according to Heyn.   

Wolfin, for his part, is doing his thesis on “bee lawns,” which would provide a blueprint for individual landowners -- people with yards in Minneapolis or sprawling landscapes outstate -- to find easy ways incorporate bee-friendly plantings into their spaces in an effort rebuild lost habitat. 

Another University of Minnesota researcher is also doing his part – though for habitat restoration in general, with bee conservation as a happy byproduct. 

Don Wyse leads the Forever Green initiative, which has been developing new crops without pesticides, with some designed to supplant corn and soybean crops in the fall and spring. The aim is to provide economic opportunities for farmers “through the production of new sources of food, feed, and high-value biomaterials, without interfering with current annual production systems,” according to the website. 

Wyse says the crops, such as the intermediate wheat grass Kernza, have deep roots that can increase soil health and water retention and enhance the environment. The crop can be marketed to millers, brewers, bakeries and restaurants; in fact, it’s already being used in General Mills and Patagonia products.

That proof of economic vitality could make the Forever Green crops, such as Camelina, Hairy Vetch, Pennycress and Perennial Flax, among others, an attractive offseason venture for corn and soybean farmers, whose land would soon become more hospitable for bees. If it catches on, the endeavor could mean a more diverse landscape, one that provides habitat for a greater number of species both plant and animal.

And, hey, it could help save the bees.


Michael Oakes

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