2014-15 Rapid Ag: Responding to an S.O.S. from the Commercial Beekeeping

November 17, 2014

Project Leader

Marla Spivak

Department

Entomology

Funding Awarded

  • 2014 Fiscal Year: $70,680
  • 2015 Fiscal Year: $70,680

The Problem

In 2006-07, massive and sudden die-offs of honey bee colonies occurred, and the term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was used to described the symptoms associated with these losses. Average colony mortality has remained at an unsustainable 33% since 2006, but no single factor has been associated with causing CCD.  Honey bees are critical pollinators for almond, fruit, and vegetable crops.

Background

Honey bees, Apis mellifera, are essential contributors to the productivity of agro- and natural ecosystems. In addition to producing honey, the pollination of fruits and crops by honey bees is valued at $15 billion per year in domestic revenue. Commercial beekeepers provide the majority of the pollination services through transportation and rental of their colonies for pollination of various food crops. There are about 1,000 commercial beekeepers in the U.S., which comprise about 5% of the total number of beekeepers. However, this small commercial group manages over 90% of the approximate 2.5 million honey bee colonies in the U.S.

In 2006-07, massive and sudden die-offs of honey bee colonies occurred, and the term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was used to described the symptoms associated with these losses. Average colony mortality has remained at an unsustainable 33% since 2006, but no single factor has been associated with causing CCD. Although survey results have not yet been released, estimates from this 2012-13 winter predict that average losses will exceed 40%. Most researchers agree that colony losses are due to an interaction of factors, including the parasitic mite V. destructor, pathogens, pesticide use (including the growing use of neonicotinyl insecticides), and inadequate floral (nutritional) resources. It is not clear, however, which, if any, of these factors is the main driver of loss. Many beekeepers have been able to replace their losses by dividing surviving colonies into two or more smaller colonies, but others have been forced out of business and most face severe economic stress.

The major long-term goal of the Univ. of MN Bee Lab is to promote the health of bees, which will benefit everyone who eats fruits and vegetables and who enjoys honey and wildflowers. Researchers across the nation, including our lab, are investigating the effects of pesticides, particularly the neonicotinoids, on bees, and how we can increase floral resources for bees. This research will focus on controlling disease and mite pests in bees. Our first short-term goal is to develop treatment thresholds of V. destructor in migratory beekeeping operations, which will result in better control of this critical problem facing beekeepers and bee health. Another short-term goal is to document progress in selection for hygienic behavior, and thus disease and mite resistance, among commercial bee breeding operations. In the long-term, reducing V. destructor loads in colonies, through the use of treatment thresholds and breeding more resistant stocks, will help reduce the loss of bee colonies and the amount of in-hive medications used to control the mites and other diseases. We will test if commercial bee health is improving through selection, and if so, encourage more bee breeders to select for resistance traits in their genetically diverse stocks, leading to more natural disease resistance in honey bees across the nation.

Objectives

  1. Develop treatment thresholds for the parasitic mite, Varroa destructor, including how the thresholds vary with beekeeper management, and presence of other diseases and pests.
  2. Quantify the success of beekeepers selecting for the hygienic behavior trait, a natural defense bees have against multiple brood diseases and parasites. 

Beehive.

In her research on Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), Marla Spivak is exploring potential causes including pesticides, diseases and other pests that can invent the hive.