By Janan Lenzy, NFU Intern

Bees contribute to the economy and health of the environment. In addition to their notoriety for honey production, bees also provide the versatile substance known as beeswax, and they are imperative to 30 percent of the world’s crop production, pollinating many fruit, vegetable, and flower species, as well as 90 percent of wild plant species. Unfortunately, the population of this hardworking species has shrunk in recent years due to a variety stressors that likely include dwindling habitats, disease transmission, and non-target effects of pesticide use. Climate change is a probable culprit too; scientists believe increasingly irregular flowering seasons and extreme winters interfere with pollinators’ ability to survive by delaying the forage process, causing malnutrition and possible mortality.

Not only do worker bees track and store pollen in hives, but they protect the queen bee and larvae she produces as well. This includes maintaining a specific temperature within the hive, which is crucial for the health of the queen and her eggs. When cold weather strikes, it becomes difficult to uphold this duty. Eggs, the future of the hive, die from exposure to cold weather and worker bees die from exhaustion from the effort of producing heat. When too few bees are available to collect pollen and produce food in the following flowering season, the network is significantly weakened, leaving the queen and hive vulnerable. This ultimately results in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Climate change can’t be reversed or accommodated overnight, but government programs can help strengthen bees’ and bee farmers’ resilience to associated tumultuous weather. The Obama administration established the Pollinator Health Task Force, a national strategy to bolster food sources and habitats for pollinators. Several programs collaboratively support the strategy by promoting conservation and by providing financial assistance, including the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP), and Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-raised Fish Program (ELAP).

Beekeepers can protect colonies by adopting practices that mitigate more controllable stressors, such as transmission of Varroa-viruses, which are spread by the parasitic Varroa mite. Varroa mites feed on bees, prohibiting proper growth and longevity. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a list of approved pesticides that can be used to combat mite infestations. Beekeepers can also place protein supplements in hives to provide added nutrition to bees’ diet.

Pesticide use is another major controllable stressor that can impact the health of bees. To minimize risk, beekeepers should communicate with landowners to develop a plan to decrease drift and overall use of these harsh chemicals. There are also breeders that select and multiply bees that exhibit resistance or tolerance to pesticides and viruses. However, additional research is necessary, which requires additional governmental funding and support.

Do you have knowledge of other practices bee farmers utilize to protect bees from effects of climate change? How have governmental programs supported your bee operation? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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