Agriculture Depends On Honeybees

Honeybees are not only important to Apple Blossom Honey Farms, they also play a crucial role in pollinating our global and local food supply, says Purdue University bee specialist Greg Hunt.

Published on: Jan 27, 2012

By Lisa Schluttenhofer

With plans to expand to over 3,000 hives this spring, Doug and Carrie Hoffman have become part of only a handful of commercial beekeepers in Indiana.

Their growth has been rapid. In fact they only set up their first hive in 2008. One grew into more than a 20 the first year, and hundreds in the next few years. One of their first attractions to beekeeping came when they realized the importance of honeybees in pollination, Doug says.

"It sounds strange, but we had noticed that our apple trees had no apples," Carrie adds. "The nearby beekeeper's hive had died out, and there were no other bees in the area. At that point the question wasn't whether we would be beekeepers, but how many hives we would go to."

Apple Blossom Honey Farms, Star City, operate a multi-faceted beekeeping business and sell honey, beekeeping supplies and bees, while renting out hives for pollination across the Midwest.

Their quick buildup has not been without challenges, however. From honeybee health concerns to just needing more bees to fulfill pollination contracts, they've had to think quickly to come up with solutions.

"As we rented out hives for pollination, there were more and more customers, and still not enough bees," Doug relates. The Hoffmans transport honeybees to locations from blueberry country in northern Indiana and Illinois to cucumber-growing regions in Kentucky.

Pollination and agriculture

Honeybees are not only important to Apple Blossom Honey Farms, they also play a crucial role in pollinating our global and local food supply, says Purdue University bee specialist Greg Hunt. According to the 2007 U.S. Census, the U.S. had nearly 14 million acres of specialty crops.

Honeybees are responsible for pollination of apple trees, melons, gourds, pumpkins, peppers and many other crops. Everyone benefits from honeybees, Hunt says. In addition to raising yields in specialty crops, having a beekeeper in the neighborhood might even help raise soybean yields. Livestock owners benefit too. "We don't produce alfalfa seed in Indiana," but wherever you your alfalfa seed from, that has been pollinated by bees," Hunt says.

Out of the 4,000 species of bees in North America, honeybees are the only ones that have large, perennial colonies that can be moved via truck around the country to pollinate large-scale ag crops, he says.

According to the National Honey Board, about one –third of the human diet depends upon insect pollination, and honeybees perform 80% of all insect pollination.

Declining honeybee population

Since cornfields surround many of their bee yards, the Hoffmans often speak to groups to educate the public, especially farmers, about the importance of protecting honeybee populations. Even being careful about spraying chemicals when there is a strong wind can reduce drift into bee yards, Doug says.

"We try to tell them that they can work with us if they know there's a bee yard nearby," he says. "if they can waiting until early morning or late evening to spray, when the bees aren't flying, helps a lot."

Hunt understands that in addition to timing spray applications to minimize the effect on bees, farmers can also take care during planting.

Every corn seed is coated with a neonicitinoid pesticide, and after planting, farmers should scrape out the talc powder instead of blowing it out into the air," Hunt says. "If your neighbors have bees, they might not be too vocal about it, and it's easy to miss the white boxes," Hunt adds. "But farmers can work to minimize drift and also be aware of the toxicity to bees of different pesticides."

One year ago over 30% of the U.S. honeybee population died during the winter, a USDA report says. One of the most challenging parts of any beekeeping operation is keeping the honey bees healthy, Hunt says.

Hunt's research on the small, reddish-brown varroa mite studies major problems of honeybee colonies. This mite is the biggest factor in colony losses, according to the latest surveys in North America and Europe. Viruses are also associated with the mites, and there are other diseases that affect bees.

"Parasitic mite syndrome leads to all kinds of diseases," Hunt says, mentioning deformed winged syndrome and chalkbrood as two examples. Hunt's lab is focusing on breeding bees for mite-grooming behavior, which controls mite populations. Beekeeepers try to breed for honey production, hygienic behavior and winter survival.

The Hoffmans use breeding stock from the Purdue Bee Lab and hope to have higher over-wintering rates this year. Either way they aren't planning on giving up their new business. Like so many beekeepers big and small, they're [passionate about these tiny, stinging insects.

"There are more than enough specialty crop farms that need pollination services in the Midwest, and we're going to keep growing to fill that need," Doug says.

(Schluttenhofer is a senior in Purdue Ag Communicaitons.)