Bee colony collapse disorder affecting Michigan

A bee pollinates a peach flower. Photo courtesy of wikipedia.org.

A bee pollinates a peach flower. Photo courtesy of wikipedia.org.

By Kary Askew Garcia, MNA Intern

With summer in Michigan comes the hot sun along with plenty of critters coming out of their habitats. Among animals and insects that emerge, the honey bee is one of them, essential to maintain life of plants in ecosystems and the creator of sweet, gooey, golden honey.

The importance of bees

Bees are one of the main pollinators for several plants including flowers, fruits and vegetables. Bees have a hand in much of the produce Americans eat. Pollination is the process of moving pollen from one part of flowers to another, causing fertilization. This contributes to growth and production of flowers, fruits and vegetables. This process is important to maintaining ecosystems and natural plant communities.  Without insects like bees to pollinate flowers and other crops, the entire ecosystem is affected, causing a decline in natural flora in Michigan, an issue that has already arisen due to many other factors. Click here for more facts about bees.

A large honeycomb. Photo by Julie Grant courtesy of Michiganradio.org.

A large honeycomb. Photo by Julie Grant courtesy of Michiganradio.org.

Colony collapse disorder

Colony collapse disorder, or CCD, is a disorder in bee colonies connected to their decline in recent years. Scientists have not pinpointed a specific cause of this decrease but infer that climate change, pesticides, mite infestations and bee disease have all contributed to CCD, according to an article in the Washington Post. Hives have been dying each year, and it’s not uncommon to lose at least five percent of colonies in a winter, said a 2011 article from Michiganradio.org. According to the article, there was an overall 30 percent nation-wide decline at the time.

Repercussions in Michigan

With CCD on the rise, the amount of crops produced annually falls. This affects the entire U.S. but is a large problem in Michigan because of the state’s agricultural industry. Farmers have seen a decline in their crops. Michigan fell in pollen production in 2013, to ninth in the nation from seventh. Not only is CCD bad for crops and honey production, it can cost beekeepers thousands of dollars.

Restoration programs

President Obama showed his support for stopping CCD in his launch of a task force related to this specific issue on June 23, according to CNN.  $50 million will be allocated for the purpose of research to stop CCD and help restore bee colonies and the economy. According to a statement from the White House, bees contribute “more than $15 billion through their vital role in keeping fruits, nuts and vegetables in our diets.” Programs like this will help the overall nation to try and stop the decline of bees and boost the economy.

Back in February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the allocation of $3 million to Midwestern states including Michigan for the assistance of farmers who would participate in projects aimed at improving pollinator health.  “The future security of America’s food supply depends on healthy honey bees,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in an MLive article.

The Plight of the Honeybee

By Emma Ogutu

Honeybees have been vanishing at a fast rate over the last five years, threatening Michigan’s multi-billion dollar agriculture industry. Many fruits, vegetables and animal crops depend on the bees for pollination.

A scientist investigates Colony Collapse Disorder. Photo: Washington State University

Since the initial report of their disappearance in the winter of 2006, scientists like Michigan State University’s Zachary Huang have been scrambling to unravel the mystery – dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder. He offers his expertise to the Michigan Beekeepers Association.

His current research focuses on two possible culprits:  the parasitic nosema and varroa mites, whose effect on bees makes them susceptible to pesticides and reduces the lifespan and fertility of infant queen bees. In the last two decades, Varroa mites have wiped out wild honeybees and about a third of their managed kin in Michigan, according to MSU’s Agriculture Extension.

Other studies have linked the disappearance of honeybees to a parasitic fly or agricultural chemicals, but Huang is quick to point out that there’s no single factor responsible for the massive kill. “It’s a cumulative result on a number of factors,” he said.

Honeybee on Knapweed. Photo: Trish Steel, Wikimedia Commons

The clearing of natural habitats to pave way for more agricultural land or other developments coupled with the practice of planting single crops in large areas could also be major factors causing this phenomenon, according to the Huang. “When you clear natural habitats, you wipe out plants that provide food and other defenses to the bees, and when you plant a single crop in thousands of acres, you eliminate bees’ food diversity,” he said.

The loss of honey bees is quite insidious; sometimes up to 40 percent are lost in a winter season, according to MSU’s Agriculture Extension. “You never realize the immediate loss of a species because there are hundreds of thousands of species out there,” Huang said.  “That makes it even harder to predict the effect on crops.”

You can find honeybees and knapweed in several of MNA’s sanctuaries, including Newaygo Prairie Nature Sanctuary, Karner Blue Nature Sanctuary and Five Lakes Muskegon Nature Sanctuary. MNA’s policy is to remove invasive species, such as knapweed, so that they can be replaced with bee-friendly native species. Some plants such as late figwort, swamp milkweed and Culver’s root, can benefit from removal of knapweed while providing bees plenty of pollen and nectar.