Bayer CropScience has launched a major new initiative to increase forage for honey bees and other pollinators. The campaign is called “Feed a Bee” and includes a consumer campaign to plant 50 million wildflowers this year.
Production agriculture will play a major role in the effort and farmers are encouraged to get involved by including forage habitats in their operations, according to Becky Langer, Bayer CropScience bee health project manager.
Through Feed a Bee, Bayer will distribute at least 280,000 free wildflower seed packets to anyone who wants to plant them. “People can join this initiative by visiting www.FeedABee.com and requesting a free packet of wildflower seeds to plant on their own or by asking the Feed a Bee initiative to plant on their behalf,” Langer said.
Bayer is working with at least 50 government, non-profit and business collaborators to plant thousands of acres of flower-producing crops grown between regular crop production periods for bees. The campaign is being run through the Bayer Bee Care Center which opened in April of last year on Bayer’s Research Triangle Park, N.C. campus.
“Forage habitat is one of the top factors for bee health,” Langer said. “The goal of Feed a Bee is to improve forage whether you’re a person who can plant wildflowers in one pot or you’re an individual who can provide habitat on acres of land.”
Large scale production agriculture is expected to play a major role in the effort, Langer said.
“Farmers can find ways to better utilize land for bee health,” Langer explained. “For example, they can plant wildflowers, canola or mustard seed, whatever grows best in their area, in between orchard rows or on fence lines, to provide forage for bees.”
In addition, buffer areas, that won’t work for traditional farming operations, can be turned over for bee habitat, Langer said. “Clover and wildflowers will grow in most areas of the country and the bees love them,” she said.
The number one job for farmers, Langer stressed, is to follow best management practices. This includes keeping the lines of communication open with beekeepers in their area.
“We have to have growers and beekeepers communicating,” Langer noted. “Let the beekeepers know when you are going to plant or apply any products so they can take some preventive action. Sometimes they just cover the hives for a day and the bees are protected and not out foraging when there is a potential risk. Sometimes they can move the hives if they think there is enough risk for the day.”
Still, Langer said it is important to remember that the bee population is holding steady and has even shown gains in recent years. USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service released its honey report for 2014 on March 20 which shows honey bee colonies are up 4 percent from 2013 to 2.74 million colonies.
“The good news is that we are not actually seeing a decline in total bee numbers. We are not losing bees; bees are not going extinct,” she stressed. “It is important to know that we do have enough bees to make sure we are getting pollination.”
Langer explained that the bee population reached its peak of 5 million during World War II when many people kept hives in their backyards because the country needed honey as a sugar replacement during the war. “After the war, times changed, and people became less interested in keeping bees and the population dropped significantly.”
The population has held steady in the 2.5 million range ever since, Langer said.
The notion that the United States is losing bees is due to the fact that many hives are lost during the winter months which requires beekeepers to work hard to replenish and regain their bee numbers, Langer points out.
“The losses are an overwintering result,” she explained. “In the spring, beekeepers will go into their hives and assess how many bees did they lose. They voluntarily report what their loss rate is.”
Langer said it is important to remember that while some hives are lost, bee keepers will split healthy hives which helps the numbers remain steady. “The numbers are not the problem, forage and habitat are, which is why the Feed a Bee effort is so critical,” Langer said.
“Honey bees are becoming stressed and are working harder than ever,” she said. “They will go to California for the almond pollination in February. This requires more than half of the total bee population at 1.8 million. After the almond pollination, they may travel to the Northeast for blueberry season. They typically go to North Dakota, which is their summer resort, at the end of the season.”
The number one predator for honey bees is the varroa mite, which was introduced in North America from Asia in the mid-1980s. The mite feeds by sucking the blood of honey bees and it reproduces on the developing bee brood. The varroa mite also transmits viruses which may be deadly to honey bees, Langer explained.
“Beekeepers are now much more aware of the mite and they manage for it. They treat with miticides to control the mite. The Bee Care Center is also doing research on the varroa mite, looking for better ways to control the pest,” Langer said.
In the meantime, Langer makes it clear that research shows that neonicotinoid pesticides are not responsible for honey bee health decline when they are used according to label directions. When neonicotinoids are used as a seed treatment, there is limited possibility of exposure, she said. The compound goes into the plant where it’s needed and remains in the leaves and the stalks,” she said.
“Less than 1 percent of the field is being treated; as opposed to 100 percent when pesticides are sprayed,” she explained.
Langer is optimistic about the future for honey bees. The Bayer Bee Care Center is committed to bee health research and interest in the Feed a Bee program continues to grow. To learn more or to request seed packets, people can access the Feed a Bee website, www.FeedABee.com.
“Farmers that want to get involved can send me an e mail at [email protected],” Langer said.