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As bees die off, S.D. beekeepers face industry’s “darkest days”

South Dakota beekeepers — among the largest players in the U.S. pollination and honey industries — are reeling from a nationwide spike in honeybee colony losses that has the potential to affect 90 different agricultural crops across the country and could raise the price of fruit, vegetables and nuts if the problem worsens.

In 2018, the state’s beekeepers brought in more than $23 million from the sale of honey from roughly 255,000 hives. South Dakota ranked fourth in the nation in terms of honey production that year. But declining numbers of bees, both domestic and wild, threatens yields on crops ranging from almonds and apples on the West Coast to cotton and cranberries in the East.

For more than a decade, beekeepers in South Dakota and around the country have been fighting against historically high colony loss rates of nearly 30 percent each year. Still, last year’s 40 percent colony loss rate was a blow to beekeepers. Despite years of intensive research and countless hours of work to reverse the tide, bees continue to struggle.

Tim Hollmann, a beekeeper from Dante, S.D. a few miles south of Wagner near the Yankton Sioux Reservation, said much of the problem comes down to what bees eat. Farmers have plowed up more pastures to plant row crops such as corn and soybeans, and they’ve gotten better at killing flowering plants like milkweed and sweet clover in and around their fields, leaving less pollen and nectar for bees to consume. The pesticides and fungicides commonly used in modern agriculture also have been shown to make bees more susceptible to disease, if not killing them outright.

Wild bee populations have also suffered. In 2017, the rusty patched bumble bee became the first native bee species in the lower 48 states to be placed on the federal endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Non-governmental conservation groups have said 346 other species of native bees also are threatened.

In all, bees pollinate about 90 crops in the U.S. and account for up $19 billion in added value to the country’s agriculture industry annually, according to the USDA. Without pollination from bees, many of whom are trucked around the country from their summer home in South Dakota to provide pollination services, experts worry the price of common food items such as strawberries and apples could rise.

Beekeepers often make agreements with local landowners to place hives in hayfields or pastures. These hives were placed in a hayfield that saw a massive bloom of sweet clover, a prime bee food source that results in the mild, light-colored honey that South Dakota is renowned for producing. Photo: Nick Lowrey, South Dakota News Watch

Commercial beekeepers say official data undercount the loss of commercial bee colonies. Bret Adee, co-owner of Adee Honey Farms in Bruce, S.D., one of the largest commercial beekeeping operations in the world, said some commercial keepers lost 70 percent or more of their bees last winter.

Adee said his company lost so many bees that the business was forced to shutter its beekeeping operation in Nebraska and lay off employees. Prior to last year, the business kept bees in Nebraska for 60 years, Bret Adee said.

“We didn’t have enough bees in our boxes,” he said.

Honey produced from South Dakota’s sweet clover, alfalfa and wildflowers is highly prized for its mild flavor and light color. Unfortunately, per-hive production has fallen about 50 percent over the past 15 to 20 years, said Bret Adee’s brother and business partner, Kelvin Adee. Total U.S. honey production has dropped by about half, falling from 250 million pounds to about 150 million pounds annually, he said.

As annual honeybee colony loss rates continue to rise and honey production falls, the federal government has been pulling back ts honey bee monitoring efforts. In July 2019, the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service announced it would indefinitely suspend its quarterly honeybee colony survival survey and in December 2018, the service suspended its annual cost of pollination survey. Both surveys were cut, according to USDA news releases, due to budget reductions.

News of the colony loss survey being cut was a blow to the industry, Bret Adee said. Many beekeepers worry that the information might be lost for good and with it more targeted research funding. Better research will be needed to help reverse the tide of honeybee colony deaths, Bret Adee said.

“We’re kind of in the darkest days of the industry right now,” he said.

This sign welcomes visitors to the offices of Adee Honey Farms, a beekeeping business started in 1959 in Bruce, S.D., which is now one of the world's largest bee providers to the agricultural industry. Photo: Bart Pfankuch, South Dakota News Watch
"If it’s anything like last year, the [beekeeping] industry will be in a death spiral.” -- Beekeeper Bret Adee of Bruce, S.D.

Tough time to be a bee

During the winter of 2018-19, the number of honeybee colonies lost in the U.S. came in at just shy of 38 percent, according to data gathered by the non-profit honey bee research group Bee Informed Partnership and the USDA. When stretched to the 12 months between April 2018 and April 2019, colony losses came in at more than 40 percent.

High colony loss rates aren’t new to the industry. Since 2006, the U.S. has averaged a nearly 30 percent colony loss rate among its domestic bees, according to the Bee Informed Partnership. The 30 percent loss rate is roughly double the 15 percent colony loss rate noted prior to 2006. The losses have beekeepers worried about the future of their industry.

“Any business that has a 30 percent annual loss rate, that’s getting to be unsustainable,” said John Stolle, a beekeeper near Sturgis and president of the South Dakota Honey Producers Association.

Stolle’s bees spend their summers making honey in the grasslands and hay fields north of the Black Hills. The bees find plenty of pollen and nectar there and can lay in plenty of honey for the winter. That allows them to recover their strength, even after Stolle takes his cut of honey to sell to such end users as Prairie Berry Winery in Hill City. Like many beekeepers, Stolle loads his hives onto flatbed trailers in the fall, covers them in a net and trucks them to wintering grounds in California. They make some honey there too, but mostly the move is to avoid cold weather and to be in place for almond pollination in February, Stolle said.

Adee Honey Farms tries to keep between 75,000 and 85,000 hives going at any given time, said Kelvin Adee, who also serves as president of the American Honey Producers Association said. The company’s bees are spread throughout the Great Plains in the summer, often being moved in search of better foraging grounds.

Bret Adee spends his year traveling back and forth between Bruce, S.D., where his father founded Adee Honey Farms in 1959, and Bakersfield, Calif., where the Adees’ bees help pollinate the state’s roughly $7.1 billion annual almond crop.

The Adees pegged recent colony losses at closer to 60 or 70 percent. “They died faster than we can breed them,” Brett Adee said.

With annual losses of more than 50 percent, Bret Adee said, beekeepers won’t be able to keep up. Fall and winter of 2019 will be especially telling, he said.

“If it’s anything like last year, the industry will be in a death spiral,” Bret Adee said.

Strawberry plants such as these are one of several crops and backyard garden staples that domestic honey bees are often used to pollinate. Strawberries don’t need bees for pollination but if bees do play a role, the plants produce more and bigger berries that are less prone to deformation. Photo: Nick Lowrey, South Dakota News Watch

Jay Fatland, a life-long beekeeper from Kimball who provided honey as a flavoring for “The Original Kimball Popcorn Ball,” has wound down his beekeeping efforts over the last few years. Losing so many bees each year just got to be too hard to handle, he said.

“It’s just a struggle to keep the bees alive anymore,” Fatland said.

He’s down to about 200 hives now and is mostly retired from the business that was his sole source of income for more than 30 years.

Despite the challenges over the past 15 years, enterprising beekeepers have been able to keep hive numbers relatively stable, if not growing slightly, according to USDA data. Keepers split colonies and breed new queens to keep their numbers up, a very expensive proposition. Queens can cost $30 to $40 each but average about $18.

For commercial producers, most of whom run thousands of hives, replacing 30 percent of their breeding stock every year isn’t economical if they can’t breed the queens themselves. Plus, for every split colony, there’s a drop in honey production and potentially more labor costs.

The increasing value of pollinator-dependent crops, such as almonds, has helped finance domestic bee breeding and kept many beekeepers in business. Farmers have been paying more than $350 million annually for pollination services, USDA data show. About 85 percent of the pollinator income came from the almond industry. Hives can command pollinator fees of up to $200 each per season in almond groves. About half to two-thirds of America’s roughly 2.8 million bee colonies are trucked to California for the February almond bloom each winter.

Wild bees, however, are showing marked declines. Until the late 1990s, the rusty patched bumble bee was a fairly common visitor to backyard tomato gardens and wildflowers in South Dakota and 22 other states. Now, the bee has probably been eliminated from South Dakota and can only be found in 13 states plus one Canadian province, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

There isn’t much historical population data on the more than 4,000 native bee species in North America. One of the few comprehensive reports on the continent’s native bee population was published in 2017 by the Center for Biological Diversity. The report found that there was sufficient data to assess the population of about 1,400 bee species. Roughly half those species were declining and 347 of them were determined to be threatened, the report said.

Declining native bee populations also pose a big problem to anyone who buys food. While domestic honey bees are pretty good at pollinating some crops such as almonds and canola, they aren’t so great with such things as squash. Squashes tend to bloom early in the morning when domestic honey bees aren’t very active, said Amanda Bachmann, an urban entomologist with the South Dakota State University Extension Service. Instead, native squash bees handle most of the squash pollination duties.

“If you’re growing zucchini here, you can go out in the morning and if you see a bee flitting about, it’s probably a squash bee,” Bachmann said.

Wild bees and a host of other native pollinators, such as monarch butterflies, also are responsible for pollinating everything from wildflowers and some grasses to flowering trees in far greater numbers than domestic bees. All of that pollination work helps provide food for everything from pheasants to cattle and even people.

“These are the things doing the heavy lifting in terms of pollination,” Bachmann said of wild pollinators.

Amanda Bachmann, an urban entomologist for the South Dakota State University Extension service, shows off a collection of pollinators found in the state. Included are more than a dozen types of bees, wasps and several butterflies. Photo: Nick Lowrey, South Dakota News Watch

Several factors raise bee mortality

No one has been able to pinpoint a single cause for the widespread devastation of honeybees or native bees. Instead, a combination of factors is at play in the beehives themselves and in the fields where the bees look for pollen and nectar.

“The whole environment has changed,” Kelvin Adee said.

One of the biggest problems facing bees in South Dakota is a drastic change in how the state’s farmers operate. Flowering plants such as milkweed have been virtually eliminated from the fields growing the state’s top two crops — corn and soybeans. Corn and soybeans, which have seen their acreage greatly expanded in South Dakota over the past two decades, are two of the worst crops for bees.

Hollmann, the beekeeper from Dante, said the problem with corn and soybeans is two-fold. First, the fields tend to be devoid of any plant life other than corn or soybeans, thanks to the use of glyphosate herbicides such as Roundup. Bees need flowers from which to draw the pollen and nectar they eat and use to make honey. A 2018 study by a group of researchers at the University of Texas also showed that glyphosates may be harming gut bacteria in bees and making the insects more susceptible to disease.

The second problem with corn and soybean fields is pesticides. Bees are bugs, and so are the pests killed by the most popular pesticides, which are called neonicotinoids for their chemical makeup that is similar to nicotine. When bees get hit with stray spray from a farm field, they die. Neonicotinoids are used all over the world and on just about every food crop because compared to other chemical pesticides, they’re considered relatively safe for humans.

Pesticides also help boost crop yields and keep food prices down, said Bachmann, who also works as a pesticide educator. Taking an effective tool for controlling pests away from farmers could cause as much harm as good, she said.

Often, farmers who know a beekeeper has bees in the area will warn the keeper about their intention to spray and provide time for the bees to be moved or contained within their hives. But bees can also be exposed to pesticides indirectly. A lot of seeds are sold coated with neonicotinoids, which are then absorbed into the growing plant. A bee can pick up a non-lethal dose by landing on such plants and then can carry the chemicals back to the colony and expose other bees which are weakened.

The increased number of corn and soybean acres also limits locations bees can find food in South Dakota. Since 2008, 42 percent of the land South Dakota farmers had enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve Program have been taken out of the program and often converted to row crop production. The CRP pays farmers to plant grass and other wildlife habitat and leave it relatively undisturbed for 10 years. Wildlife such as pheasants and deer benefit, but so do bees which find plenty of honeymaking materials and a wide variety of nutritious pollen in CRP grasslands.

Hollmann, who keeps some of his bees in Iowa, said the reduction of CRP lands, as well as the loss of weeds along fence rows and in ditches near farm fields in that state, has been devastating. Some of his Iowa locations have had bees producing honey on them for nearly 100 years, but those sites may not produce at all this year due to habitat loss and poor weather, Hollmann said.

Hollmann is a member of the Sioux City-based Sioux Honey Cooperative. He said southeastern South Dakota and northwest Iowa used to be “God’s country” for honey production. There was relatively stable weather and plenty of forage available between alfalfa, hay, ditches and fence rows, he said. Now, beekeepers are having to move west to central South Dakota and beyond where the habitat is better and safer but good honey production only comes when the weather cooperates.

“We call it feast or famine territory,” Holmann said.

Fungicides are another man-made threat to bees. The insects evolved to work with certain fungi in their pollen stores, Bret Adee said. The fungi help break down pollen so it’s easier to digest and gives the bees better nutrition. Fungicides sprayed on crops to increase yields are then picked up by foraging bees and carried back to hives, where they can kill the helpful fungi.

Despite all the problems caused by chemicals and habitat loss, the USDA has identified a parasite as the biggest threat facing bees. Varroa destructor, better known as the varroa mite, has been ravaging North American bee hives for decades. The mite first was found in the U.S. in 1987. South Dakota, as a top honey producing state, was infested with the mites soon after.

Varroa destructor is native to Asia and acts similar to a tick. The mite attaches to a bee and sucks out the bee’s bodily fluids, weakening the host and making it more susceptible to disease and starvation when food runs low. Varroa mites also happen to be insects.

“That’s been really difficult, you’re trying to kill a bug that lives on a bug,” Stolle said.

There isn’t a very effective treatment for mite infestations which by themselves are not necessarily fatal to bees, he said. Some beekeepers coat their bees with powdered sugar to try to loosen the varroa mite’s hold, but that only goes so far, Stolle said.

Varroa mites also carry diseases such as deformed wing virus that can kill bees and infect whole colonies. Diseases have long been a killer of domestic bees and are easily spread because honey bees are social creatures. Often, honey bees interact with both wild bees and domestic bees from other colonies while out foraging up to three miles from their hive.

Several exotic honey bee parasites and diseases have made their way into the United States since the 1980s. Small hive beetles from Africa, wax moths, European foulbrood and Israeli acute paralysis virus are just a few examples of foriegn diseases that have been inadvertently imported over the last 30 years.

Varroa destructor, a mite, is one of the deadliest honey bee parasites. The Varroa mite, shown microscopically attached to a dead bee, acts like a tick by latching onto bees and bee larvae, then sucking out the bee equivalent of blood, weakening the bee and potentially spreading disease. Photo: Courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture

Despite setbacks, all is not lost for beekeepers

Even with all the doom and gloom surrounding the beekeeping industry, domestic honey bees are in no immediate danger of extinction. The people who harvest bees for pollination and sell honey are the ones in trouble.

“We’re not at a tipping point yet, but we’re getting there,” Stolle said.

Luckily, most farmers and ranchers seem to be concerned about bees and the landscape they live on, Bret Adee said. There is a strong movement in South Dakota to diversify crops and focus on soil health as a way to boost farm incomes. What’s good for soil is generally good for bees too, he said.

“Every time I meet someone who is doing that, I get excited,” he said.

There’s some good news for native bees too, Bachmann said. More people are becoming aware of the issues facing pollinators and are interested in helping out where they can. One of the big things people can do is use pesticides only as designed, Bachmann said. Every pesticide, whether it is intended for agricultural use or for the backyard, comes with a label that tells the user how to use it legally and safely while minimizing harm to beneficial bugs such as bees and butterflies.

“A lot of home pesticides tell you not to apply them to flowering plants,” Bachmann said.

For Stolle, there’s real hope in the interest more people seem to be taking in bees. He said he sometimes is approached by curious people at gas stations while transporting his bees. Not too long ago, most everybody gave him dirty looks and kept their distance, Stolle said. Yet one person told him the story of a relative who had been injured in the blitz of London during World War II and would have lost a leg if not for doctors using honey to help treat an infected wound.

“I think more people are starting to think, ‘Where does my food come from?’” Stolle said.


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About Nick Lowrey

Nick Lowrey, based in Pierre, S.D., is an investigative staff reporter for South Dakota News Watch. A South Dakotan for more than 20 years, he is a former editor of the Pierre Capital Journal.