bees

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

A Michigan environmental group says gardeners should be careful when buying plants – they may be inadvertently harming bees.

The Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center was part of a study looking at the pesticide content in plants bought from major home and garden stores in 18 cities across North America.

Of four plants purchased at a metro Detroit Home Depot, two tested positive for neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides known to be toxic to bees.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

That’s right, bees rule. At least that what my second grader thinks after she studied them at school.

“You wrote bees rule. Why do bees rule?” I asked.

“I think it’s neat for how they can make it into honey and that they can speak to each other by doing a dance," she answered.

She, of course, isn’t the only one who think bees rule. A lot of us think they rule. Especially when you consider that around one out of every three bites of food we eat is the result of a bee.

But as you’ve likely heard, bees are in trouble. Beekeepers have been experiencing losses at alarming rates — and scientists across the country are scrambling to try to stop these losses. Whether from Colony Collapse Disorder, or other bee stressors, the problems bees face are more complicated than it once seemed.

Sara Hoover

Beekeepers have to keep their honeybees healthy against a lot of challenges: deadly mites, pesticides and harsh winters.

Once they make it to the spring though, it doesn’t mean they’re in the clear. Bears are emerging from hibernation at their hungriest.

And beeyards are like a dinner bell.

Michigan lawmakers are considering a bill (H.B. 5226) that could allow beekeepers and hunters to work together to protect honeybees from bears. 

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

The federal government shutdown is threatening a project at Michigan State University that could be critical to the future of agriculture in the U.S.

It’s one of many university research projects affected by the shutdown.

Photo by Julie Grant

A recent survey released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that the state of Michigan has slipped from seventh to ninth place in national honey production. 

But what is even more worrisome are the declines in honeybee populations. Bees are vital for agriculture throughout the country. When there are fewer bees to pollinate crops, there are fewer crops. 

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

HOPKINS, Mich. (AP) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture says Michigan has dropped from 7th to 9th in honey production.

According to the agency, 2012 honey production in the state fell 8.5 percent from the year before. Yields from Michigan's 76,000 colonies producing honey averaged 57 pounds in 2012, compared with 64 pounds the previous year.

State apiary inspector Mike Hansen says beekeepers are participating in a survey this month to get a clearer picture of what's going on with Michigan's bee population.

Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio

A Michigan company has been charged in a scheme federal officials have dubbed ‘Honeygate.’

Michigan-based Groeb Farms is one of the nation’s largest honey suppliers.   The company buys honey in 42 states and around the world.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say Groeb Farms and another honey supplier were involved in a scheme to dump Chinese honey in the United States. 

Federal officials say the Chinese honey was declared as other commodities and shipped through third countries. The defendants in the investigation dubbed "Project Honeygate" are accused of evading anti-dumping duties totaling more than $180 million.

Groeb Farms has agreed to pay a $2 million fine. 

“We take full responsibility for and deeply regret any errors that were made in the past regarding the import of honey,” said Groeb Farms CEO Rolf Richter in a written statement. 

Some of the honey contained antibiotics not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in honey.   None of the charges allege any instances of illness or other public health consequences attributed to consumption of the honey.

The investigation is continuing.

Logan Chadde / Michigan Radio

Honeybees are responsible for pollinating about one of every three bites of food we eat.

Rufus Isaacs is an entomology professor at Michigan State University. He studies pollination of berry crops.

"Honeybees are, if we’re talking about commercial agriculture, they’re the most important pollinator. We have tens of thousands of those bees that come into Michigan every spring, and they do the lion’s share of the work to get our cherry crop, our blueberry crop, our apple crop, our pickling cucumber crop pollinated."

But since 2006, beekeepers have been reporting major honeybee losses. That’s because of something called Colony Collapse Disorder.

Honeybees are not native to Michigan, but there are 400 native bee species in the state. Isaacs says these native bees also pollinate crops and wild flowers.  But he says the overall health of native bee populations is unclear.

"To be honest, we don't really know anything about long-term trends in their populations because there hasn't been any careful monitoring of them over the years," he said.

A few days ago, Isaacs and others in MSU’s entomology department put on an event called Bee Palooza.

The bee experts say human development is threatening the habitats that native bees use. So they wanted to show people how to build homes for native bees in their backyards.

Emily May is a graduate student at MSU. She’s standing next to a structure that’s shaped like a house. It’s made out of logs, bamboo and pieces of wood with a lot of holes in them. May calls it a bee hotel.

Photo by Julie Grant

By Julie Grant for The Environment Report

Michigan beekeepers are continuing to lose huge numbers of bees. They join beekeepers from around the country – and the world – who have been dealing with what’s called Colony Collapse Disorder. It’s been around for five years now. Julie Grant visited with some beekeepers, and reports that scientists and the government don’t agree on what should be done to help them.  Here's her story:

Ted Elk is checking out some of his hives. They’re on the backside of a corn field, tucked away in the brush. The colorful boxes are stacked on top of each other.

Some hives are buzzing with activity. He pulls out a comb and scrapes the side:

“And that is all goldenrod honey. See how yellow that is?”

I want to eat it. It’s almost irresistible. But not all the hives look this good.

“Here’s one that’s not gonna make it through winter. It’s light, there’s no bees, there’s no weight to it.”

There’s honey on the comb. But almost no bees.

Elk suspects this hive has colony collapse disorder. There aren’t dead bees around. They’re just gone.

Elk has seen this before. Last winter, he lost 250 hives – and thousands of dollars. When Elk first started keeping bees, he might lose five or six percent in the winter. But nationwide, a 30 percent winter bee loss is average nowadays.

Researchers still aren’t sure exactly what’s causing Colony Collapse Disorder. But they do know there’s a lot of stress on bees. Beekeepers take their hives all over the country – to Florida to pollinate oranges, to California for almonds, to New York for apples, and elsewhere. The beekeepers take the bees honey, and often feed them cheap high fructose corn syrup, or nothing at all. Plus, they can have mites and bacteria. And there are 28 viruses that can affect bees.

(Photo by Flickr user JanetandPhil)

Researchers from Michigan State University are trying to control an invasive plant called spotted knapweed. They’ve released two foreign beetles that eat the plant on small plots of state land.

Knapweed spreads a carpet of purple flowers over old farm fields and alongside roads in mid-summer.

But as The Environment Report's Bob Allen discovered, beekeepers rely on those flowers for making honey.

Spotted knapweed tends to dominate any landscape where it takes hold. Its roots send out a chemical substance that kills nearby plants.

But researchers in several states think they’ve found a way to keep it in check. They’ve released two species of tiny European weevils.

One attacks knapweed’s roots, the other eats its seeds.

Doug Landis is a bug specialist at Michigan State University. He says in some test plots the bugs have knocked knapweed back as much as 80%.

“These insects don’t eliminate knapweed. But they can reduce its density to the point where it becomes a more manageable part of the plant community.”

Knapweed is found in every county in Michigan but especially in sandy soils. And land managers want to get rid of it because it crowds out native wildflowers and grasses that supply food and shelter to a wide variety of insects, birds and other wildlife.

But beekeepers say the plant has a lot of value for them. They even have a more poetic name for it... star thistle. And they say it produces a light, mild, pleasant tasting honey that puts northern Michigan on the map.

“It’s one of the best honeys in the country.”

Kirk Jones runs Sleeping Bear Apiary in Benzie County.

He says his star thistle honey is in demand in stores and restaurants across the country.
And it’s the only source of surplus nectar available for his bees late in the season.