A third of U.S. food production is in jeopardy because of the sharp decline in honeybee population.
The Shenefields have been in the beekeeping business for over 50 years. Dave Shenefield’s father began beekeeping as a hobby in 1959 before retiring from his job as a factory worker. Shenefield, took an interest in bees as a child, though it wouldn’t be until the late 1970s when he would help his father grow the small business from 800 hives to about 2,000 hives.
Today, Shenefield runs about 3,000 hives in Indiana with his family producing everything from honey to beeswax. Their company, Clover Blossom Honey, also sells hives that are sent around the country to pollinate various crops. However, honeybee populations have been declining in serious numbers over the last 10 years. According to National Geographic, in that time span more than half of U.S. honeybee colonies have disappeared. For Shenefield, pesticides are his biggest issue.
“That’s the thing about pesticides: they don’t discriminate. They don’t kill good bugs or bad bugs. They kill all bugs,” Shenefield said. “We’ve got to use some common sense when we’re using (pesticides.) We have to take into consideration what kind of beneficial insects are out there and how we (can) apply something to where it’s only killing the (crops) that are targeted.”
He explained the difference between traditional pesticides and the newly used systemic pesticides is the chemicals’ life span. Systemic pesticides live in the plant throughout its growing season, so the pesticide is around a lot longer. Before, the more dangerous pesticides would kill bees in large numbers, but would eventually pass on. The bees are more vulnerable now because the systemic pesticides coat the crop seeds and can become airborne.
“It only takes (about) three parts per billion (of the pesticide) to kill a bee, so you have enough pesticides on one seed of corn to kill about 60,000 bees,” he said, noting that hive populations range from 6,000 to 60,000 bees.
While most people tend to shy away from the buzzing creature, bees are vital for food production in the U.S. Honeybees pollinate a third of the American diet, including nuts, fruits, vegetables, coffee and cotton. In 2010, bees contributed to more than $19 billion worth of crops.
“Honeybees are the main domestic pollinator that we use, so if you have fewer of them you can’t get those crops pollinated and you have fewer of those crops,” said Christian Krupke, an associate professor in the department of entomology at Purdue. “Eventually, the price (for these commodities) could go up.”
Krupke researches the effects of pesticides used on corn and soybeans in Indiana. He explained that while pesticides play a crucial role in declining bee populations in the Midwest, the same doesn’t hold true everywhere else.
According to Krupke, there are several factors to consider when identifying dangerous factors for bees. Pathogens and parasites, such as Varroa mites, loss of habitat and lack of diversity in crops are some of the bigger threats to honeybee populations.
“Everybody wants to know which is the biggest factor, and most of the people who have worked on this would agree there is no one factor,” Krupke said. “All of these things co-occur together. Where you live, one factor may be higher prevalence than for somebody who lives in another place. Here in the Midwest, we plant a lot of field crops and we use a lot of insecticides, so that’s where that connection comes from.”
Many may be wondering why don’t we use another method of pollination, if the honeybees population continues to dwindle. Krupke explained there are few places with small acreages who pollinate crops by hand, but is concerned by the practicality of this method.
”There’s really no alternative; there’s no other way to get these crops pollinated without (honeybees.) We have the tools to reverse this trend, I think it’s just a matter of doing it,” Krupke said. “It’s insect or bust, basically.”
Despite the severity of last year’s winter and its toll on his hives, Shenefield remains optimistic about the future of honeybees. While the crops may not have fared well, he’s seen an abundance of healthy bees within his hives.
”I’m positive right now, but I’ll let you know come spring how things went,” he chuckled.