‘Tech teams’ evaluate beehives for resilience


Issue Date: February 24, 2016
By Christine Souza
Bee Informed Partnership crop protection agents Robert Snyder and Ben Sallmann, above, collect samples of bees from colonies at an almond orchard in Dixon. Once bees are tested, the results can help beekeepers make informed decisions about treatment of the hives and lead to improved bee genetics.
Photo/Christine Souza

Commercial beekeepers, who have moved honeybees into California almond orchards for pollination, say they remain concerned about whether they will be able to continue to supply growers with enough healthy bees to meet the future needs of pollination and remain profitable.

Impacts including drought-related reductions in forage, added mite and disease pressures, and unintended exposure to crop-protection materials have contributed to bee losses reported throughout the nation. To combat these challenges, apiarists have emphasized the need for improved research, including work being conducted in orchards this winter by the Bee Informed Partnership, a collaboration by leading research laboratories and universities to better understand honeybee health.

At the start of pollination season, commercial beekeeper and bee breeder Jonathan Hofland of Dixon received a visit from the Bee Informed Partnership Tech Transfer Team, represented by field agents Robert Snyder and Ben Sallmann. The duo, based at the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Butte County, visits a select group of commercial beekeepers to sample colonies, looking for pests and diseases and to assist in stock selection.

"It's about the long-term and good genetics in our bee supply," Hofland said. "We're queen breeders, so the tech team is an impartial data collector; they analyze our bees and can tell us if they see problems. Having the bees tested dramatically increases overall survival."

Hofland added that the tech team looks for flaws in hives that he is selecting for future breeding, which helps him find the best breeding stock and improves his bees' genetic line.

"What they do is an indirect connection to almonds," he said, "but many queen breeders work with the tech team and breed queens for others that bring bees into the almonds."

Sallman said the team looks at what factors might be killing a hive, such as whether varroa mites are transmitting viruses that can be more harmful than damage caused by the mites themselves. Drought and resulting lack of forage worsens the mite situation, he said, because bee colonies become weaker and the mites "tend to get a better foothold when colonies are struggling in other ways."

"A lot of what we do is sampling for the varroa mite. It's the biggest problem that the beekeepers are facing and is a constant battle," Sallmann said. "Due to the density of bees, everything is packed so close together that there's a lot of reinfestation. It's like playing Whac-A-Mole—one beekeeper treats over here and then the other beekeeper doesn't and mites are reproducing, then the colonies start to decline and the mites take over."

Through the Bee Informed Partnership, data collected by tech teams across the country provide beekeepers with knowledge to make timely management decisions to maintain healthy colonies. Samples collected by the tech teams are sent to the bee diagnostic team at the University of Maryland. Reports provide general information about how bees are faring in various parts of the country, while ensuring individual beekeeper information remains confidential.

The almond bloom, which typically occurs from mid-February to mid-March, came a little earlier than usual this year due to warm February temperatures, though recent rains caused some growers to consider fungicide applications.

"It's been kind of wet and rainy, so hopefully the weather will stabilize so that pollination can actually happen, since bees can't forage when it is raining. Hopefully, we'll have enough bees to pollinate everything," UC Davis extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño said.

An estimated 1.8 million honeybee colonies are needed to pollinate the state's growing almond crop, and Niño said early indications are that there might be fewer colonies available this season.

"Beekeepers are saying that there are higher bee losses than they were expecting and I've been hearing more about higher varroa mite loads," Niño said. "Last year, the season started quite early so that could have given the mites extra time to produce one or two additional generations. Plus, beekeepers have to treat more often for mites, which gets me thinking about resistance development."

The season may have started with a slight increase in the number of hives, yet once beekeepers lose bees they must split one hive into two, which requires them to "put more into the hives, whether it is feeding them or treating them, so there are increased inputs into the hive to keep it alive," Niño said.

"If you lose 40 percent of bees, you have to make up for those by splitting the hives," she said. "(When) you take a frame of brood out of a hive to split the hive, that automatically costs you about two frames of honey that you won't make from that colony now because it has less of a workforce. You are losing some of that honey crop."

Gordon Wardell, bee biologist for Paramount Farming Co., said some beekeepers are reporting bee losses between 40 percent and 60 percent. In general, beekeepers say rental prices have risen this year to the $170-185 range, or $10-15 more than rental prices seen last year.

Wardell serves as board chairman for Project Apis m., a nonprofit organization dedicated to honeybee research, and called efforts to bring nearly 2 million pollination-strength colonies into California for the almond bloom "a testament to the proficiency and tenacity of our nation's commercial beekeepers."

In another initiative aimed at improved honeybee health, the Bayer Crop Science Division announced last week it is partnering with Project Apis m. to sponsor a multi-year, $1 million research effort with Bayer-funded research grants focused on an economic assessment of the cost of commercial beekeeping; creating best management practices for commercial beekeeping based on colony health performance; evaluating the use of "smart hive" technology to monitor bee health during commercial migratory operations; and assessing honeybee genetics.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.