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Experts discuss ways to boost honeybee forage

Issue Date: November 13, 2013
By Christine Souza
Bee specialists say honeybees benefit from a mixture of pollen sources, such as the forage planted on this private land in Glenn County.
Photo/Kathy Coatney
Beekeepers say their colonies would benefit from greater access to forage on both public and privately managed lands.
Photo/Kathy Coatney

At a first-of-its-kind meeting in Sacramento, beekeepers, farmers and representatives of public and private organizations gathered to discuss how to improve honeybee populations by allowing beekeepers access to more sources of bee forage.

During the meeting, held last week at the California Farm Bureau Federation, beekeepers and bee experts said increased access to forage on both public and privately managed lands would promote the long-term health and sustainability of managed honeybee populations.

California State Beekeepers Association President John Miller, a beekeeper from Newcastle, described the past 30 years in the bee business as "tumultuous."

"We're at a juncture here where we must address some fundamental issues of forage and access," Miller said, thanking those who attended the meeting for efforts to "collaborate and work on a toolbox of access and forage that might enhance the ability of honeybees to find clean forage, safe forage, and recover from the many challenges they are experiencing."

CFBF President Paul Wenger said that, as an almond grower whose crop depends on bees for pollination, he knows firsthand the importance of honeybee health.

"This is a key issue, not only to the bee industry, but also to those of us who depend upon the bees to produce a crop. The general public is also concerned about pollinator health, because we know how dependent our food supply around the world is on bees," Wenger said.

Miller noted the national number of beehives has shrunk to less than half of what it was 70 years ago and the 2013 honey crop could be the smallest ever recorded.

"We're actually losing this war," he said. "We can do better. We have to do better."

Eric Mussen, an apiculturist with the University of California, Davis, said it takes about 50 pounds of mixed pollens to keep a bee colony alive for a year.

"There's no one pollen out there that is particularly suited to keep the honeybees going. What they really require is a mix (of floral sources)," Mussen said.

Natural food that bees need, he said, includes wildflowers, weeds, shrubs and trees. Though beekeepers provide bees with supplemental feed, nothing comes close to the mixed pollens found in nature, Mussen said. But he said beekeepers find there are fewer places to store bees where they can have access to the necessary, diverse floral sources.

Suggested examples of potential locations where good bee forage might be found include state and national parks, forests, Bureau of Land Management lands and other public lands, as well as private land. Many agencies that could be partners in providing forage land for bees were represented at the meeting, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, BLM, California Department of Food and Agriculture, state Department of Fish and Wildlife, state Department of Parks and Recreation and the State Lands Commission.

A partnership between beekeeper Miller and Justin Wages, land manager for the Placer Land Trust, was held up as an example of a successful venture between a non-profit organization and a beekeeper. Wages told the meeting that he realized the bees fit into the land trust's small farm program.

"We acquired the property and the bees were already out there. We decided to keep the bees out there because it seemed like the right thing to do," he said, adding that the project includes apiary research.

"We want to study what the bees are actually eating, what they are collecting, what are the most important plants to focus on and, for me, to hone that down to the native plants I'm allowed to use," Wages said. "We want to be one of those (bee) yards where we can be that blooming feed source."

Wages said he does not charge the beekeepers to be on the land because he views the bees as a benefit to the land, but there is a liability contract that beekeepers must sign.

"For us, it's easy, but if you were working with some bigger agency where it's got to go through 10 people and contracts have to be done, that could be a hurdle," he said.

Participants such as Laurie Davies Adams, executive director of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Pollinator Partnership, suggested that beekeepers develop a general framework that could be used as a starting point by various land managers to evaluate possibilites for forage access.

This would include information about what the beekeeper's use of the site would entail—including physical size of an apiary site, number of colonies, security information, seasonal use patterns, beekeeper selection process and length of stay for bees—plus information about the benefits and risks of having honeybees on public lands and the attributes of sites that would provide good honeybee forage.

Cathy Johnson of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who works with managers of wildlife refuges, recommended that beekeepers start by contacting a local refuge manager. Those managers enjoy partnerships, Johnson said, although she cautioned that refuges are short-staffed and some managers may be concerned about the added workload of accommodating bee colonies.

Some participants at the meeting expressed concern about potential impacts by honeybees on protected wild species, about requirements that land managers face under state and national environmental laws, and about potential competition between managed bees and native bees.

Robbin Thorpe, UC Davis native pollinator specialist and professor emeritus, said honeybees are more likely to compete with each other than they are with native bees.

Paramount Farming Co. bee biologist Gordon Wardell said he has demonstrated in Southeast Asia that honeybees can be instrumental both in maintaining a natural system and as a tool to help foster stewardship over the land.

"I think we need to start to look at bees—instead of as an invader—look at them as a way we can really make this system whole," Wardell said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

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

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