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Pollinating new ideas: U of M Extension researcher shares solutions to bee population decline

Honey bees and bumble bees feed on a flower's nectar for carbohydrates and pollen for protein. There are hundreds of different bee species in Minnesota and 20,000 worldwide. (Photo by Jeff Hahn, Univesrity of Minnesota Extension)1 / 3
Dr. Marla Spivak, an entomologist renowned for her research at the University of Minnesota Bee Lab, discussed the status of bee health in Minnesota. Her Sept. 30 presentation was hosted by Friends of Itasca State Park. (Photo by LuAnn Hurd-Lof, Friends of Itasca State Park)2 / 3
Itasca State Park Lead Naturalist Connie Cox distributed pollinator-friendly flower seeds -- all suitable for fall planting -- at the conclusion of Spivak's program. (Shannon Geisen/Enterprise)3 / 3

Dr. Marla Spivak, an entomology professor and esteemed researcher at the University of Minnesota Bee Lab, is driven to bring back bees through awareness and education.

Her research efforts focus on protecting the health and diversity of Minnesota's bees.

Spivak was the guest speaker at a Friends of Itasca State Park event Saturday.

"Minnesota actually is always one of the top five honey-producing states in the nation," she said. North Dakota is usually number one, followed by South Dakota.

"It's because we still have a lot of clover, alfalfa and wildflowers so that bees can make honey from them."

Over the past decade, there has been a tragic breakdown in honey bee health.

"Since 2006, honey bee colonies have not been very healthy. There have been major colony losses nationwide and across Europe also," Spivak said.

Losses of 15 to 18 percent are considered "acceptable" by commercial beekeepers because they can remain profitable, but "we're taking at least double those losses. It's quite serious," she said.

Backyard, hobbyist beekeepers are experiencing the highest losses.

Many native bees are in decline. The Rusty Patch bumble bee, once common in Minnesota, is extremely rare and has been placed on the endangered species list.

There are numerous reasons for the mass decline.

"I call it a messy knot," Spivak said.

U.S. colonies die every winter due to disease, parasites, lack of plant diversity, pesticides and a flowerless landscape.

Good, clean floral food

Honey bees are battling parasites, viruses and other diseases.

"They have a parasitic mite that's like a tick, more or less, that sucks on their blood and it's called Varroa mite," Spivak said.

"Their mouthparts are like a dirty syringe," so the mite can spread viruses from bee to bee.

"Bees don't have antibodies in their system, so there's no way we can vaccinate them like we can for ourselves. There's many, many viruses, so the solution is to try to get rid of or control the mites as much as possible," Spivak said.

Bee nutrition is "so important and the first step in restoring honey bee health, and in fact, all bee's health," she continued.

"Nutrition for bees is flowers. It's all based on flowers. They are getting all of their nutritional needs from different floral resources. Just like we need diverse sources of protein, so do they. And they need that nutrition through the whole growing season."

Bees absorb lipids and proteins from pollen. Flower nectar provides carbohydrates.

Research suggests there are antioxidant-like compounds in both pollen and nectar that help bees detoxify some pesticides and stimulate their immune system.

"That's why that floral food is so good for them," Spivak said.

Impact of pesticides

Environmental factors — the use of insecticides, and a widening flowerless landscape — also pose challenges to bee well-being.

Through testing and analysis, "we know that every load of pollen a honey bee brings back to the nest, no matter where they are, contains on average six different pesticides," Spivak said.

The public mostly hears about one class of insecticides: neonicotinoids.

Yet researchers are seeing pyrethroids, organophosphates, insect growth regulators, organochlorines, fungicides, herbicides and adjuvants in pollen as well.

Wild bees feed pollen to their larvae, putting their undeveloped young in direct contact with these contaminants.

This pesticide residue makes bees more susceptible to or exacerbates disease, Spivak said.

Herbicides indirectly harm bees by killing off the flowering weeds they need for proper nutrition.

Flowering bee lawns

How can we help bees?

"I think the way we can do it is by providing more flowers for bees," said Spivak. "We need larger, more foraging areas so they can restore their immune system and help fight off those diseases."

The simple solution of planting flowers, and keeping these flowers free of pesticide contamination, is rooted in solid research.

More and more people are creating native, diverse, pollinator-friendly habitat, Spivak noted.

Instead of uniform stands of grass, "bee lawns" introduce flowers for foraging bees from April to September.

"Even if you don't seed any other flower, white clover is a good one," she said. "All the bees want is good, clean food."

The greatest challenge is keeping those flowers free of pesticide contamination.

Spivak hopes this and future generations can solve that problem.

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