A year ago USDA CSREES (Cooperative State Research Extension Education Service) awarded a $4.1 million grant to a group of university researchers for the express purpose of solving the current honey bee health problems confronting the beekeeping industry. Without actually nailing it down, this was a project to look into the current Colony Collapse Disorder malady and, over four years, find out what was going on. But at the same time the grant was to fund an extensive education program for beekeepers, and to develop as much information as possible so beekeepers could keep their bees healthy, and had a place to go for questions … and answers. Moreover, 25% of the funds were to go to study non-apis pollinators, such as bumble bees, alfalfa leaf-cutting bees and the like. To date, this is the only government money to be distributed to beekeeping researchers to study this problem other than normal budgetary funds to keep the USDA projects up and running.
So what’s happened in a year? I’m glad you asked, because I wanted to know too. So I ventured to the University of Georgia in Athens to visit with Dr. Keith Delaplane, the leader of this large and varied group studying this large and varied problem.
In this first year each of the cooperators in the program have hired the people they need to work with or brought on board the grad students who will do the work or the post-doc who will assist in the project. Probably the biggest accomplishment so far, said Dr. Delaplane, is the establishment of the seven stationary apiaries to monitor honey bee health and the environment. These apiaries, consisting of 30 colonies each, are in Maine, Florida, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Texas, Washington and California. Each is administered by one of the researchers and will be managed using the techniques particular to their respective locations … bees in Minnesota are not managed on the same calendar or with the same methods as those bees in Texas, for instance. But each area does have best management practices that reflect these differences, and those will be followed.
However, one constant is that each colony in each of these apiaries will be sampled once a month for the duration of the study to look at what’s going on inside. Samples of bees, honey and wax will be taken, and measurements of bees and brood will all be taken routinely. The samples will go to a lab at Penn State to look for viruses and nosema disease, to the University of Minnesota to count nosema spores, and to the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station to look at the pollen and wax samples for residues of agricultural pesticides. At the same time, USDA scientists will be taking identical samples, and doing identical counts from a series of migratory beekeeping operations. Samples and data will be identical from each apiary and each migratory operation, and at the end the mountain of data will be easily comparable and very useful, said Delaplane.
Because this grant also covers non-apis bees (that is, bees that are not honey bees) identical samples will be taken from managed non-apis bees at each of the apiary sites. Scientists are looking for cross infections or other relationships.
Other non-apis projects include looking at increasing the efficiency and reducing the stress of managed bumblebees when used for pollination. The effects of the neonicitinoid pesticides on non-apis bees are also being studied, and especially the sub-lethal effects and any effects from residues. This should be interesting.
Meanwhile, the Extension and Education part of this has moved right along, and in July the USDA is launching its eXtension.org website. It is to be a one-stop shopping experience for agricultural information. The honey bee health section is housed and administered from the University of Kentucky in Lexington. All of the information that goes on this web page, the bee page included, is well-researched and well-refereed work, with oversight by a large team of honey bee scientists. There will be a Frequently Asked Questions section, an Ask The Expert question, Best Management Guides section and more. All coming from the Bee Health Community group. This effort will be federally supported, but all states will contribute with funds from their individual extension budgets. This will, over time I imagine, erode the personnel in each state’s Extension core. Unfortunate, but at least there won’t be a vacuum left behind.
Other Funded Bee Research
- Investigating the genetic makeup of the varroa mite
University and USDA scientists in Texas and IN are looking at this from the molecular level, looking for those genes responsible for the varroa-sensitive hygienic behavior. This trait allows bees to detect larva in a capped cell that have varroa and remove them. This keeps the mite’s populations in check without chemicals. Moreover, once identified queen producers will be able to certify that their bees do have the gene and should exhibit that behavior.
- Understanding honey bee viruses
Scientists at Penn State are doing cage studies with bees looking at the effects of individual viruses, and then the effects of different viruses combined.
- Untangling the health effects of nosema parasites
Many insects species suffer from different species of nosema … is looking at this disease, while scientists at Michigan and Kentucky are trying to produce honey bees with only a single problem … nosema apis, or nosema ceranae, but not other problems at the same time. Once isolated, they will then look at these diseases in combination with viruses, and combinations of viruses.
- Understanding the effects of miticides (pesticides)
Lab studies looking at the effects of individual and the synergism of the all of the miticides beekeepers use in a hive are being conducted in Nebraska. Along the same lines, effects of these chemicals on queen viability and drone sperm production are being looked at.
- Investigating the effects of farm pesticides
Ag chemicals have been blamed for much/some/all/none of colony collapse disorder – take your pick. But that should be answered by studies looking at the effects of these on larvae and nurse bees. That should be interesting, but the funding for this particular project is still on hold.
- Rearing healthy queen bees
Think Globally, but act Locally is kind of the theme for the work being done in Washington and New York. Genetic diversity seems to be lacking, at least in some operations due to the small number of commercial beekeepers producing queens. Thus, more queen producers are needed and they should be more localized and regional rather than all coming from a central location, goes the thinking. Researchers will be setting up educational programs to develop local and regional queen production operations to capitalize on the diversity of a lot of regions. But first they have to find some…that’s what they are doing now.
So, after year one, seven stationary apiaries are set up and running, along with migratory operations being sampled, a host of research projects are up and running, or are almost there, and the eXtension web page, loaded with tons of honey bee health information is due to be launched next month. $4.1 million, one year later.