One mouthful in three of the foods you eat directly or
indirectly depends on pollination by honey bees. The value of honey
bee pollination to U.S. agriculture is more than $14 billion annually,
according to a Cornell University study. Crops from nuts to vegetables
and as diverse as alfalfa, apple, cantaloupe, cranberry, pumpkin, and
sunflower all require pollinating by honey bees.
For fruit and nut crops, pollination can be a grower's
only real chance to increase yield. The extent of pollination dictates
the maximum number of fruits. Post-pollination inputs, whether growth
regulators, pesticides, water, or fertilizer, are actually designed
to prevent losses and preserve quality rather than increase yield.
When pollination is this important, farmers can't depend
on feral honey bees that happen to nest near crop fields. That's why
farmers contract with migratory beekeepers, who move millions of bee
hives to fields each year just as crops flower. Pollinating California's
420,000 acres of almond trees alone takes between 900,000 and 1 million
honey bee colonies.
But the bees' importance goes far beyond agriculture.
They also pollinate more than 16 percent of the flowering plant species,
ensuring that we'll have blooms in our gardens.
Of course, there is also the honey. More than $130 million
worth of raw honey was produced in 2002 in the United States.
Not bad for an insect that is not even native to the New
World. But then again, most of our crops and many of our garden plants
aren't natives either. These evolved in areas where honey bees are native,
and both crops and insects were brought here to become essential parts
of our agricultural system.
Because all our common honey bees are introduced rather
than native, colonies not managed by beekeepers are considered feral
rather than wild. We have lost much of our managed and feral honey bee
populations in recent years. New invasive pests like Varroa and
tracheal mites and the small hive beetle have appeared in the last 15
to 20 years. Diseases like American foul brood and chalk brood are also
taking a heavy toll. Beekeepers are battling these problems and not
With these kinds of pressures on such an important agricultural
and environmental resource, it should not be surprising that ARS
maintains a strong honey bee research program to improve disease and
pest treatments, breed stronger honey bees, and enhance management methods.
While all these problems are well known to beekeepers,
the honey bee problem the public is most familiar with is the invasion
of the Africanized honey bee (AHB), for which Hollywood has created
a fearsome reputation as a "killer bee." Since the bees first
arrived here in 1990, ARS has been the primary USDA agency for tracking
their spread in the United States and for figuring out how we will live
with them. There is currently no way to eradicate AHBs, because anything
that will kill them will also kill our essential honey bees.
AHBs are problems for beekeepers mainly because of two
characteristics. They have a strong tendency to abscondleave the
home hive for new venueswhich makes it hard for beekeepers to
keep them. The other trait is defensiveness. All honey bees defend their
nest by stinging, and their behavior ranges from mild to intense. But
AHBs sting in greater numbers on less provocation. That makes them hard
for beekeepers to work with, because they don't want to get stung nor
do they want to have to wear complete bee suits just to work their bees.
It is this defensive behavior that Hollywood has raised
to mythic proportions. But in the past 14 years, fewer than 15 deaths
have been attributed to AHBs in the United States. The average person
can survive 1,000 to 1,500 stings (about 10 to 15 stings per pound of
body weight), especially if they get medical attention. Fortunately,
such massive stinging is rare. To put this in some perspective, in 2000
alone, 50 people in the United States died from being struck by lightning.
If a person is allergic to bee venom, however, a single
sting from either a European or Africanized honey bee could be equally
dangerous, as their venom is virtually identical.
Vibrations from heavy machinery like lawnmowers can upset
all bees. If you live in an area with AHBs or if you are allergic to
bees, it is a good idea to inspect your property for signs of a bee
nest before operating machinery. Sealing cracks and openings in buildings
that could attract a swarm looking for a nest cavity is also a good
idea whether you live in an area that has AHBs or not.
But public fear and concern about AHBs has cost beekeepers
many of the locations they once rented to maintain beehives, often in
areas thousands of miles from the nearest AHB.
ARS continues to be a center for research on how AHBs
affect our honey bees, managed and feral. Beekeepers in the five U.S.
states and two territories that already have AHBsArizona, California,
Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islandsmust
be able to deal with them. And the public needs the best advice on how
to live with AHBs.
In the 14 years we have had AHBs in this country, ARS
has developed some important answers about living with them. Like most
good research, many answers have given rise to additional questions,
but we believe we are well on our way to containing this and other bee
problems. Kevin J. Hackett ARS National Program Leader Biological Control
"Forum" was published in the March
2004 issue of Agricultural Research magazine.