Honey bees play a vital role pollinating many of the nuts, fruits and vegetables we eat, and they’re an important part of Montana’s economy. But the number of bees dying each year is higher than it was two decades ago. A team of researchers are looking for solutions, ranging from new genetic clues to wildflowers.
James Rehm is one of the owners and the grandson of the founders. He says they have about 5,000 hives this year, and each hive has roughly 30,000 honey bees. That sounds like a lot, but Rehm says that number can plummet unexpectedly — 40 to 50 percent.
“Beekeepers are a lot like ranchers," says Rehm. "We lose so much of our stock every year. And maybe ten years ago we had colony collapse disorder come through, and nobody has really been able to say, 'This is what happened. This is why all these bees died.'"
Before 2006, honeybee colony losses in the U.S. were historically between 5 and 12 percent per year. Lately it’s been between 30 and 40 percent. For individual beekeepers and colonies, those losses can be a lot higher.
Chemicals from farming and people building subdivisions on fields of wildflowers are some of the reasons their numbers have dropped. Disease hurts, too.
Rehm says they and other beekeepers try to monitor their hives more. Sometimes they’ll give the bees antibacterial treatments or supplemental food — carbohydrates and protein — to help boost their immune systems.
“But it’s a lot harder to keep bees alive anymore, than it used to be,” says Rehm.
About 200 miles to the south, researchers at Montana State University are investigating how viruses and other pathogens affect honey bees at the cellular, individual and colony levels, and they’re working with beekeepers to find solutions.
At MSU’s Honey Bee Research Site and Pollinator Garden, bees crawl out of a hive through a small crack near the base and fly off. Others have just returned, their legs coated in pollen.
Inside the hive, worker bees are sealing larvae into cells. In one to two weeks they’ll transform into adult bees with eyes, legs, and wings.
“Here’s one emerging now," says Michelle Flenniken. She has just pulled out a beehive frame from a cooler in her lab.
"So you can see them. They’ll chew themselves out of the cell, and then they’ll crawl right out. You can see how fuzzy they are and how peaceful they are. Here’s another one. See the antennae and mouthparts chewing their way out?”
Flenniken is a co-director of MSU’s Pollinator Research Center and a professor in the Department of Plant Sciences and Plant Pathology.
“For the first 24 hours of life, a bee can’t fly and can’t sting so they’re great experimental subjects for a research lab," says Flenniken.
In another room, a PhD student is injecting some of these young adult bees with viruses to find out how nutrition and anti-viral treatments affect their ability to survive.
Flenniken points to a research poster on the wall.
“This picture is of honey bee cells that are growing in the lab. So again, we can infect these cells and look at the cellular level — what’s the response? And that enables us to look at the genes that are expressed.”
She says understanding genes could help bee breeders create colonies that naturally resist certain diseases; it’s like giving bees a little evolutionary boost. Flenniken and her team also work with beekeepers to monitor their colonies for diseases.
Out of the 200 registered honey beekeepers in Montana, about a quarter make their living trucking bees to other states to pollinate crops. Around 90 percent of Montana’s honey bees are sent to California to pollinate almond trees in February. Then they move up to Oregon and Washington to pollinate apples, cherries and pears before returning home.
Flenniken was involved in a study researching whether this increases their risk to diseases due to stress and exposure to other bees.
“We didn’t see a spike in pathogens," she says. "So although it can happen, it doesn’t always happen or necessarily happen. We talk to beekeepers, and they’re often multi-generations of families. They’ll talk about how when their grandfathers transferred the bees it was actually more stressful. These days we have better roads, better hydraulics, bee forklifts.”
Flenniken says beekeepers in Montana and across the country face a lot of challenges and they’re working hard to stabilize overall bee populations despite the higher colony losses.
“While they’re maintaining those losses, if they creep above 45 or 50 percent then that’s a really big problem, and it’s costing them more money and costing them more inputs. I think bees and their role in agriculture is a little underappreciated. We all need bees to pollinate fruit, nuts and vegetable crops.”
She says people can help bees by planting pollinator-friendly gardens and using fewer insecticides and herbicides in their yards.