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DUBUQUE, Iowa (AP) — Despite facing myriad challenges, local beekeepers and conservation officials are striving to preserve populations of honeybees and other critical pollinators.

Clayton County, Iowa, resident Bill Johnson is one of the foremost local experts on bees. He operates Johnson Honey Farm outside Guttenberg and teaches beginners' beekeeping classes at Northeast Iowa Community College.

He preaches that those entering the field must pay close attention to detail.

"It is all about taking the time to go through the hive and understand what is happening," Johnson said. "It is important to know what is going on at all times, and identify issues before it is too late."

Bee populations today are facing threats on multiple fronts.

The Telegraph Herald reports that honeybees and the beekeepers who tend to their hives have dealt in recent years with a troubling decline that many have attributed — oftentimes inaccurately — to an occurrence known as colony collapse disorder. Beekeepers, however, say that maintaining healthy populations more often hinges on the identification of virus-carrying mites.

Meanwhile, populations of wild bees and other pollinators have been threatened by multiple factors, including the use of insecticides and other chemicals for agriculture.
Despite these obstacles, a growing knowledge base and commitment to habitat creation have improved the outlook in the tri-states.

While Johnson admits there are real threats facing bee populations, he argued the nature of these concerns often is misunderstood.

Johnson said many beekeepers mistakenly believed that recent declines in honeybee populations were the result of colony collapse disorder.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, colony collapse disorder is the phenomenon that occurs when a majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen.

But Johnson said the widely used term is a smokescreen that obscures the real threats to honeybees.

"Colony collapse disorder is kind of a misnomer," he said. "It was a big misunderstanding on the part of beekeepers and it led to a lot of confusion over how to keep our bees healthy."

Johnson said varroa mites present a far more legitimate concern for hives. These parasites can transmit viruses that jeopardize the health of honeybees.

"They are here all the time and we deal with them every day," Johnson said. "It is a constant battle between the mite and the beekeeper. Unfortunately, we have a lot of beekeepers not testing for mites like they should. They could have serious problems and not even realize it."

Matt Leonard owns Leonard Apiaries, which operates hives and produces honey at various tri-state locations. His wife, Paula Leonard, owns Sweet P's Honey Co., which sells honey products produced via Leonard Apiaries in local stores, including Hartig Drug and Calico Bean Market.

Matt Leonard noted that beekeepers today are dealing with a variety of threats to their hives.

"It can be overwhelming at times, that is for sure," he said.

He said he keeps a watchful eye on the development of viruses that can damage a bee's wings or impair its motion and activity.

The values that guide Leonard Apiaries make dealing with these threats even more difficult.

"We are on organic operation, and it is even harder to control these things when you are strictly using organic treatments," Leonard said.

Beekeepers are not the only area residents keeping close tabs on threats to local insects.

Concerns about dwindling populations of pollinators, including honeybees and Monarch butterflies, have prompted conservation officials to take a hands-on approach to finding a solution.

Jackson County, Iowa, Conservation Director Daryl Parker said officials recently installed a 35-acre pollinator habitat at Prairie Creek Recreation Area in Maquoketa. The habitat features a wide variety of plants that aid pollinators, ranging from milkweed to New England aster.

He said pollinators are essential to local ecosystems.

"It all comes full circle," he said. "If there are no pollinators then there are no plants, and with no plants you have no food. They all have to work together. A reduction in bee and pollinator populations will have an impact on something else."

Johnson, of Guttenberg, said the recent struggles of pollinator species is largely due to field spray and insecticides used for agricultural purposes. Over the years, these chemicals have seeped into the roots of plants and imperiled the insects that come into contact with them, he said.

In 2017, the rusty-patched bumblebee became the first species of native bumblebee to be listed as a federally endangered species. While the species is not common locally, Parker identified a rusty-patched bumblebee in Jackson County last summer.

Brian Preston, Dubuque County Conservation Board executive director, also is acutely aware of the problems. He said the conservation department has overseen the development of pollinator habitats on several plots of land throughout the county.

Preston said county officials and residents could help pollinator species by thinking outside the box.

Future habitat development could focus on roadside ditches, which he said pose considerable potential when it comes to supporting critical plant species. Also, homeowners can support pollinators by incorporating native wildflowers into their landscaping.

He said a lack of action could have serious consequences.

"When these populations get precariously low like this, we could lose them," Preston said. "If we start losing plants and animal species, we won't be able to get them back. We don't totally know the extent of the impacts if we lose these species."

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