Research, education vital to the future of honey bees and other bee species

Dan Hansen
FILE - Bees continue to face challenges including diseases and habitat loss. Scientific research and educating the public are keys to maintaining a healthy bee population.

REDGRANITE – Honey bees, along with other bee species, are a vital part of 21st century agriculture but not only for the honey they produce. As pollinators, honey bees, and other bees, also play an important role in the success of other agricultural crops, including Wisconsin cranberries.

Bees continue to face challenges including diseases and habitat loss. Scientific research and educating the public are keys to maintaining a healthy bee population.

Led by Dr. Marla Spivak, the University of Minnesota (UMN) has one of the nation’s most comprehensive bee research and educational programs. Its laboratory research and Bee Squad provide valuable information to honey producers, home owners and other interested groups around the country.

Brooke Sommerfeldt, a Park Falls, Wisconsin, native and avid beekeeper with an apiary near Phillips, is a full-time member of the UMN Bee Squad. She recently shared some of the school’s research and outreach efforts with more than 80 Wisconsin beekeepers. 

Brooke Sommerfeldt, University of Minnesota Bee Squad member.

“The Bee Squad is the outreach portion of the bee lab that was designed to help communities learn about bees and offer mentoring and education to the public,” she explained. Sommerfeldt is the Bee Squad outreach coordinator and coordinator for one of its pollinator projects.

She noted that Dr. Spivak is currently working on a new queen breeding program. “She is using the Minnesota hygienic line. She’s modifying it to increase winter survival, propolin collection and reduce the population of parasitic varroa mites.”

Bee Squad goals, programs

Supporting beekeepers, and sharing the latest information on bee health with the general public is the primary goal of the Bee Squad, according to Sommerfeldt.

“We offer a variety of creative programs designed to share bee health information with the public and offer opportunities for groups and individuals to support bees,” she said.

“We are teaching youth about pollinators and how to engage the public on pollinator education, so they can go back to their schools and be pollinator educators.”

One of the Bee Squad’s major outreach programs is the Bee Network.

“We have bees at about 100 different locations, who pay us to manage honeybee colonies for them. These include families, businesses like Target and other large companies, along with various organizations,” Sommerfeldt said.

“Locations include churches, golf courses, colleges and people’s backyards, and this enables us to collect a lot of health data in different areas and to track health trends, and provided information on the best honey-producing areas,” she explained.

Wisconsin is home to about 400 bee species and there are about 4,000 species in the United States.

Apiary mentoring is also a major Bee Squad program. “We provide home apiary help and offer a variety of different classes. We have our successful beekeeper course that features a series of seven classes covering the fundamentals of beekeeping and helps beekeepers learn what they should be doing during each season of the year,” Sommerfeldt said.

“Our beekeeper scientist series meets once a month and focuses on managing an apiary. “We teach them how to collect data and discuss ways to manage mites and various diseases,” she explained.

There are hour-long, hands-on classes that focus on specific seasonal topics. “People can go to one class or 12; they can go if they have a queen-issue question or want to know more about pulling honey,” she noted.

A free program helps military veterans learn how to become beekeepers. “ We think beekeeping can help them cope with PTSD and be a good therapy for them.”

Honey bee health crisis 

Varroa mites, small reddish mites visible to the naked eye, are the prime cause of colony health issues, according to Sommerfeldt.

“We’ve found that managing bees like livestock, and by promptly addressing the pests and pathogens that affect bees, keeps them healthier,” she said.

“The major threats to bees all work together to increase colony weakness. Because of pesticides, pests and pathogens, bees can already be weak and often they’re not getting the proper nutrition to help them fight off the other health issues.”

According the available information, backyard beekeepers are having the highest colony losses. “Commercial beekeepers have the lowest losses because they’re managing their bees like livestock, and doing what they need to do to minimize these threats,” Sommerfeldt stressed.

The varroa mite is found in most countries of the world, except Australia and a few pacific islands. “There are several approved synthetic and organic miticides, for varroa control, but many beekeepers don’t recognize the signs of colony death due to varroa, so it’s important to carefully monitor colonies on a regular basis,” noted Sommerfeldt. 

Varroa control

Formic acid kills mites in capped broods, although it may not be as effective if applied in temperatures above 90 degrees. Oxalic acid dihydrate (organic acid)) is used in two ways for mite control — as a drizzle or as a fumigant. Oils and mechanical treat methods also are available.

Immediate treatment is recommended when mite infestation levels reach 5 percent.

“In areas densely populated with bees, the varroa virus problem of one beekeeper can become a problem for every beekeeper within a mile,” Sommerfeldt emphasized.

Sommerfeldt encourages beekeepers to become bee ambassadors. “Encourage your neighbors to plant flowers for bees and keep them clean and pesticide free. We should also encourage participation in bee citizen science, like the bumble bee watch.”

She also encouraged everyone to learn more about bees. “Know bee numbers. Minnesota has 469 bee species, Wisconsin is home to about 400, and there are about 4,000 species in the United States,” related Sommerfeldt.

“We should be ambassadors for all bees – not just honey bees,” she stressed.