Research finding new ways to protect pollinator health

A USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Impact Spotlight

September is National Honey Month and you can’t have honey without honey bees. There are direct links between the health of American agriculture and the health of bees and other pollinators.

Pollination is critical to the production of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, which are important parts of a healthy diet. Pollination by managed honey bee colonies adds at least $15 billion to the value of U.S. agriculture annually through increased yields and superior-quality harvests.

Since 2006, honey bee colonies worldwide have experienced historically high and unexpected losses caused by colony collapse disorder (CCD). CCD and other stressors, such as parasitic mites, diseases, and transport, hinder commercial beekeepers’ ability to meet U.S. agriculture’s pollination demands.

In response to recent declines in pollinator populations, the White House launched an initiative to protect pollinator health. As part of this initiative, the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) supports pollinator health research, education, and extension through its Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), Crop Protection and Pest Management Program, and the Specialty Crop Research Initiative (SCRI).

Emory University research suggests that modern beekeeping practices may foster virulent strains of deadly parasitic mites and related diseases. The research hypothesizes that there is a direct relationship between the transmission rate and incidence of more virulent strains of Varroa mites. To test this hypothesis, researchers are tracking the movements of different mite lineages, in managed and feral colonies, and evaluating colony health. The results of this research have the potential to help beekeepers protect colonies from mites and diseases and produce healthy honeybees.

A North Carolina State University project found that urban environments increase pathogen abundance in honey bees and reduce honey bee survival. Researchers selected 15 feral colonies in trees or buildings, and 24 colonies managed by beekeepers in urban, suburban, and rural areas. The researchers analyzed the bee colonies to quantify the amount and variety of pathogens (pathogen pressure) present and the bees’ immune response. The research team found that colonies closer to urban areas experienced greater pathogen pressure. In subsequent lab experiments, bees from urban environments – whether feral or managed – were three times less likely to survive similar pathogen pressure than rural bees. The results of this study may help develop approaches to protect honey bee health.

NIFA-supported research and outreach efforts, such as the Bee Health eXtension Community of Practice, also provide growers and producers with information on pollination, pollinators, and management practices that will continue to keep these crops and honey yields productive

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