When it comes to measuring the impact of honeybees on Virginia’s agriculture industry, consider the apple.
Estimates show that the added value to Virginia’s apple industry from honeybee pollination alone is around $23 million each year, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). That’s quite a buzz for the Commonwealth’s leading fruit commodity, which contributes some $235 million annually to the state’s economy.
“If you look at apples and some of the other fruits (grown in Virginia), 90 percent of the pollination can be directly traced to honeybees,” says Keith Tignor, state apiarist for VDACS. “They also pollinate other types of crops such as peanuts, cucumbers, onions, pumpkins, cabbage, peppers and many others. But it’s not just agriculture (that benefits from honeybees). It’s anything that offers them a food source. Although agriculture is a big part of why we do what we do, we realize the honeybees are also helping the environment by going out and pollinating the trees, the meadows, the wetlands – they all benefit from having these prolific pollinators.”
Honeybees have been an essential part of agriculture in North America since they were introduced here some 400 years ago. The honey they produce is a delicacy enjoyed throughout the world and has many other uses as well. But even more important is their value as pollinators.
The estimated benefit of honeybees to agricultural crop pollination is around $15 billion in the U.S. and some $225 billion worldwide.
“Their importance to the pollination of fruit and vegetable crops, as well as honey production, is critical to agriculture in Virginia,” says Troy Anderson, assistant professor of toxicology and pharmacology at the Virginia Tech Department of Entomology. Anderson is currently involved in a state-funded research project with VDACS to characterize the risk of pesticide exposure to honeybees.
“The overall goal is to be able to predict pesticide use and misuse in and around honeybee colonies,” he says. “Our research group, along with beekeeper assistance, is sampling honeybee colonies in several areas across the state to be able to monitor the number of pesticide residues and their concentrations in bees, wax and pollen to determine the impact of these chemicals to honeybee health.
“With our research, we hope to better understand how pesticides and other stressors might interact with each other. This research can be used to develop management practices to improve the health of honeybee colonies across the state.”
Bee Interest Is High
Of course, the loss of bee colonies has been an ongoing concern throughout the country for a number of years, and in Virginia, the annual loss of managed hives averages around 30 percent. There are several causes for the decline, from parasitic mites to over development of the land to Colony Collapse Disorder.
As critical as the issue is, Tignor says it has presented a silver lining of sorts.
“One of the things we’re encouraged about is the renewed interest that has emerged in beekeeping,” says Tignor, who has been a beekeeper himself since college. “The news about large numbers of colony loss has increased awareness of and interest in the importance of honeybees to agriculture and the pleasure of beekeeping, which in turn protects our pollinators.”
Awareness has also led to Governor Terry McAuliffe’s declaration of September as Honey Month in Virginia.
In addition, VDACS maintains a pollinator program that matches beekeepers with farmers across the state. The agency also administers a beehive grant program, established by the General Assembly in 2012 to encourage new beekeepers or enable established apiarists, or beekeepers, to expand their number of hives. The grant offers $250 per new hive to qualified applicants.
“If we get a phone call from a farmer or an extension agent looking for pollinating units, then we definitely have contacts within the beekeeping community to match them up with,” Tignor says.