Pollinator researcher Brad Mogen and his wife, Kim, work with other researchers at UW-River Falls to help find the reasonings behind and solutions for the declining bee population.

Pollinator researcher Brad Mogen and his wife, Kim, work with other researchers at UW-River Falls to help find the reasonings behind and solutions for the declining bee population.

Pollinators. The media are all abuzz about them these days, and with good reason. They’re vitally important, and they’re facing challenges.

We hear the most about honeybees, the hard-working non-native domesticated bees that give us honey and beeswax at the same time they’re pollinating our crops. But Wisconsin is home to about 400 species of wild bees that also do a lot of pollinating as they gather food. “Managed and wild bees are the most efficient and important pollinators of our food crops, but there are a wide range of native pollinators,” says State Apiarist Liz Meils of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP).

One of the big problems beekeepers face is colony loss, both the normal winter losses of a cold climate and what has become known as “colony collapse disorder,” a phenomenon first noticed in 2006 where an entire hive seems to vanish. That’s a financial hit for beekeepers, who have seen the cost rise to $120 for a three-pound “package” of bees to start a new colony.

And it could be a financial hit to other segments of agriculture, too. Three of Wisconsin’s biggest specialty crops rely on honeybees for pollination. Without honeybees, our apple growers would lose 80 percent of their crop; in 2014, that would have been a $25 million loss for them. Cherry growers would lose 60 percent of their crop, which would have cost them $2.9 million last year; and cranberry growers would lose three-quarters of their crop, a $103.8 million loss by 2014 prices. The rest of the nation and world could suffer, too; Wisconsin is the number one producer of cranberries in the U.S. and exports cranberries to other nations. That’s not to mention the state’s honey production – 2.86 million pounds in 2014, worth $6.64 million.

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DATCP Secretary Ben Brancel and his counterparts in other states started talking about the pollinator issue two years ago at the annual fall meeting of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. They wanted to know what was causing loss of honeybees and other pollinators and what they could do about it. At the same time, conversations were going on at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and the White House, and among beekeepers and the agrichemical industry. A lot of research dollars are going into finding the causes, too.

The decline in pollinators didn’t happen overnight, and it’s doubtful that it was caused by one thing, says Brad Mogen, a University of Wisconsin-River Falls biology professor and researcher. “If it was being caused by one single issue, we would’ve figured it out by now,” he believes, like most other scientists. He’s working with a team to find strains of bees that are best adapted to surviving Wisconsin winters. Their research is partly funded by a $30,400 USDA Specialty Crop Grant awarded by DATCP.

Wisconsin bee [INFOGRAPHIC}

Among the factors that science so far believes may be in play, says State Apiarist Meils, are pesticide exposure, viruses and parasites, lack of genetic diversity (in honeybees), and habitat loss. Habitat loss occurs when larger areas given over to single crops and farmland and other green spaces are lost to development. This leaves less forage for pollinators, leading to poor nutrition and weakened immune systems.

In addition, migratory beekeeping may be a stress factor. Wisconsin commercial beekeepers migrate within the state and to other states to bring pollinating colonies for crops; cranberries here, almonds in California, sunflowers in the Dakotas, tangerines in Florida, and blueberries in Maine. Nationwide, pollination services offered by migratory beekeepers are worth $15 billion-$20 billion annually.

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“Migratory beekeeping is very important to crop production, and as an income source for beekeepers,” Secretary Brancel says. “We need research into how to reduce the stress of migration on honeybees. The crops they pollinate are important as food sources, and for the jobs they provide. We can’t afford to lose those pollination services.”

DATCP’s response to all these converging forces has been to use another USDA Specialty Crop Grant to develop a pollinator protection plan.

“We’re collaborating with researchers from UW-Madison and more than 20 different entities and organizations,” Meils says. “We hope to have a working document of a pollinator protection plan in place by the end of 2015.”

Those stakeholder entities and organizations include commercial and hobbyist beekeepers; environmental organizations; the U.S. EPA, USDA and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Native American tribes; nursery, agribusiness and agrichemical trade groups and companies; and the Wisconsin departments of Natural Resources and Transportation.

The group will meet three times to provide input to the UW scientists and DATCP staff who are writing the plan. When a draft is ready, it will be available to the general public for comment before it is finalized.

“The goal is to provide educational resources for land managers, including homeowners, beekeepers and farmers, and to establish a framework for open communication and coordination between all those groups,” Meils says. The document will provide a list of voluntary actions the stakeholders can take to protect pollinators.

Tim Fulton is a Kenosha beekeeper and member of the Wisconsin Honey Producers Association. He and other beekeepers are working to educate the public about the importance of pollinators, taking their message to schools and farmers’ markets.

“Every third forkful of food is insect-pollinated. This is an issue that should be important to everyone,” he says. “It’s easy to feel like you’re in this alone because every producer encounters a unique problem with their hives. But we’re really all in this together. It impacts all of us.”

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