Bees hungry and ready to work

Farm Forum

Hives of bees are returning to the area after owners took them to warmer climates for working vacations.

Most beekeepers in the Dakotas take their hives to warmer climates in winter months. That gets the bees away from the region’s cold winter weather, but also provides income for keepers who are paid for the pollination services their insects provide.

Many of the bees have been in Texas, Mississippi, Oregon and California where they pollinated crops and soaked up some sun.

Now, with temperatures on the rise and plenty of recent rain, the bees are coming home.

“California was tough for the bees because of the extreme dry conditions,” said Bob Reiners, South Dakota’s apiarist.

Recent rains in South Dakota have eased the minds of those placing beehives around the state this summer.

“The fellows were on pins and needles two weeks ago when there wasn’t rain,” Reiners said. He said the rain will make a lot of difference in this year’s honey crop.

“The bees are hungry,” he said.

And they have a lot of work to do. The U.S Department of Agriculture rankings released this month show South Dakota is second in the nation in the production of honey, producing 13.7 percent of the nationwide total. That amounts to 24.36 million pounds. North Dakota is the top-producing state.

Last week, Gerald Wandry of rural Aberdeen, said he had about 50 percent of his bees make it through winter, which is normal. He said his operation — 250 hives — is small compared to others.

Because he doesn’t move his bees to other states for the winter, he buys nucleus hives. They are starter hives with a young queen and baby bees.

“The bees are in excellent shape,” Wandry said. “Many don’t realize how important moisture is to honey production. The rains helped everything. From here to Canada, this is considered the ‘clover belt’ because bees thrive on white clover, yellow clover and alfalfa, which makes the best-tasting honey.”

Wandry said he’s developed a good relationship with property owners through the years and, as a result, placing hives is welcomed by most landowners. With a lot of pastures for livestock and alfalfa grown for cattle in northern Brown County, it’s a great place for honey production. Bees need pollen. Wandry said as crop systems have changed, food for the bees has changed. Bees take no pollen from corn and very little from soybeans. An expansion of sunflowers and the forage crops is good for bees.

While there are some feral bees, about 90 percent of the bees in South Dakota come from hives tended by beekeepers.

Bee health

South Dakota’s bees went into the fall in pretty good shape, according to Reiners. He said reports this spring show that bees look tremendous.

There has been some bee paralysis associated with colony loss in the Sioux Falls area and Faulk County, but it’s not causing widespread trouble, he said.

Reiners was excited about the national attention focused on pollinators by the recent White House initiative to improve bee health. A national USDA survey highlighted the need for increased efforts to protect pollinators. The survey listed the total national annual loss at 42.1 percent for April 2014 through April 2015.

He said he’s just finished up the quarterly survey of bee loss for the National Agricultural Statistics Service, which will be part of the president’s bee health initiative.

Reiners said his office has increased the amount of tests, checking for different bee viruses.

“The results from the few samples we’d taken last year revealed some valuable information,” he said. “The tests were pretty comprehensive and found some viral and mid-gut problems with bees.”

The White House initiative highlighted the multiple factors that can negatively affect bee health, including poor bee nutrition, loss of forage lands, parasites, pathogens and lack of bee genetic diversity.

Local plantings of pollinator plots through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and through Pheasants Forever chapters focuses attention on the needs of the insects, and national efforts will enhance those efforts.

EQIP is a federal program that provides financial and technical assistance for farmers to help them plan and implement conservation practices.

Some people, however, are concerned about bee health.

From what Jon Lundgren, a scientist at the USDA’s research station in Brookings, is hearing from area beekeepers, the long-term severity of losses of bees may be higher than national statistics have indicated.

“These losses are very serious and need to be addressed seriously,” Lundgren said.

Those who say that bee losses don’t matter because queens and hives can easily be replaced is analogous to telling a rancher that he can just breed more cows, he said.

“The White House initiative is on the right track to incentivize good behavior and increase the diversity in the agro-economic systems.”

There is mounting data that indicates pollinators are being adversely affected by lands heavily treated with pesticides.

“Science is consistent on this,” Lundgren said. “It gets back to good stewardship of these products, using pesticides when needed. Farmers should question inputs that aren’t necessary. Use of sustainable tools that provide resources for pollinators such as using no-till practices and cover crops are valuable ways to reduce costs and inputs. By using such solutions, farmers can heal the soil and heal the pollinator problems.”

Follow @farmeditor54 on Twitter.

Bees keep busy

South Dakota’s Department of Agriculture website indicates that honeybees normally perform 75 percent of their work within three-quarters of a mile of the hive and 90 percent of their work within 1 mile of the hive. Bees will forage up to two miles if necessary, but efficiency decreases as distance increases.

Honeybee pollination adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops across the nation each year. Some South Dakota crops that benefit from pollination include alfalfa, buckwheat, canola, legumes, sunflowers, safflowers, soybeans and many fruits and vegetables.