OSU research zeroes in on critical factors of honey bee health

OSU honey bee researcher Ramesh Sagili checks a hive.
OSU honey bee researcher Ramesh Sagili checks a hive. (Photo by Lynn Ketchum.)
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OSU's lab examines thousands of bees for diseases

Honey bees are crucial pollinators for many crops, including blueberries, pears, cherries, apples and vegetable seeds. Nationwide, they pollinate more than $15 billion worth of food each year. About one mouthful in three in Americans' daily diet directly or indirectly benefits from honey bee pollination. But the total number of managed honey bee colonies has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to only 2.5 million today. That's far below the number of colony rentals needed to meet U.S. pollination recommendations (excluding cotton), which is 9 million. In Oregon alone, which was home to 62,000 honey bee colonies in 2013, beekeepers lose about a fifth of their hives each winter, which isn't economically sustainable.

So OSU researchers are making sure that these hardworking insects are healthy and thriving. That's important because a beekeeper with 1,000 hives can easily spend $3,000 a year on antibiotics. At a diagnostic lab on campus, technicians examine thousands of bees that commercial hive owners send them to check for mites, nosema spores and protein levels. As soon as the analysis is done, they post the results online so beekeepers can easily access them. The lab is estimated to save Oregon's beekeepers about $1.4 million a year in reduced costs for medications. 

OSU is also researching how honey bees' diets affect their health. Scientists have found that bees that ate pollen from only one source had fewer brood, lower protein levels and weaker immune systems compared with bees that foraged on multiple sources of pollen. As a result, OSU recommended to Oregon's beekeepers that they feed protein supplements during pollination of carrot seed and blueberry. Beekeepers who took that advice reported losing only 10 percent to 15 percent of their colonies versus the usual amount of about 20 percent. This translates to $3 million in savings to beekeepers.

In other research, OSU is testing specific hives for pests and pathogens, the presence of pesticides, and nutritional status, and then comparing that data with survival rates for the colonies. The ultimate goal is to design best management practices for beekeepers that are customized for specific crops and climatic regions.

Additionally, OSU is examining the effects of commonly used pesticides on honey bees. This will help growers design a bee-friendly protocol for applying pesticides. Along those lines, in 2013 OSU Extension completed a major revision of its guide How to Reduce Bee Poisoning From Pesticides to incorporate new chemicals that have been registered for use. Growers and beekeepers extensively use the publication, which is the only up-to-date comprehensive publication on this subject in the United States. The Oregon Department of Agriculture plans to print 8,000 copies to distribute to pesticide applicators.

Health isn't the only aspect OSU's researchers are working on. Using pheromones to increase pollination, they've been able to boost yields in carrot seed crops by 15 percent. They expect similar results in other crops they're studying such as blueberries, blackberries, and clover.

Sources: OSU honey bee researcher Ramesh Sagili; USDA's Agricultural Research Service website on honey bees and Colony Collapse Disorder; USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service; Cornell University's study "Insect Pollinated Crops, Insect Pollinators and U.S. Agriculture: Trend Analysis of Aggregate Data for the Period 1992–2009"

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