OSU's honey bee lab helps keep pollinators healthy

Jorgensen, bees
Honey bee researcher Jared Jorgensen places cages of bees in a temperature-controlled cabinet. Photo by Lynn Ketchum

Honey bees are crucial pollinators for many crops, including blueberries, pears, cherries, apples and vegetable seeds. Nationwide, they pollinate more than $15 billion in food crops each year.

But the total number of managed honey bee colonies has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to 2.5 million today, far below the number needed to meet U.S. pollination recommendations. In Oregon alone, which was home to 70,000 honey bee colonies in 2016, beekeepers lose about one-fifth of their hives each winter.

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 alone. At OSU’s honey bee diagnostic lab, technicians examine thousands of bees that commercial and backyard hive owners send them to check for mites, nosema spores, and protein levels. The lab is estimated to save Oregon's beekeepers about $5 million a year in reduced colony losses and 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 that beekeepers feed protein supplements during pollination of carrot seed and blueberry blossoms. Beekeepers who took that advice lost only 10 percent to 15 percent of their colonies, versus the usual average loss about 20 percent. This translates to about $3 million in savings to Oregon beekeepers.

In other research, OSU is conducting longitudinal studies to quantify and monitor pests and pathogens, the presence of pesticides, and nutritional status, and then compare those data with survival rates for the colonies. The goal is to design best-management practices for beekeepers and growers that are customized for specific crops and climatic regions.

Additionally, OSU bee researchers are examining the effects of commonly used pesticides on honey bees, helping growers design a bee-friendly protocol for applying pesticides. Their findings are incorporated into a major 2016 revision of the OSU Extension guide How to Reduce Bee Poisoning from Pesticides--now featuring an accompanying smart-phone app. These publications—the most up-to-date, comprehensive resources on honey bees in the United States—are extensively used by growers and beekeepers, and they are recommended by the Oregon Department of Agriculture as study materials for the pesticide applicator license exams.

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