Story from some of my friends and one I supervise Rob Horsburgh Declining bee populations could have big impact on food supply By Christina Kelso Florida Times Union At any given moment inside the oozing walls of a honey bee hive, a legion of inch-long, yellow-striped residents are on the move. The workers. The drones. The queen. Each has a job to do. They bustle in and out of the hive, with the goal of supporting the intricate structure of their honeycomb city. But what these six-legged laborers donâ€™t know is that their actions are at the backbone of a much larger system. The 2.62 million managed honey bee colonies in the U.S. are critical to the agriculture system that produces $15 million worth of U.S. crops annually and a third of the food that hits American plates. As U.S. beekeepers continue to experience damaging losses to their colonies each year, itâ€™s a dependence teetering at the edge of disaster. Since October 2006, U.S. beekeepers, commercial and backyard, have experienced an average loss of 30.5 percent of their colonies over the winter seasons, according to a survey by the Bee Informed Partnership in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America and the USDA. While some winter loss is normal, the acceptable range is considered to be no more than 15 percent. After seeing numbers dip to 21.9 percent in winter 2011-12, losses were 31.1 percent in winter 2012-13. â€œThe situation hasnâ€™t gotten any worse, but it hasnâ€™t really gotten any better either,â€ said Jamie Ellis, University of Florida associate professor of entomology and head of the Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory. KEYS TO AGRICULTURE Itâ€™s an unnerving phenomenon that is expected to have major economic implications. Although honeybees are not native to the U.S. â€” they initially tagged along with the first European settlers â€” pollination is responsible for the production of many staples the American diet, such as watermelons, apples, cantaloupes, blueberries, strawberries, broccoli, onions, avocados, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers and some citrus. Additionally, fodder crops such as clover and alfalfa that feed cattle and chickens for the meat industry, rely on honeybees. The USDA estimates that one in every three bites of food an American eats is a product of honeybee pollination, and without the insects, would not be able to be farmed. â€œImagine sitting down to a meal and raking off a third of the food before you even get a chance to get started,â€ Ellis said. Decreases in honeybee numbers have made pollination services a hot commodity within recent years, resulting in an increase in both the costs of hives and the distances they are being shipped. If honeybees were to continue to decrease in number, pollination costs would be expected to continue to rise and potentially lead to increased food prices, Ellis said. One industry in which this can be seen is almonds. Produced in California, almonds rely almost solely on the pollination efforts of honeybees. Each February, 1.4 million honeybee colonies, 60 percent of the nationâ€™s managed colonies, are shipped to California to pollinate almond groves. â€œIâ€™ve heard a colleague describe it like the sound of a vacuum, every year in February sucking all the bees out to California,â€ Ellis said. The phenomenon of bee die-offs is attributed to Colony Collapse Disorder, in which, for unknown reasons, the adult bees in a colony disappear. It is understood to be a product of multiple stressors, including poor nutrition, pesticides, stress from traveling long distances, pathogens and pests, Ellis said. The odds have swarmed against honeybees. The longest journeys of their lives no longer take place over meadows under the power of their own wings, but over cross-country stretches of asphalt in the rolling cargo holds of 18-wheelers. Once they arrive on scene and begin to forage, they run the risk of encountering nectar laced with harmful pesticides and fungicides. Placed in monoculture environments where they can only feed on the nectar of one type of plant, bees are often malnourished, unable to receive all of the amino acids that would come with a natural varied diet. Infestations of parasites such as the varroa mites, which feed on the body fluids of honeybees, can weaken bees, spread pathogens and destroy entire colonies when left untreated. FLORIDA THE EXCEPTION Floridaâ€™s honeybee numbers are not typical of national averages. In a time of national honeybee losses, Florida has seen a vast increase in the number of colonies. In 2006, the state had approximately 150,000 colonies and just under 1,000 beekeepers, Ellis said. In 2013, Florida has reached 350,000 colonies and 3,000 beekeepers, a growth that Ellis attributes to education and extension programs, increased consumer and media interest in honeybees, and the careful record-keeping done by the state. While researchers throughout the country continue to work out the mysteries behind honeybee losses, there are a number of things people can do in their daily lives to help the bees. By using the power in their pocketbooks to purchase and support organic produce, planting pollinator-friendly gardens, supporting research and extension programs, being careful with use of pesticides and fungicides or trying their hands at backyard beekeeping, people can have an impact, said Robert Horsburgh, apiary agriculture and consumer protection specialist with the Florida Department of Agriculture. â€œA lot of people see a bee on a flower and they may be a little bit intimidated by it,â€ Horsburgh said. â€œHoneybees are actually a lot calmer than a lot of people would think. Enjoy seeing the bees in your yard and realize they are helping the environment, they are not out to sting anyone.â€ Ellis, whose lifelong infatuation with the honeybee began when he first started beekeeping as a hobby at the age of 12, recommends that people try keeping bees of their own. â€œHoneybees are one of those things that are just remarkably rewarding to work with,â€ Ellis said. Able to thrive anywhere from large yards to subdivisions to rooftops, most people can actually keep bees, Ellis said. These honeybees will pollinate up to an 80-square-mile radius around the hive, foraging, pollinating and bringing life to neighborhood gardens all the way to the wildflowers and palmetto thickets up to 2 miles away. â€œYou can approach keeping honeybees from the artistic perspective, you can approach it from the agriculture prospective, you can approach it from the hard work or the carpentry perspective because you have to build hives, from the nature perspective or from the intellectual perspective,â€ Ellis said. â€œHoneybees really do offer a lot for everyone.â€ Plus, there is an added, even sweeter perk. â€œThe best honey on the planet is what comes out of your own backyard,â€ Ellis said. Throughout Florida, there is an immense network of support for individuals interested in keeping bees. Northeast Florida boasts some of the largest beekeeping associations in the state, with organizations in Duval, Clay, St. Johns and Putnam counties. â€œOne of the best things people can do is take the time to learn about the anatomy of the bee,â€ said Jeanette Klopchin, laboratory manager and research technician for the UF Honey Bee Research and Extension Lab. â€œYou canâ€™t really help something if you donâ€™t understand it.â€ For anyone interested in learning about honeybees or beekeeping, UF hosts an annual Bee College, a two-day event where people can take beginning, advanced, or youth classes on the topic of bees. The next opportunity will take place on Aug. 14-15 in Fort Lauderdale for the first South Florida Bee College. In Northeast Florida, Bee College will take place March 7-8 in St. Augustine. â€œItâ€™s very easy for people to get involved in bees and e part of this bee fraternity as we all kind of race together to try to save the bee,â€ Ellis said.