Plight of the Honey Bee
It’s a battle to save America’s pollinators. UF-educated beekeepers are taking up the charge.
By Cindy Spence (BSJ ’82)
A watermelon flower opens in the morning and closes at two or three o’clock in the afternoon. It never opens again. A honey bee has only a few hours to find the blossom — and visit multiple times — for the plant to be pollinated and bear fruit.
In the best of circumstances, it’s a little miracle of nature. But with U.S. beekeepers reporting losses of up to a million colonies of honey bees, nature could use some help. After all, no honey bees, no watermelons.
That’s where UF entomologist Jamie Ellis comes in. Since his arrival at UF in 2006, Ellis has marshaled research and extension resources as if he has a battle on his hands. And he has drafted a veritable army of beekeepers to march with him.
“There are probably 2,650 beekeepers registered with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and probably many more who are not registered,” says Ellis, who also serves as the North American representative to the International Bee Research Association. “We’ve seen a 140 percent increase in beekeepers in Florida in the last six years.”
It will take all those beekeepers and more to offset the phenomenon of disappearing bees in recent years. Scientists call it colony collapse disorder, or CCD, and are studying a range of possible causes from pesticides to mites to bee nutrition in an effort to solve the problem. CCD ranks as one of the leading agricultural mysteries because the AWOL bees leave so little evidence behind. The bees, healthy only weeks earlier, simply vanish from their hives, leaving behind their honey, their juveniles and even their queen.
The crisis is not yet apparent in today’s supermarkets, with produce bins piled high. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that California’s almond crop — by itself — already uses more than half the honey bee colonies available in the United States for pollination, and if colonies continue to collapse, almonds alone could need the majority of honey bee colonies. That presents a problem for farmers of the 100 or so other crops who rely on honey bees, too.
The crisis is getting attention, though, and once people hear about the trouble with honey bees, Ellis says, they want to help.
“Colony collapse disorder has put honey bees in people’s living rooms,” Ellis says. “More people than ever are aware of the tremendous benefit to having bees around. Everybody’s asking, ‘how can we help bees?’”
Armed With Knowledge
Ellis answered with two new programs. One, the Master Beekeeper program, is modeled on the Cooperative Extension Service’s wildly successful Master Gardener program, which educates thousands of gardeners each year and then uses their expertise in public service programs. The other program, Bee College, outgrew its location in its first year and in March 2012 — its fifth year — had to cap its registration at 300 participants.
Bee College offers more than 40 different workshops and lectures, so attendees have a lot of choices for expanding their bee knowledge. Ellis says the seminars range from “an introduction to honey bees” to “you’ve been a beekeeper forever; now let’s go to the next level.” Ellis and his extension and research assistants set up microscopes to show beekeepers how to dissect honey bees for pathogens, and it’s not unusual for beekeepers to show up with bees in jars and questions for Ellis.
In 2010, Ellis and his partners from the apiary section of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services added a Junior Beekeeper track, and multiple youths have participated since the first offering. Ellis figured the junior program would be a hit since his own interest in bees started at age 8.
“We wanted a catchy name, and we thought Bee College would let people know the level of education being offered,” Ellis says. “We thought it would catch on, but the success has been amazing.”
According to David Westervelt, chief of the apiary section of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the current number of beekeepers in Florida is 2,700, about two times the number of beekeepers in 2010.
Jerry Hayes, the former chief, says the interest in honey bees and Bee College is “amazing” and attributes the growth to a perfect storm: retiring baby boomers with time and money to take up beekeeping and the attention focused lately on colony collapse disorder.
Of the Bee College participants this year who were not already beekeepers, 98 percent say they plan to take up beekeeping. These alumni of Bee College and the beekeepers working their way through the Master Beekeeper program have formed an ad hoc army of advocates for bees statewide, Ellis says.
Nancy Gentry is one of them. The retired Flagler College English professor might seem an unlikely soldier, growing oranges and harvesting honey for her Cross Creek Honey Co. label from her home in Interlachen. But when she learned about the crisis facing honey bees, she was ready to do battle.
She found her version of bee boot camp in Bee College and the Master Beekeeper program, where she has reached level three — master beekeeper — and is working on a project to reach the final level — master craftsman.
“People describe us as Jamie’s little army,” Gentry says. “Dr. Ellis helps us acquire the expertise, and then we try to help educate the public.”
Ellis is glad to have the help. He points out that level one, the apprentice level, requires passing a test and a year of experience. Level two, advanced, requires passing another test, another year of experience and community service. Level three, master beekeeper, requires another test, more public service and choosing a major. To reach master craftsman, all the other requirements must be met and the beekeeper must take on a research or extension project. The knowledge and service adds up quickly. Ellis says Gentry’s project, updating and redesigning the 4-H bee curriculum, is of invaluable assistance.
“This [has been] on my list of things to do,” Ellis says, “but now I have a highly trained beekeeper who can help.”
Other extension and research projects that master beekeepers can undertake include beekeeping for Third World countries and beekeeping as a means of easing post-traumatic stress disorder for war veterans. Since the Master Beekeeper program is only five years old, no one has reached the highest level yet, but the potential for the program is limitless, Ellis says.
Education Takes Flight
Gentry says she thinks part of being a beekeeper is educating the public on the value of honey bees for pollination. In addition to revamping the 4-H curriculum, she also is working on getting the Boy Scouts of America to revive the beekeeping merit badge. Ellis says Gentry’s zeal is mirrored by other volunteers.
“Master beekeepers come face to face with 2 million people. The program puts them out there, telling the general public about bees,” Ellis says. “It creates extension ‘faculty.’”
Messengers such as Gentry free Ellis and his team to continue the research that feeds into future extension programs. The 15 research projects Ellis is overseeing in his lab cover honey bee husbandry, pesticide effects, Africanized honey bees, honey bee ecology and native bees. Any one of them could provide a clue to solving the mystery of CCD.
“Colony collapse disorder may be an amalgamation of bee problems, and if that’s the case, any bee scientist working on anything that kills bees is working on colony collapse disorder by default,” Ellis says.
Gentry says anyone who gardens should appreciate the service bees provide. Without her bees, she notes, her neighbors might not have fresh veggies on their dinner plates.
“Bees are just not in our environment anymore,” Gentry says. “There is danger in the insect world, and we should be really concerned they’re not there anymore.
“We’re in a fight for our lives.”