A new pilot project in North Dakota aims to get past frequent finger-pointing between beekeepers and farmers over the decline in bee populations and get them to work together with scientists to reverse the trend.
"It's an effort to help everybody realize that it is a complex issue and that solving one of the issues that causes stress for bees is not going to solve all of the problems," said Zac Browning, a fourth-generation beekeeper at Browning's Honey Company near Jamestown, N.D., and one of the project's developers.
The honey bee industry has struggled for years with the effects of disease, parasites, pesticides and the loss of habitat to feed bees.
Those problems have often created tensions between beekeepers and agriculture over where to place blame for bee colony losses, and led to simplistic and unsuccessful fixes.
"Seems like a no brainer: plant flowers. But it's not that simple," said Browning. "Trying to improve the habitat, it takes good science. Bees need diverse, plentiful nutrition throughout the entire foraging season."
Browning's family business has about 30,000 beehives with operations in North Dakota and Idaho, and this is harvest time.
"You can see the honey dripping all over the place. The workers are wearing gloves and aprons and they're still sticky," said Browning. "It's a messy process."
Browning could just as well be describing the state of the bee industry, which has gotten messy as beekeepers found it harder over the last decade to keep bees alive as the environment around them changed. That's increased costs and lowered honey production.
It's also driven a lot of research, understanding and new science on how to protect bees.
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"But never have we brought all of that technology together to demonstrate it in one place," said Browning. "We're trying to bring the best and newest technology together and demonstrate whether or not we can move the needle for bee health."
North Dakota is a good place to test this collaboration — it's the No. 1 honey-producing state in the country. Beekeepers bring about 500,000 hives here every summer.
But like other Midwest states, North Dakota has lost a lot of habitat as corn and soybeans replaced grasslands and conservation plantings.
This project includes U.S. Geological Survey scientists who are studying bee diets and University of Minnesota researchers monitoring bee populations and disease.
It also includes big pesticide companies like Syngenta and Bayer. Browning admits a lot of beekeepers see agrichemical companies as the enemy, but he said everyone needs to be part of the solution.
Communication is a key part of the project. Even in the first year, Browning has seen a difference when farmers plant bee habitat and feel invested in bee survival.
"They call when they have to make any kind of a decision. 'I'm going to plant this crop next to your bees this year. What do you think about that?' Or, 'I've got a pest problem, I need to spray. What should I use? When should I do it? Is that going to affect your bees?'" said Browning. "That only happens when you have good communication and a relationship."
Kasey Bitz is the other half of the relationship. On the farm he works with his father about an hour away from Browning's Honey, Bitz stands in a weedy looking field that's bright with purple and red flowers on a gray drizzly day. "Usually on a hot sunny day you can't hear yourself thinking because there's so much buzzing out here," laughs Bitz.
Bitz volunteered for this project planting bee habitat and hosting beehives from Browning's Honey. He gets paid for the habitat. It's less than he'd make from a soybean crop, but this piece of land is marginal, often too wet or too dry to get a good crop.
Bitz said he knew little about bees until this summer when University of Minnesota researchers visited to study the bees on his land. "They let me wear a bee suit actually, so that was kind of neat, getting into the hive, and they pointed out the queen bee right away and where all the workers are, and then to see the pollen traps and see the different colors and they pointed out these must be from your mom's flower bed," explained Bitz, who adds the researchers left him a head net so he can occasionally check on the bees.
He said getting pollinator habitat established is extra work. It also takes time to notify the beekeeper about pesticide use and take extra precautions to protect the bees from pesticide drift. But Bitz said this collaborative reflects his belief that farmers need to pay more attention to environmental concerns.
"I know there's a lot of head-butting," Bitz said. But "why not work together instead of this head-butting and maybe take some less productive areas and say 'hey, if you want to have some hives out there, I'll plant this mix for you.' Work out a deal with them."
Bitz is committed to this project for three years. But he's certain his interest in helping pollinators won't fade when the project ends.