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Arkansas Bees Feel the Sting of Parasites, Pesticides

The average worker bee produces only about one-twelfth teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture/Flickr)
The average worker bee produces only about one-twelfth teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture/Flickr)
May 29, 2018

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Arkansas beekeepers may be hearing less buzz from their hives this spring. A new survey by the Bee Informed Partnership found that beekeepers reported a 40 percent bee colony loss in the last year.

A typical colony loss is less than half that, year over year, and advocates for honeybees are concerned. Jon Zawislak, apiculture instructor at the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said the Varroa mite is a large contributor to bee loss, in Arkansas and around the country.

"It's a parasitic mite that attacks the bees and can transmit a lot of viruses and other pathogens,” Zawislak said. “And so, they weaken the bees and they compromise their immune systems, while they're giving them diseases."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Arkansas lost 5,000 bee colonies in 2016, but added new colonies equal to the number lost.

In addition to mites, honeybees are affected by neonicotinoid pesticides. The European Union recently voted to ban their use, and some big-box garden stores have pledged to stop carrying plants treated with these chemicals in the next few years.

Tiffany Finck-Haynes, senior food futures campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said what's alarming about the colony loss reported in the new survey is that the data only includes 6 percent of the total managed bee colonies. It also doesn't account for bees living in the wild.

"If we merge the impacts of honeybee colonies with the decline of native bees, we've got a serious problem,” Finck-Haynes said; “because we're seeing an overall decline of critical pollinators in our environment that are critical to our ecosystem."

Zawislak said Arkansas bees do have a "wing up" on bees living in other parts of the country, because of the state's large amount of farmland.

"The beekeepers certainly benefit from all the irrigated farmland,” Zawislak said, “because the agricultural areas where we keep a lot of honeybees, they just stay a little bit greener and flowers stay in bloom for a very long period in the summertime."

Experts say even people who don't keep bees can help them by planting native plants in their yards and avoiding the use of chemicals as much as possible. Making sure you have plants that bloom in the spring, summer and fall also is helpful.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - AR