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Finding a way to 'bee' better

April 25, 2017

Researchers and students take a look at the dramatic decline in our bee population.

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With summer approaching, you may find fewer bees bugging your picnics. While this might sound appealing on the surface, it speaks to something that holds potential harm for our society.

Simply put, the bee population is in decline. Since 2006, commercial beekeepers in the United States have reported honey bee colony loss rates at an average of 30 percent each winter. Compared to historical loss rates of 10 to 15 percent, this is a dramatic shift in the wrong direction.

Reed Johnson is one researcher who is paying attention to this concerning trend. A professor in Ohio State’s Department of Entomology, he is working across disciplines to learn to understand the bee loss. He said there are a number of contributors to pollinator decline. “Disease, urbanization, changes in the way we farm and increased use of pesticides have all contributed to loss of bees,” he said.

Over the past 60 years, the number of managed honey bee colonies (hives) in the United States has dropped from 6 million colonies in 1947 to 4 million in 1970, to 3 million in 1990, to just 2.5 million today.
Ohio State student groups like Students for a Sustainable campus are doing the work necessary to play an active role in protecting pollinators.
Eleven different plants now grow in this hillside pollinator garden at Chadwick Arboretum.
Ohio State researcher Reed Johnson is taking a close look at how bees interact with their environments.
In 2014, Chadwick Arboretum established a t a pollinator garden at the Chadwick Arboretum North site.
A number of students recently participated in a pollinator panel discussion being hosted at Ohio State.

Bees pollinate approximately one third of the world’s food supply -- experts suggest that pollinators such as bees, butterflies and moths have a $500 billion per year impact on global food production. So when those insect species are threatened, researchers take notice.. The pollination services provided to food crops and rangeland forages by honey bees are valued at $15-20 billion per year in the United States alone, and worldwide, more than 1,000 plants grown for food, spices, beverages, medicines and fibers need to be pollinated to persist.

Without the help of pollination by bees, the world would be without such well-loved foods as chocolate, coffee and many fruits, nuts and vegetables.

Other Ohio State experts are tackling the challenge as well.

Sharon Treaster, an emeritus researcher with the Ohio State Department of Horticulture and Crop Science, is focusing on the pollinators' loss of habitats. Treaster said the changing landscape of the country has had a detrimental effect on the bee population.

In a wilderness environment awash with native shrubs, trees and flowers, bees would want for nothing. And, historically, they have been easily able to meet their needs. But, Treaster points out, in a cement-paved, highway-crossed, skyscraper-filled urban environment, the food sources that are necessary for bees’ survival ­― nectar from native wildflowers ― are often just too few and far between.

“Honey bees only travel 2-3 miles to find flowers,” Treaster says, “so to be able to persist in a city, they need food sources that are abundant and fairly evenly spaced.”

One effective way of reversing this trend is simply to plant more gardens.

In 2014, Treaster recruited Chadwick Arboretum volunteers to help plant a pollinator garden at the arboretum’s north site. Eleven different plants now grow in this hillside pollinator garden, including wildflowers like purple coneflower, meadow blazingstar and prairie dropseed. This variety accommodates several different types of pollinators, including bees and monarch butterflies.

Ohio State students are contributing as well. A student organization, Students for a Sustainable Campus, has made pollinators the theme of its work for the 2016-2017 school year. In May of 2017, the club will plant a new pollinator garden on the Columbus campus next to Aronoff Laboratory ― on south campus, near the med center.

As the university’s existing pollinator garden is tucked away in Chadwick Arboretum North, west of the Olentangy, on the hillside leading up to SR 315, the club’s reason for starting this second pollinator garden is to create a more visible pollinator habitat that can open student and faculty eyes to the issue of pollinator decline.

“It's incredible that we as an Ohio State student organization have planned this completely independently,” said Allison DeLong, who is a third-year Environment, Economy, Development and Sustainability major and a Students for a Sustainable Campus member. “Once it gets finished. we will have something permanent on campus as a testament to our group and to the type of impact that students can have on their own campus.”

Ways you can help pollinators

1. Create a honey bee friendly habitat in your yard. Ideally, maintain a variety of flower or tree species and a fair amount of blooms from each species.

2. Eat more organic foods to reduce the amount of pesticides affecting bees.

3. Purchase honey from your local beekeeper ― as beekeeping is a dwindling practice, small, local beekeepers can use all the support they can get.

4. Avoid the use of herbicides and insecticides on your lawn. If you must use one, read the label to see if it is bee non-toxic before purchasing.