From beautiful flower gardens to fruits and veggies, honey bees and other pollinators are an important part of our ecosystem. Without honey bees to pollinate crops such as almonds, strawberries, broccoli and alfalfa, experts say, food supplies are at risk.
The threat is real.
A lack of pollinators could result in severe economic impacts for producers, growers and beekeepers. According to survey data from USDA, from 2007 to 2011, U.S. losses of managed honeybees over the winter ranged from approximately 28-33 percent, compared to a historical rate of 10-15 percent.
The reason for honey bee decline is much-debated—studies are popping up that name causes like pests, disease and lack of diet variety. One thing is for certain—Land O’Lakes, Inc. wants to help figure it out.
But why does Land O’Lakes care about honey bee health? Simple. These little guys help out in a big way—after all, they are the very first link in a long food chain. And that’s pretty important to Land O’Lakes, a company that feeds plants, animals and people.
We’ve joined with beekeepers, growers, researchers and others as founding members of the Honey Bee Health Coalition. The coalition was formed to improve the health of honey bees in general and specifically around agriculture. And as part of the coalition, we are committing our nutritional expertise and are busy becoming a home for hives.
Nutritional supplements for honey bees
At Land O’Lakes’ Purina Animal Nutrition Center in Missouri, 200 honey bee research colonies were installed earlier this year. Many of the colonies are hosts to varroa mite research; others are focused on the nutritional needs of honey bees. Grace Kunkel, a research scientist at the nutrition center, is researching those needs—something she is very passionate about.
“Honey bees consume two things in nature: nectar and pollen from flowers,” says Grace. “Nectar is their main source of carbohydrates, which provide energy. The pollen has protein, fat and certain trace minerals. What we are concentrating on right now is a supplement to use when the colonies don’t have access to a lot of natural pollen.”
Grace is creating nutrition supplements for the honey bees by mixing dry powder with sugar or corn syrup to form patties. The patties—the most commonly used supplement by beekeepers—are placed on top of the wooden hive, allowing the honey bees to feed freely. The impact of the nutrition supplements is one of the things that will be observed in Grace’s cage studies—controlled areas where honey bee colonies are contained for research purposes.
“Cage studies are great because you can tell within a few days if a diet seems promising,” she says.
Grace is recording a number of observations including how much brood (larvae) is produced, how much the colony weighs and how much food the honey bees store. This will help her figure out what to feed the honey bees in the future, as well as other ways to feed them.
Accompanying her research are plans to grow 20 acres of pollinator friendly plants next spring, making the farm more welcoming to honey bees. Grace will also collaborate with university microbiologists who study gut microbes in living organisms.
“It would be useful for us to sample the honey bees’ microbial content throughout the year and get a good idea of what’s in their microbiome and whether anything is changing,” says Grace. “We can then use that information to add other nutrients to their diet—maybe in the form of a probiotic.”
Creating a home for honey bee hives
Beyond the honey bee colonies at the Purina Animal Nutrition Center, we are seeking other ways to enable research and create a safe home for bees.
We’ve teamed up with the University of Minnesota Bee Squad to install an observation hive colony—part of their Hive to Bottle program—at our headquarters in Arden Hills, Minnesota. The Hive to Bottle program has installed honey bee colonies at a number of businesses, museums, golf courses and private residences throughout the Twin Cities.
"In addition to the important health data we collect, our program has a significant impact on how people see pollinators in their everyday life," says Rebecca Masterman, Ph.D., University of Minnesota Bee Squad associate program director. "Our customers become 'bee ambassadors' as a result of having a honey bee colony as a part of their landscapes."
"Minnesota has about 400 different species of bees, all of which need more flowers to provide better nutrition," says Rebecca. "All of these bees benefit when people plant bee friendly flowers that bloom from early spring until late fall."
Sounds like gardening is next on our “honey-do” list.