To Save Bees, It Takes a Hive

Bees are vital to the food we eat, and they’re vanishing. Michigan State University is coordinating efforts to save them.
by | January 2016
(Flickr/Zach Frailey)

Beekeeping is much harder than it’s ever been. The number of beehives in the U.S. has dropped from more than 5.5 million in 1950 to just over 2.6 million today. It’s a serious problem given that one-third of food consumed comes from crops that are pollinated most frequently by bees. But while it’s clear bees are vanishing, it’s less clear what to do about it. That’s where programs like the Michigan Pollinator Initiative come in.

More than a billion dollars of Michigan agricultural products, from apples and cherries to blueberries and cucumbers, are dependent on bees for pollination. To figure out what’s plaguing them, the initiative, out of Michigan State University’s (MSU) entomology department, is working with beekeepers, researchers, farmers and other policy stakeholders to find solutions to the problem.

The program is in line with a national effort launched in 2014 by the Obama administration to solve many of the issues facing the nation’s pollinator populations. Research has so far found that there are multiple issues contributing to the plight of bees, including virsuses and loss of habitat, along with an increase in the use of pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids, that are thought to be harmful to pollinators.

 In Michigan, bee populations have dropped 30 to 50 percent each year over the past decade. The initiative, which launched last year in March, is looking at land management and crop production, among other things, to stanch the loss. It is also partnering with other organizations to create a database of all the research and resources available, with the goal of sharing best practices as they are developed. The database would provide information, for instance, on where landowners or researchers could find funding, whom farmers could contact for seeds and so forth. “We want to provide everything you need so you can actually put a project into implementation,” says Meghan Milbrath, project coordinator for the Michigan Pollinator Initiative. “That is where our role is, coordinating these existing resources.”

To that end, the Michigan Pollinator Initiative is hoping to gather various players -- from beekeepers and farmers to the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation to nonprofits -- for a two-day conference in the spring to discuss issues and solutions. While Michigan State has a strong research and continuing education program, says Milbrath, it is the state and localities that mostly have responsibility for policy and implementation. “The idea is to get pollinators and pollinator protection in the back of stakeholders’ minds,” she says. In other words, if the Department of Transportation is, say, making a policy decision with regard to mowing roadways, officials might ask themselves how it affects pollinators and how they can mow the median in a way that helps them. “There are all of these groups doing all these things independently,” says Milbrath. The goal is to “get those groups to connect with each other.”

The initiative also hopes to set up an education component. It has applied for a grant to create a program where master gardeners or people in state beekeeping clubs can become certified MSU pollinator educators. Milbrath says that under the program, interested participants would go through a training course and be provided with PowerPoint slides and handouts to then take to high schools or farmers markets. The idea is that they would have good, science-based information about the bee problem and could also offer information on what individuals can do to help, such as expanding bees’ habitat, which can be as simple as putting in a pollinator garden or allowing things to flower.

There’s an education component for policymakers too. “A lot of people assume that the issues with bees are getting better over time,” Milbrath says, “but we still haven’t made the major changes needed to make the situation better for beekeepers, honeybees and other native pollinators. We need to translate all the media attention into successfully funded and well-operated programs that are actually helpful.”