UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – One of Pennsylvania’s most important labor forces is currently hard at work in the state’s orchards and fields, helping to ensure the success of crops worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
These workers are honey bees, and without them – and the people who keep and manage them – Pennsylvania’s bountiful crops of apples, peaches, soybeans, pears, pumpkins, cucumbers, cherries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries would not be possible.
Challenges. “Despite many challenges, Pennsylvania’s beekeepers continue to provide critical pollination services to the state’s fruit and vegetable industries,” said Maryann Frazier, Penn State Cooperative Extension apiculture (bee and beekeeping) specialist.
“For instance, the state’s $45 million apple crop – the fourth largest in the country – is completely dependent on insects for pollination, and 90 percent of that pollination comes from honey bees,” she said.
“So the value of honey bee pollination to apples is about $40 million.”
In total, honey bee pollination contributes about $55 million to the value of crops in the state, according to Frazier.
Dropping, rebounding. Largely as a result of parasitic varroa and tracheal mites and related diseases, the number of managed honey bee colonies in Pennsylvania dropped from more than 80,000 in 1982 to a low of just 25,000 in 2004, before rebounding to about 35,000 currently.
This net loss of colonies poses a serious threat to the state’s bee-pollinated crops.
Solutions. Researchers and extension educators in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences work with state officials, beekeepers and beekeeping groups to find solutions to these challenges and to provide recommendations that can increase the survival of hives.
“We belong to the five-state Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium, which translates scientific information into educational programs and materials that can help novice and experienced beekeepers to manage their hives effectively,” Frazier said.
“Pennsylvania is a model of how government, university research and extension, and industry can work together to address issues affecting honey bees,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, acting state apiarist in the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
“We’re continually facing new challenges, and we need to be proactive to keep honey bees healthy and beekeepers in business.”
Registered keepers. There are about 1,800 registered beekeepers in Pennsylvania, according to vanEngelsdorp.
More than half of the state’s colonies are owned by just 1 percent of beekeepers.
Many of these larger beekeepers overwinter their bees in Florida. Most return to Pennsylvania in the spring to pollinate tree fruits.
Some then move their hives to Maine to pollinate blueberries before returning in time for summer vine crops, such as pumpkins.
About 75 percent of the state’s beekeepers are considered hobby or “backyard” beekeepers, accounting for about 13 percent of the colonies.
They may provide limited pollination services to smaller, local growers, and their bees also help to pollinate neighborhood vegetable and flower gardens and wild plants.
Future demand? But colony losses, increasingly strict local government regulations and an increased need for pollination services mean beekeepers may not be able to keep up with future demand.
“Some townships have enacted ordinances banning beekeeping, which is just one more obstacle for beekeepers to overcome,” vanEngelsdorp said.
“At the same time, honey bees are increasingly in demand,” he said.
“The large almond industry in California has a growing need for pollination. It’s estimated that five years from now, there won’t be enough bees in the United States just to pollinate California almonds.”
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