According to the Penn State University Center for Pollinator Research, beekeepers in the United States have been losing about 30 percent of their colonies every year for the past decade. These trends are reflected in the population of wild bees as well, with a number of species now listed as threatened or endangered.
Pollinators in South Mountain
Dave Biddinger has been doing research on the Japanese horn-faced bee, a mason bee species introduced more than 30 years ago that is commonly used for commercial apple pollination in Japan.
In the South Mountain region, pollinators play a crucial role in the agriculture industry. Farmers rely on pollinators, primarily wild and domesticated bees, to pollinate their crops during vital periods of growth. Honey bees have been a staple pollinator on farms and orchards since the dawn of agriculture, according to research published in Nature, an international science journal.
Honey bees in particular are seen as valuable contributors to the agriculture industry, with colonies being shipped across the nation throughout the year for pollination during growing seasons. However, it just so happens that honey bees are at the forefront of bee decline.
U.S. agricultural statistics show a honey bee decline from about 6 million hives in 1947 to 2.4 million hives in 2008, a 60 percent reduction in just over 60 years.
To combat this decline in the abundance of available honey bee colonies, orchards and farms in the South Mountain area have begun taking advantage of wild bees to ease the reliance on honey bee pollination.
"I've actually collected 268 species of bees from orchards in Adams County alone," said Dave Biddinger, a tree fruit research entomologist based at the Penn State Fruit Research and Extension Center in Biglerville. "Relying on wild pollinators really works. Over half of our apple growers don't use honey bees anymore for apples."
If the numbers of these wild bees and other wild pollinators start to dwindle, Biddinger says farmers will be forced to return to using the already declining population of honey bees for pollination, which is not optimal for apple orchard pollination. Biddinger explained that the growing season for apples is too early for honey bees to be effective, but later in the year when their populations are built up, honey bees can be effective in pollinating other crops such as squash.
But as long as we take care of the flora and landscape surrounding these orchards, Biddinger says we should not have too much to worry about for the time being.
"As long as we keep fairly small orchards that are surrounded by good habitat, we'll be okay," Biddinger said. "Relying on wild pollinators doesn't work well when you've got no habitat for the bees to nest. In Pennsylvania, our orchards are smaller and on the sides of mountains, so they tend to be surrounded by a lot of wooded areas."
What is killing the honey bees?
Attacks by parasites, pesticide use, climate change, loss of the natural abundance of flora due to increased land use and habitat destruction are a few of the causes researchers have associated with worldwide honey bee population decline.
For those in the agriculture industry and for consumers who love their fresh produce, these declines are for concern. Nearly 75 percent of major food crops, including fruits, vegetables and nuts, depend on honey bees and other pollinators. In Pennsylvania alone, these crops contribute $260 million to the economy annually.