READING, Pa. - Honeybees are said to be responsible for every third bite of food we eat. So their declining population is a concern that goes beyond the bees themselves.
"Honeybees are important pollinators and have been studied in the last few years to try to explain why their populations are declining," said Nancy Bosold, turfgrass management educator for the Penn State Extension in Bern Township.
"An international group of experts, representing many research institutions, are working together to try to get answers," Bosold said. "The current research has determined that honeybee populations decline from a combination of factors including diseases, parasitic mites, poor nutrition, weak genetics and pesticide exposure."
How much has the bee population declined? About 71 percent since 1940, based on colony counts, according to Mark "Coach" Smallwood, executive director of the Rodale Institute in Maxatawny Township.
"There are 250 billion less bees since the 1940s," he said.
And while losing honeybees entirely would not lead to mass starvation, daily diets would be a lot less interesting without fruits and vegetables, he said.
SOME NEWS IS GOOD
The phenomenon is known as colony collapse disorder, where the majority of worker bees disappear, leaving behind a queen and a few other nurse bees to care for the hive.
But there is good news: Cases of CCD have declined substantially over the last five years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The number of hives that do not survive the winter has held steady at 30 percent since 2008 - a high number - but the percentage of those losses attributed to CCD fell from 60 percent to 26 percent by 2012.
Reseachers are focusing much of their attention on pesticides and how they are used. Last month, the EPA announced new labeling requirements for classes of pesticides harmful to bees, prohibiting their use where bees are present.
The new labels will feature an advisory box and icon offering information on routes of exposure and how to prevent the products from drifting.
Bosold said the strongest recommendation coming from recent research is to follow common sense practices that keep honeybees and other pollinating insects out of harm's way.
Jody L. Eberhart, vice president of the Pennsylvania State Beekeepers Association, keeps his bees far away from outside influences.
"Our hives sit on top of a mountain at a 2,000-foot elevation in a 15-acre field where I live," said Eberhart, a police officer who lives in Westmoreland County about an hour east of Pittsburgh.
Eberhard and his sister Roberta C. Jones have 11 hives and operate under the name Laurel Mountain Bees.
Because of his location and the arrangement of the hives as suggested by Nancy Ostiguy, an associate professor of entomology at Penn State, Eberhart and Jones have seen no losses in the past few years.
"If you look at homeowners, rural farms, municipal authorities and commercial manufacturers, the potential of use and impact of pesticides and chemicals is frightening," Eberhart said.
Eberhart advocates educating the public about the importance of honeybees and the need to respect them and ensure they live in a safe, healthy environment.
RESPECT THE BEES
Besides pesticides, Smallwood criticized a practice of moving honeybees from location to location to pollinate fields, saying it disorients them and weakens their immune systems, leaving them vulnerable to parasites such as varroa or tracheal mites.
Puffing whiffs of smoke around bees to calm them also negatively affects bee health, he said. Humans have two nostrils to take in scents, whereas bees have close to 200 scent receptors.
"It takes 10 days for their scent receptors to clear up," Smallwood said.
Rodale, a pioneer and advocate of organic farming practices, maintains hybrid hives on its Maxatawny Township farm, combining natural tree hive settings and the traditional wooden box kind. Bees are given access to fresh water so they don't have to drink from stagnant puddles and ditches, Smallwood said.
Rodale offers training in backyard beekeeping and allows hobbyist to keep hives on their property if they are prohibited from doing so at home by law or a homeowners' association rules.