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Beekeepers, Researchers & State Lawmakers Agree: We Need The Bees

Bee Hive

A bee hive on Tracy Hunter's property in Martinsville (Seth Tackett, WFIU/WTIU News)

A law that went into effect this year lifts some of the restrictions that local governments can impose on beekeepers. The law’s passage comes as bee hobbyists and researchers try and determine why the insect is in decline.

“There’s nothing more enjoyable than just working in a bee hive, it’s a relaxing time,” says Tracy Hunter, who runs Hunter’s Honey Farm just outside Martinsville.

Hunter is a third-generation Indiana beekeeper. He sells nearly all of the honey he gets from his bees.

“Each worker bee lives for only about 40 days, about four to six weeks," Hunter says. "And in her lifetime she will produce one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey."

But Hunter worries about the future of the honeybee, because the species is losing a lot of its habitat and parasites are destroying its hives. 

In the 1980s, a beekeeper inadvertently introduced a parasitic mite into the bee population in Florida.

It wasn’t long before that mite reached Indiana.

“We found out they were vectors for viruses," Hunter says. "There’s about 12 viruses the mites carry -- that get into the honeybees' blood system."

Bees are also one of the largest non-native pollinators of crops in the United States. They pollinate plants, allowing the growth of seeds and fruits.

That pollen is a food source for bees; but the areas in which the bees can get that pollen are becoming scarce.

IU Biology Researchers
Indiana University biology students Audrey Parish and Delaney Miller work on some hives near campus, Oct. 4, 2019. (Mitch Legan, WFIU/WTIU News)

At Indiana University’s Department of Biology, Ph.D. student Audrey Parish is among several people trying to determine the effect parasites, pesticides and other factors like climate change have on honeybees.

“You can imagine a situation where deforestation and expansion of agriculture is knocking out the natural floral resources that these honey bees are typically experiencing, because of that they are unable to get pollen and the larvae are unable to get protein,” says Parish.

Parish and her colleague Delaney Miller spend their days at IU’s beehives and in the lab, where Miller is trying to develop a microbe to protect bees from certain diseases.

“I go out and I collect larvae from the field and rear them in the lab and either subject them to this microbe, or without it, and I challenge them with fungal infection to see if they are most likely to survive fungal infection,” says Miller, also a doctoral student.

While honeybees aren’t the only flower and crop pollinators out there, the loss or sharp decline of the species would have an impact on nearly everyone, according to IU biology professor Irene Newton:

“The numbers of apples that could be pollinated by the current population of native pollinators would be smaller, and outside the price range most people would be willing to pay or are able to pay,” she says.

There may be as many as 60,000 bees in a single hive. (Seth Tackett, WFIU/WTIU News)

According to a survey from a national beekeeping industry group, in the seven months between October 2018 and April 2019, 37 percent of managed honeybee hives were lost in the U.S.

More than two dozen states have passed laws to protect bees. Some states have placed restrictions on pesticides, while others have placed some bee species on protected lists.

In May, Governor Holcomb signed Senate Bill 529 that forbids municipalities from banning beekeeping in their cities.

In Hunter’s opinion, the law makes sense because an increasing number of Hoosiers want to start their own hive, and the law prevents any local governments from getting in the way.

“I would say in the last 20 years, backyard bee keepers, or hobbyist beekeepers, those with one to six hives have increased tremendously and now we have over 1,000 beekeepers in Indiana,” says Hunter.

But Hunter says you don’t have to be a beekeeper to make a difference.

Planting more wildflowers that attract bees, and always buying local honey -- not generic store brands -- will help, as well as cutting back on the use of pesticides.

Hunter says it’s more about an attitude change than anything else:

“The American consumer talks out of two sides of their mouth, I think one they say: “I want to buy organic food, on the other hand they don’t want dandelions in their yard so they spray to kill the dandelions,” he says.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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