Pests and pesticides: Two of honeybees’ biggest climate change-related threats

Our Changing Climate

SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — Did you know that one out of every three bites of our food is made possible by pollination of bees and other essential pollinators?

“These pollinators are important,” said Savannah Bee Company Marketing and Media Manager Kate Dowdle.

Honeybees, in particular, pollinate $15 billion worth of United States crops annually, according to Vice.

“If you go in a grocery store, especially the vegetable section, and if you look at all the vegetables and fruits that are available to you, it’s generally accepted that one-third of all of that is simply due to using honeybees to pollinate,” said Coastal Empire Beekeepers’ Association (CEBA) President Greg Stewart. 

Savannah Bee Company founder and president Ted Dennard considers the pollinators to be like the canary in the coal mine, Dowdle said.

“If the honeybee health is well, you know the environment’s doing well, and when the honeybees aren’t doing well, there’s a bigger problem that needs to be addressed,” she added.

Locally, the bee population seems to be doing just fine, Stewart said.

“Currently, with all the beekeepers from around Effingham, Bulloch and Chatham counties, Savannah still has a very good bee population,” he said. “We’re still finding and getting phone calls for bees in homes, which means they came from somewhere.”

The threat of pests

In some ways, climate change has posed threats to current honeybee populations.

One of the biggest issues stems from the honeybees’ biggest enemy: the Varroa mite, also known as the Varroa destructor. 

The parasitic mite was introduced to the U.S. via Florida in the 1980s. 

“The Varroa mite attacks their immune system and the hive,” Dowdle said. “In this climate change, the warm, humid weather is just allowing them to thrive, so that is a huge problem for the honeybees.”

Honeybees in our part of the world lack the natural defenses against the Varroa mites that the Eastern honeybees possess, according to Dowdle.

Beekeepers with CEBA, located in Savannah’s Oatland Island Wildlife Center, work to monitor those mite counts among their colonies, Stewart said.

“We assist the bees in getting those counts down because those mites are like ticks,” he said. “They feed on the bees, and a host of viruses get transferred. Those viruses can destroy a colony.”

The Savannah Bee Company’s non-profit “The Bee Cause Project” has helped to repopulate Exuma in the Bahamas with honeybees.

It is only one of two places in the world that is Varroa mite-free, in addition to an island off the coast of Australia, as was recently confirmed by the University of Georgia.

“We’re really excited about that,” Dowdle said.

She noted that the Varroa mite isn’t the only pest threatening to harm honeybees.

Studies have shown a link between climate change and the rise in invasive species, such as the small hive beetle.

It’s a parasite of honeybee colonies that can destroy honey bee colonies as well as their combs, pollen and honey.

“The Varroa mites and the hive beetles are two of their biggest problems,” Dowdle said.

Problems with pesticides

A warmer climate could lead to a rise in insect pests and weeds, which likely means increased use of pesticides and herbicides. 

One of the biggest issues comes from the use of neonicotinoids in herbicides, according to Dowdle. 

Neonicotinoids come out through the pollen; the honeybees carry that back to their hive and later, they eat the pollen.

“If a honeybee is eating or foraging on a flower that is sprayed with pesticides, it will kill them there, which is not great, but it’s not as bad as carrying the poison back to their hive, where they will later eat it and share it with everyone in their hive,” Dowdle said.

The neonicotinoids can disrupt a honeybee’s navigational system, which means they’ll leave the hive to forage and are unable to return back to the hive.

“In Colony Collapse Disorder, they’ll find the queens and drones there alone, and all the worker bees have disappeared,” Dowdle said. “For a long time, they didn’t know what was going on. They’ve identified that as a neonicotinoid.”

Some retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s now mark plants that are treated with neonicotinoids, which remain inside the plant for the plants’ lifetimes, according to Dowdle.

Some companies like Miracle-Gro have also pledged to remove neonicotinoids from their products over the next few years.

How you can help

Always taking care of the environment is a huge responsibility of ours,” Dowdle said.

There are some natural ways of warding off garden pests that are less likely to hurt honeybees, including avoiding the use of pesticides.

“For example, if you have a problem with pests in your garden, there are some aphids that have a natural predator — ladybugs, which can help combat the aphids,” Dowdle said. 

She also recommended planting mint, lemongrass and citronella to help keep mosquitoes away.

Avoiding having plants in the garden that are treated with neonicotinoids and opting for more natural or organic seeded plants can also help, she advised.

Stewart told News 3 that for beekeepers, positioning hives in brighter, sun-lit areas can keep away Varroa mites.

“You can pour powdered sugar on the honeybees, and they will clean themselves and clean the mites off with them, but that’s on a really small scale,” Dowdle said.

Agriculturally, she added, it’s nearly impossible for beekeepers to keep up without using antibiotics and the sort of pesticides that would take care of the mites.

“It’s a huge problem for the bees,” Dowdle said. “Luckily, honeybees are very resilient, they have an incredible range of genetic diversity, and that allows them to grow.”

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