UNCA community wary of declining honeybee populations

By Liam Baglivo, contributor

The UNC Asheville community joins the fight to help local pollinators by establishing pollinator meadows on campus. This is possible with funding provided by Burt’s Bees Greater Good Foundation, the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area Partnership and Bee City USA, according to university officials.

“There are a lot of parasites and pathogens that affect bees and being affected by one makes you more vulnerable to others,” said Rebecca Hale, assistant professor of biology at UNCA and Weaverville resident.

According to the USDA, the total number of managed honeybee colonies dropped by half since the 1940s with numbers now below 2.5 million.

The pollinators’ populations are under duress from a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, in addition to environmental stresses such as mites, pathogens, fungi, neonicotinoid pesticides and more, according to the USDA.

Colony collapse disorder occurs when most worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

David Clarke, professor of biology at UNCA and Asheville resident, said there is no one specific cause for the declining honeybee population, but multiple causes.

“Certainly any of those things, the parasites and neonicotinoids,” Clarke said, “would need addressing if you want to save the honeybees.”

Bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in crops each year, according to the USDA.

“Honeybees are the biggest pollinator of crops that need to be pollinated,” said Hale, a practicing beekeeper since 2008. “Anything that produces a nice, yummy fruit needs to be pollinated, and the way we do our agriculture nationally doesn’t allow natural pollinators to be as abundant around those crop fields. We rely on honeybees to do a lot of that.”

Bees pollinate various crops, some of which include apples, avocados, peaches, broccoli, onions, pumpkin and more, according to the National Resources Defense Council.

Many people are unaware of the importance of honeybees and the dangers they face. Kelly Norris, a sophomore environmental studies student at UNCA, said the decline of honeybee populations is alarming.

“I think the honeybees are ultimately important in a lot of aspects of life,” Norris said. “Pollinators are critically important to our well-being. They’re a part of our environment just as much as we are, and they deserve a fighting chance.”

If losses continue at the 33 percent level annually, it could threaten the economic viability of the bee pollination industry, USDA officials said.

While commercial beekeepers may experience losses, local beekeepers can still prosper, Clarke said.

“There may be some serious challenges for commercial beekeepers, but I’m hopeful that by eliminating some of the stresses on the bees, local beekeepers can keep their bees relatively healthy,” Clarke said. “It might not work on the commercial scale anymore, but hopefully there may still be local beekeepers that can do it.”

Hale said those interested in supporting local honeybees and staying educated about their population have many options.

“It’s important to not just have a few flowers in the spring that pollinators can visit,” Hale said, “but offering food to those pollinators for as much of the growing season as possible is really good.”

She said planting native plants, education on types of local pollinators and keeping pesticide levels down are ways to help the population.

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