Beth Eiring, quarantine and nursery specialist for the Montana Department of Agriculture, is among those on the front lines of the fight for bee health in Montana, a state which typically ranks in the top five in the U.S. for honey production.
Eiring speaks frequently on the topic of bee health in the state, as well as providing some general bee-keeping advice. She was in Sidney last week to talk about the state of bees in Montana.
“Bees are livestock,” Eiring said. “Treat them that way. Treat for varroa mites. Inspect them every week or couple of weeks. The days of just throwing them on the back 40 and having production are gone.”
A variety of diseases can attack bees out in the field. There is, for example, Nosema, a gut fungus that causes diarrhea, but is relatively easy to handle, with a treatment that can be added to their sugar water.
Deformed wing virus can be carried by varroa mites. The bees will have wings that are small and deformed, resembling an older bee’s tattered and beaten up wings
Tracheal mites are microscopic, and climb into the breathing tubes of bees, stressing them out to the point they cannot survive.
“Varroa mites are called Varroa Destructor, and not for nothing,” she said. “They will wipe out a hive in two years and are the number one cause of bee mortality in the U.S.”
Bees with Varroa mites have a bloodsucking vampire clinging to them, and that is bad enough, but the pest can also bring a variety of diseases to a hive. Bees are social creatures, touching each other to communicate, and they are also fairly inquisitive, prone to picking up everything from pollen to dust grains.
If a hive has Varroa mites and another comes in to rob them, chances are the robbers will get an unintended payload of mites as well as whatever diseases the mites had brought into that hive.
Eiring in 2015 participated in pollen sampling efforts to determine what bees are exposed to. She collected pollen from hives across Montana.
“We found everything you can imagine,” she said. “We found all the chemical treatments used. There was almost every kind of almond pest fungicides.”
These residues were not necessarily present in levels dangerous to humans, but they were higher than the background levels of what is naturally present.
“So do you think organic honey is 100 percent organic?” Eiring asked.
Loss rates in Montana were at 40 percent of honey bee colonies, Eiring said. Loss is something beekeepers have had to get used to. She herself took over 11 colonies, three of which were dead.
“I took that as just a normal loss,” she said. “Losses are common. It’s an expensive hobby. You just have to know going in that there are going to be losses and accept it.”
Slowing the loss rate is something everyone can help with, though, and part of what the state’s draft pollinator plan is looking at. Everyone, beekeeper or not can play a role in helping an important agricultural partner survive.
can help bees
Among recommendations in the state’s pollinator plan is to use integrated pest management to determine when economic thresholds require the use of pesticides, and, when insecticides are required, to choose those with the least toxicity to bees, a short residual toxicity or even repellant properties toward bees.
Registered pesticides must be used according to their label. The label is the law in both North Dakota and Montana. Use restrictions on the pesticide may outline prohibitions intended to protect bees in an area. Some of these labels even require the applicator to notify beekeepers prior to application. Pesticide labels also now contain information about their risks to pollinators.
An early morning or late afternoon/evening application of pesticide allows the material to dry before bees begin foraging, lowering the toxicity to the non-target organism. Be aware of temperature inversions, which can cause problems with drift, as well as the efficacy of pesticides at particular temperatures.
Montana maintains a website with many of the registered apiaries on it to help growers with the notification requirements. Landowner and hobbyist apiaries are not on it, and while the map is updated regularly, it cannot necessarily be assumed that it shows all apiaries in an area.
help bees, too
Regular homeowners, too, can do things to help bees, Eiring added. Planting flowers that bloom early or late, and adding native flowers to a landscape can help bees find the nutrition they need.
“Bees need a varied diet,” Eiring said. “That’s one reason why so many bring bees to Montana after the almonds. Everyone needs a varied diet.”
Early flowers are particularly important, Eiring added, as bees have been emerging earlier and earlier, and at that point they are hungry and vulnerable.
Bees also benefit from access to water and shelter. Native bee houses are becoming popular, and something she encourages, as native bees are actually just as important a partner for area gardens. Alfalfa fields, in particular, are not best served by honey bees — they are best served by leaf cutters.
Native bee houses can be constructed by drilling holes of varying sizes into a board and placing them upright in a garden or other area The native bees are solitary and don’t generally sting unless picked up.
“I know people are putting up Mason bee houses and other bee houses,” she said. “I’m pushing that, too. Bee houses and pollinator friendly plants — one of the best things we can all do is plant flowering plants across the whole season that have nectar, especially early and late season plants. And fence rows can be good. The bees really like them.”