For the last decade Oregon’s bees – both native bees and the introduced European honeybee used in agriculture – have been in decline. But researchers like Andony Melathopoulos of the Oregon Bee Project say there are many reasons to hope for a better bee future in the state.

Commercial beekeepers have historically expected to lose members of their colonies (between 10 and 21%) each year. However, since 2006 numbers have been higher than average, and in August 2017, the Bee Informed Partnership, a collaboration between research labs and universities in agriculture, saw Oregon colony yearly losses at 32.32%.

What hurts bees?

Bee numbers are affected by many of factors, all of which have been widely researched. The most often discussed factor is neonicotinoid pesticides, which cause paralysis and death in a wide range of insects considered harmful to food production (agriculture) as well as home gardens, turf grass and ornamental plantings. The use of neonicotinoid pesticides in the United States expanded after about 2000, primarily in commercial agriculture and especially as a coating for soybean and corn seeds. Neonicotinoid chemicals can also be sprayed on growing plants or added to water to be taken up and used protectively in plant systems.

But insecticides kill insects, and Penn State research has shown that neonicotinoid coatings on seeds reduce populations of beneficial predatory insects by 10 – 20%. The chemicals are linked to problems with bees as well; a 2015 Swiss study suggested that male honey bees with exposure had shorter life spans and produced fewer living sperm than males who did not. A 2017 study showed that exposure to neonicotinoids impacted the immune function in the common eastern bumblebee, an important wild and commercial pollinator. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has also been exploring a concern that neonicotinoids may impact learning and memory in bees, which may impair their foraging success.

Oregonians were shocked in 2013 and 2014 when almost 100,000 bumblebees – hundreds of colonies – were lost in mass kills linked to the use of neonicotinoids on varieties of ornamental Tilia trees.

Another leading concern for bee advocates is the uptick in Varroa mite populations. An external parasite of honeybees, the mites feed on the blood of adult bees and developing brood and cause a disease called varroosis, and have become a major pest for bees since their introduction in the states in the 1980s. In August 2017, the USDA released statistics showing that Varroa mites were the “top stressor” for US bee operations both large (five colonies and more) and small (less than five or more colonies) – in all of 2016.

Varroa mites pose serious problems for Oregon’s bee colonies, especially in recent warmer years when unusually long seasons have resulted in higher mite populations. “Beekeeping is still all about controlling varroa,” read a posting in the January-February 2018 online Oregon State Beekeepers Association website.

Another concern for advocates is Colony Collapse Disorder, CCD, a mystifying condition which surfaced in the fall of 2006 when beekeepers, especially in the United States, began to report massive losses of up to 90% of colonies. With CCD, the majority of the worker bees vanish from a hive, making the colony unsustainable.

Despite extensive study in the years since 2006, none of the potential culprits theorized by researchers (Varroa mites, a parasite called Nosema ceranae, malnutrition, pathogens, beekeeping practices, neonicotinoids) has been definitively shown to be the sole – or even dominant – cause of CCD.

Reason for hope?

With the multiple challenges facing Oregon bees, why do scientists like Melathopoulos, Assistant Professor of Pollinator Health in the Department of Horticulture at Oregon State University (OSU), feel positive about the future of bees in the state?

“Oregon has very high bee biodiversity and a dynamic beekeeping industry,” Melathopoulos says. “This is in large measure because the way we manage land in Oregon creates conditions that are favorable for bees in the state.” He notes that Oregonians “have been unanimous in asking to keep the state bee friendly” and that one result of the state’s will is the establishment of the Oregon Bee Project, of which he is a part. The Project integrates the efforts of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, OSU and the Oregon Department of Forestry to find solutions to the problems facing pollinators in the state.

Even before the Project began, ODA responded swiftly to the mass bumblebee deaths by restricting the use of neonicotinoid products on Tilia trees. Since February 2015, Melathopoulos says, there have been no further reported Oregon bee deaths from neonicotinoid chemicals.

He also points to HB3362, passed by the Oregon legislature in 2015. The bill joined ODA with OSU in the responsibility to “develop educational materials regarding the best practices for avoiding adverse effects of pesticides on populations of bees and other pollinating insects.” The bill requires bee colony owners to register with the state as well, and creates funding for developing a “bee incident reporting system.”

Now, agricultural workers and landscapers in Oregon who apply neonicotinoids have to take a course to learn how to minimize the impact on bees. “A lot of products are toxic,” says Melathopoulos, “the issue is how they are used.” For example, if a pesticide application is timed appropriately, by being applied before a plant is blooming, “in many cases, that pesticide will break down enough so that when the bees start visiting the flowers [the pesticide] will no longer be active.”

“People around the state want to help pollinators but they want to know what to do,” Melathopoulos says, “and Oregon Bee Project is about putting tools in people’s hands.” Last year OSU trained about 1,500 licensed pesticide applicators on how to use pesticides around pollinators and over the next 12 months, Melathopoulos and the Bee Project will be rolling out tools for homeowners to help them diagnose what’s wrong with a plant in their backyard – “because in many cases plants can look unhealthy for reasons that have nothing to do with pests” – and help them figure out solutions that may not include chemicals or bee-damaging practices at all.

As far as colony collapse, national figures show that the condition has leveled off. Melathopoulos says no symptoms of CCD have been seen in Oregon in the last four years.

Oregon’s native bees

The European honeybees kept by commercial beekeepers are not native to Oregon. Because their populations are closely observed, they can be easily counted. But Oregon has many wild, native bees, too. In fact, Melathopoulos says, Oregon has more native bee species than all the other states west of the Mississippi combined and studies conducted by OSU and ODA show that the state has healthy native bee populations.

Native bees contribute to commercial food production by using agricultural areas to get pollen and nectar. In fact, research shows their contribution in Oregon can be significant in crops like cranberry and clover seed.

While no state currently has the means to measure small changes in native populations, Oregon is striving to be the first with the Oregon Bee Atlas, an offshoot of the Oregon Bee Project. The Project will train volunteers around the state in how to survey and curate specimens of bees. The first full survey of Oregon’s native bees is anticipated by 2023.

Sensitivity to the importance of native bees can already be seen in Eastern Oregon, where there is “the only example in the world of farmers creating nesting beds for native bees for alfalfa seed production,” according to Melathopoulos.

The Bee Project has already begun to educate the public in ways they can support native bees. One fundamental quality of bees is that they get everything they need from the nectar and pollen of flowers. Because they survive on flowers alone, summer months, when blooms have past, can be very stressful for native populations.

With Oregon’s recent longer, hotter summers, “we need to plant more bee-attractive plants targeted to flower at the hottest time of year,” Melathopoulos says. It’s already happening in Astoria, where “a forestry company is putting flowers into its perimeter habitat to provide that. The Oregon Bee Project is trying to motivate and encourage that kind of habitat planting.”

Melathopoulos says the goals of the Bee Project are attainable.  Oregon has very high bee biodiversity, he says, “and Oregonians want to keep it that way.”