The State of Honey Bees in Louisiana

May 30, 2012

Honey bee populations are dwindling across the country. Some experts blame Colony Collapse Disorder while others have linked pesticides and genetically engineered crops to the bee deaths. (PublicDomainPictures/JaniRavas)

Earlier this week Governor Bobby Jindal signed a bill into law that creates a "Save the Honeybee" license plate.

But why are honeybees so important?

For that answer WRKF's Ashley Westerman turned to Dr. Tom Rinderer, the researcher leader at the USDA Honey Bee Lab here in Baton Rouge. That lab will benefit from the proceeds from license plate.

"Honeybees are absolutely vital to American agriculture, they pollinate in excess of $20-billion worth of crops a year," said Rinderer.

There's been a lot of talk about colony collapse disorder as a reason why bee populations are dwindling throughout the country, but the work Dr. Rinderer does is a little different. 

RINDERER: Aside from all the agricultural issues related to bee keeping, bees have a variety of pests and parasites which are extremely harmful to bees. Many of these have been imported from other places and, well, we have them now and our goal is to produce stocks of bees that are resistant to these diseases and parasites. So we're a bee genetics and breeding lab, we study their genetics. We attempt to breed bees and have bread varieties of bees which are resistant to a creature named Varroa , which debilitates both the developing brood and adult bees. And so our goal is to produce stocks of bees that are more and more resistant to these, to allow beekeepers to not need to use agricultural chemicals in their bee hives.

WESTERMAN: There are lots of reasons as to why bees are dying in mass quantities but we're not seeing those deaths here in Louisiana the way the way the states in the great plains are seeing them. Can you tell me a little bit about why they're dying off in such large numbers in the great plains areas and why we're not seeing that was much down here?

RINDERER: Well, there's a variety of reasons. One is perhaps monoculture, where huge areas are planted in one crop that may or may not produce something that's useful to bees in terms of pollen or nectar. There's abundant weed control. From a bee keeper or bee stand point, weeds are a source of food and a variety of food so that's something they need, is a variety of different kinds of flowers. And Louisiana, although we have a very rich and diverse agriculture, also has a lot of woodlots which supply that variety of pollen of protein food for the bees. Another reason, of course, is Louisiana doesn't have a very severe winter compared to the Midwest. Typically bees survive much better during winter in Louisiana than they do elsewhere in the country. And of course the monoculture is associated with very often large applications of pesticides and while we do use pesticides in Louisiana as well, it's not the same level of broad-scale usage. So bees fair better in Louisiana generally for these and perhaps for other reasons.

WESTERMAN: I'm going to turn that question around for you and ask you, maybe, what are some of the things that people are doing in Louisiana, specifically, that are killing bees?

RINDERER: Well, that's a good question. I think to the degree that it happens not following labels on pesticides for usage is one thing that can cause bees to die. Misapplication in terms of amounts or timing or respective to wind conditions all contribute to bee mortality. And other than that I think we do pretty well in Louisiana compared to the rest of the world.

WESTERMAN: And when we talk about the rest of the world I know that there's been lots of talk about honeybee deaths because of genetically engineered crops and there's been no statistics of any sort of that in Louisiana, correct?

RINDERER: Well, I'm not too sure about that claim but I know that it's controversial and there are some people that think that is a major cause of honeybee loss, and other people claim not so much. And I think probably because of our cropping systems in Louisiana we don't have that to the degree that other places might, but it could well be that there are other factors in those other agricultural systems that are causing honeybee loss rather than specific modified crops.

WESTERMAN: Dr. Tom Rinderer of the USDA Honey Bee Lab, thank you so much for speaking with me.

RINDERER: You're very welcome.