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Honeybees benefit health and crops

Published March 2, 2010
There are several health benefits to eating honey, a University of Illinois Extension unit horticulture educator noted.

"People have improved exercise performance when they consume honey before they exercise," said Jeff Rugg. "Honey helps muscles recover faster from exercise and honey contains antioxidants. It has been found to have anti-cancer, anti-fungal, and antibacterial properties, and it can help cure burns, cuts, and other injuries. And, besides all that, it tastes good."

Bees are very important to American agriculture and our economy, pollinating 90 to 130 crops. The range is due to the fact that bees are required for the pollination of some crops and just help with other crops. It is also important to determine if one is talking about honeybees or bees in general.

Crops as diverse as alfalfa, almond, apple, clover, cucumber, pumpkin, raspberry, sunflower, and watermelon are all dependent on insects, especially bees, for pollination. Other plants set fruit just fine without bees, but the yield can be improved with their help in pollination, such as is the case with eggplant, soybeans, strawberries, and tomatoes. Bees often visit peas, beans, and sweet corn, but don't seem to make a difference in yields.

"If it weren't for bees, you would have a hard time finding most tree fruits, vine crops, and berries at the grocery store," he said."The California almond crop alone requires almost half of all the honeybee hives in the U.S.. From late January to early February, approximately 1.2 million hives are used for this one crop. The hives are then moved around the country to help pollinate other crops. Bees produce or add to the production of about $15 billion in crops every year, so if there is a problem with honeybees, there is a problem with agriculture."

In the fall of 2006 through the winter of 2007, several beekeepers lost up to half of their colonies. Dead bee colonies are still an occasional occurrence and have attracted so much attention that the phenomenon has been given a name, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

"There is a lot of research being done to determine what causes CCD," said Rugg. "Farmers know that bees are essential to many crops. They also know that other insects are pests that often need to be controlled with insecticides. Crops are also sprayed with other pesticides for plant disease or weed control.

"Because farmers pay beekeepers for the use of bee hives, it is in their best interest to follow federal laws on how and when to use the various chemical controls used in crop production to prevent any harm to the honeybees."

The CCD problem is not limited to the United States. Europe has also seen the problem. Some insecticides have been eliminated in some farming regions, but the incidence of CCD has not been reduced, and CCD has occurred in areas where insecticides are not used. Genetically modified crops are not used in Europe, but CCD is found there. Consequently, insecticide use in general and many insecticides in particular have been ruled out as a cause.

"A bee virus from Israel has been suspected as part of the cause, but it has been found in old, dead bee samples from many years before the most recent outbreak of CCD," he said. "Tiny parasitic mites infect a bee's bronchial tubes, weakening and killing bees and therefore weakening the whole hive. It may be that the virus then finishes off the weak bees, killing off the hive."

It is interesting to note that when a bee hive is abandoned, other insects come to feed on the remaining wax and honey, but in hives with CCD the scavengers don't show up.

Genetically, all of the bees in the hive are related to the queen. In cultivated bee hives, there are not many sources for new queens, so there may be a problem with genetic diversity. Colonies are imported from other countries to try to offset this problem, but they may be the source of other problems.

It is possible that CCD has been in existence for centuries and it just occasionally builds up to a high enough level to cause a problem. Many insects, diseases, and even mammal and bird populations go through cycles of low and high mortality. This may just be a natural event that comes and goes. What little is known about old bee-hive care from many years ago suggests that CCD may have occurred well into the past.

"At the same time that honeybees are so important, they make up only a small number of the total number of bees," Rugg said. "There are at least 3,500 native bee species in North America.

"Typically, these bees are solitary or have hives of only a few hundred at most. They do a lot of the pollinating that honeybees get the credit for. They do not produce enough honey or wax to harvest. They tend to be docile and can be raised by homeowners. More are being produced commercially. They tend to be better pollinators than honeybees, and they do not get the parasitic mites that honeybees do, but they do get their own set of parasites."

The Agricultural Research Service of the USDA is doing a lot of research into these bee species to find out which bees pollinate which crops and how best to increase the populations.

"It is unlikely that there is anything from CCD in the honey that could cause harm to people," he said." But not everyone should eat honey. Infants younger than one year old should not have any raw honey. It has been found to be a source of infant botulism, which can be deadly if not treated."