Biofuel production threatens Dakotas honeybee habitat

Colorado bumblebee on a thistle.
Declining in populations of wild bees, commercial honeybee colonies and bumblebees have raised concerns about food security. @bberwyn photo.

New USGS study tracks impacts of land-use conversions

Staff Report

After pollinating almonds, melons, apples and cherries during the spring, millions of honeybees have been spending their summer vacations in the wide-open landscapes of the Northern Great Plains.

The region has supported more than 40 percent of the country’s commercial honey bee colonies, but large-scale land-use changes, including conversion to biofuel crops, is making the area  less conducive to commercial beekeeping , according to a U.S. Geological Survey study published this week.

The researchers found  that landscape features favored by beekeepers for honey bee colony, or apiary, locations are decreasing as crops like corn and soybeans become more common, especially in central and southern North Dakota and the eastern half of South Dakota. The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Insect pollinators are critically important for maintaining global food production and ecosystem health, and U.S. insect pollination services have an estimated annual value of $15 billion,” said Clint Otto, a scientist at the USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center and the lead author of the report.

Between 2006 and 2010, farmers added about 3 million acres of  biofuel crop production,  surrounding about 18,000 registered commercial apiaries in the Dakotas. These crops were avoided by commercial beekeepers when selecting apiary sites in the region.

The authors said the conversion of pasture, conservation grasslands and bee-friendly cultivated crops to biofuel crops likely impact both managed and wild pollinators because it reduces forage availability and increases the use of chemicals that negatively affect pollinators and their ecosystem services.

“Our study identifies areas within the Northern Great Plains that managers can target for honey bee habitat conservation,” Otto said.

This research is important because one of the key goals of the Pollinator Health Task Force strategy is to establish 7 million acres of pollinator habitat by 2020.

According to the report, the Northern Great Plains have served as an unofficial refuge for commercial beekeepers because of their abundance of uncultivated pasture and rangelands, and cultivated agricultural crops such as alfalfa, sunflower and canola that provided forage for bees.

For more information about USGS pollinator research in the Northern Great Plains, please visit the USGS Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center or the USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab websites.

 

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