Feeling the sting: Dying honey bees threaten food supply

UF scientist reveals biggest threat and what’s being done to save the pollinators

Feeling the sting: Dying honey bees threaten food supply
Feeling the sting: Dying honey bees threaten food supply

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Honey bees affect a lot more than food than honey. They play a big role in the world’s food supply, but their population keeps shrinking. This makes it harder for crops to get pollinated, which makes it more expensive for those foods to get on your dinner table.

So we started investigating what’s killing off the honey bees. While there are a lot of different factors, talking to experts who work with bees, they say the biggest threat to the population is actually microscopic.

There is a type of mite called the “Verroa Destructor” that made its way to the United States from Asia in the 1980s. No one knows exactly how they got here, but the mites are now killing off huge amounts of the honey bees used to pollinate crops.

“I know in Louisiana this year they had a 60% die-off and they really don’t know why,” said Bo Sterk, a master craftsman beekeeper in St. Augustine.

Sterk warned that the death of bees is a huge threat to the world food supply because they pollinate so much.

“All of our fruits and vegetables basically. We figure a third of our food sources have to be pollinated. We don’t have very large of a food range when you think about it. There are about 110 different foods that you focus on,” he added.

There are a lot of beekeepers like Sterk on the First Coast. Zack Blizzard is an amateur beekeeper on Jacksonville's Westside. He primarily uses the bees to make and sell honey.

“It’s all kind of iffy, whether you’re going to make honey or whether your bees are going to die or what,” said Blizzard.

Beekeeper talking to News4Jax reporter Scott Johnson. (WJXT)

But small beekeepers are just a small portion of the bee industry. The vast majority of bees are raised by commercial beekeepers who crisscross the country in large trucks to use their bees to pollinate crops. And commercial beekeepers often come to Florida during the coldest months -- to prevent bees from dying.

We spoke with Dr. Jamie Ellis, a scientist at the University of Florida, who estimates around 90% of bees are raised by these commercial beekeepers. Ellis is working with his team at UF to try and find a way to save the bees. Right now, they’re trying to find a solution to the mite problem, but they’re running into one major obstacle. The mite and the bee are roughly the same type of insect.

“When you’re trying to control a mite on a bee, you’re trying to control an arthropod on an arthropod,” said Ellis.

A Varroa mite on bee (WJXT)

When you look at an afflicted bee under a microscope, you can see the problem.

“Verroa compared to its host is one of the largest parasites on the planet. It’s like carrying a volleyball-sized tick on your body,” Ellis explained.

But, he said, the mites aren’t the only threat to bees. While they may be the biggest threat, things like over development of land and recent hurricanes in Florida have contributed to the die-off. Ellis also added that pesticides can affect the honey bee population but said the effect is relatively minor.

Beekeepers even have a federal insurance program called Apiculture. It offers them financial protection if they lose a portion of their bees due to something like a hurricane or flooding. The insurance is critical because these commercial beekeepers’ livelihoods rely on the health of their bees.

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