North Dakota is home to over half a million honey bee colonies, and is the number 1 honey producing state in the US for the past 30 years. According to the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, in 2017, North Dakota produced 33 million pounds of honey valued at over $65 million. The vast expanse of land, as far as the eye can see, offers a dense and rich clover forage, a favorite of the honey bee. It is therefore no surprise that more beekeepers want to bring their bees to the Peace Garden State each year. In contrast, corn and soybean are gaining popularity in the agricultural landscape of North Dakota, replacing some of the more traditional grain crops of the past. As a result of these two opposing landscape factors, beekeepers in North Dakota report an increase in honey bee colony density and a decrease in forage for the pollinator. Zac Browning of Browning Honey Co. warns that North Dakota is the ‘Last Best Place for Bees’.
The Bee Informed Partnership Midwest Technical Transfer Team based at the University of Minnesota services beekeepers throughout the Dakotas, traveling long distances to cover both territories. In addition, the Texas Technical Transfer Team also follows their more southern beekeepers up to South and North Dakota during their migration in search of honey producing pastures. The two teams are kept busy in August and September making the sampling rounds assessing colonies during and after honey production.
The honey producing season in the Dakotas starts in June after colonies come out of winter, most likely made the trek to California for the almond bloom in February, get split, treated for varroa mites, fed and left to grow strong workforces for the nectar flow back in the Dakotas. Come June, the honey supers go on and bees work tirelessly from dusk until dawn to collect nectar, store it and evaporate it into honey. Usually during this period, Varroa mite treatments are withheld until the honey supers come off in August, due to the lack of treatment options available for use during honey production for food safety reasons. This leaves the colonies vulnerable to experience spikes in varroa mite infestations and the variety of viruses they vector to the honey bee population in the late summer.
This year, both the Texas and Minnesota BIP Tech-Transfer teams noticed higher Varroa mite levels compared to last year for the same period (see figure 1 & 2 below). Different variables could account for these numbers. For example, a warm spring and early build up, low efficacy treatments and colony density in the region could all partially explain the early spikes in varroa mite loads.
A significant advantage in using the BIP Technical Transfer Team program is to detect these high varroa mite spikes early and assess the severity of the issue regionally. This early detection system provides the hard numbers that help beekeepers decide if they need to treat and when, perhaps earlier than they typically would have, in hopes to lower their varroa mite loads in time for the colonies to produce their winter bees. Similarly, BIP sampling post treatment will ensure that the treatments did produce the desirable effects and/or that colonies did not get re- infested by nearby bee yards. In short, the BIP Tech Team Program can detect the levels of infestation early in hopes to mitigate damage and colony losses. A colony saved in the fall usually means one more that can make it through the winter into the following year, decreasing costs and increasing revenue to the beekeeper while providing a valuable pollinating unit the following year.
We know that colonies die from high varroa mite infestations. We also know that mites travel on bees and infest other bee colonies. These early high varroa mite infestation levels are alarming, and even more so in a region as densely populated (in bees) as North Dakota. The North Dakota Department of Agriculture and honey producing beekeepers are doing great work to implement strategies to improve bee forage and management across the state. Together with renewed vigilance and sampling efforts from the Bee Informed Partnership, we can continue to call North Dakota the last best place for bees.