Zac Browning is a 4th generation commercial beekeeper and honey producer. He is a co-owner of Browning Honey Co. Inc. With his brothers, he operates over 20,000 hives for honey production and pollination in Idaho, North Dakota, and California. He has served the beekeeping industry as Chairman of The Honey Voluntary Quality Assurance Committee, as Trustee for the Foundation for the Preservation of Honey Bees, and as a current board member of the National Honey Board, True Source Honey, and the National Pollinator Defense Fund. He also serves on the EPA’s Pesticide Program Dialogue committee pollinator work group and was recently the North American beekeeper representative at SETACs Pellston global pollinator toxicology workshop. Zac actively contributes to pollinator research and habitat conservation work, which is his passion. Zac is the Legislative Committee Co-Chairman and past president of the American Beekeeping Federation.
As a beekeeper, you are likely well aware of a growing list of challenges your bees face. Varroa, Pesticides, Nutrition, etc. You are looking out for their interests so that they might provide you with some form of return, whether that means an income or perhaps just a little home-grown honey and the satisfaction of having stewarded a hive through a season. In either case, it’s clear that it is much more difficult than it used to be. The challenges of making a good honey crop today are often overshadowed by the greater challenge of just keeping them alive! Domestic honey production has fallen 35% over the last 2 decades. Winter losses now averaging near 40% are 4 times higher than 20 years ago. Input costs in commercial operations are as much as 5 times higher than they were in the 90s. These are sobering facts for beekeepers to digest. Are these facts related? If they are, then what are the common denominators?
In my opinion, one of the most important factors is habitat, or “forage” as many beekeepers say. Habitat availability, in the form of clean, safe, diverse natural forage is the most basic and important component in maintaining healthy, productive colonies. A hive that has proper natural nutrition will tolerate much more stress than hives that are nutritionally deficient.
Large scale beekeepers around the country are aware of the sobering reality that their bees are finding less and less nutritional opportunity on our landscapes. This problem is not new. In fact, commercial beekeepers have adapted to changing landscapes quite well over the years, which has led to the mechanization and mobilization of the industry. As consummate opportunists, beekeepers are amazingly resourceful. At the micro level: When farms change their practices, beekeepers scout for a better opportunity and move their bees. At the macro level: When honey production opportunities are scarce, beekeepers seek more opportunities in pollination services.
Unfortunately, this resourceful and innovative strategy will only succeed until there are no more safe, productive alternatives. That situation is becoming a reality in many parts of the country as more and more of the landscape is changing. Honey crops nationwide are on a declining trend. Hives are malnourished and too dependent on supplemental feeding. In major honey production states like California and Florida, beekeepers now have to avoid some of the very best citrus areas completely, because of pesticides used to control citrus greening. In the Dakotas and Minnesota, the Honey basket of the country, the expansion of GMO row crops and the subsequent prolific use of herbicide has been devastating to honey production. North Dakota is still the number one honey producer, but only because the number of hives in the state have doubled recently, as beekeepers fleeing other states, where opportunities are even more scarce, flock into the “last best place.”
Compounding these changes is the loss of tens of millions of acres of conservation acres in federal programs nationwide. These lost acres once served as safe, supplemental habitat, where beekeepers could expect their bees to thrive.
As hive losses have garnered national media attention over the last decade, there has been a swell of new interest in finding solutions to the bee health crisis. Beekeepers, scientists, and politicians have worked to solve the problem from every angle. As more and more stakeholders recognize habitat loss as a major problem, the interest and opportunities to improve habitat are broadening. To date there are over 40 programs aimed at improving habitat for pollinators. They range from ad campaigns that send out packets of seeds to new federal programs. As you might have guessed, while all are probably well intended, most have little impact on bee health on a wide scale.
PAm has been a pioneer in developing habitat for honey bees. In 2013 PAm launched the Seeds for Bees program, which provides free honey bee forage seeds to Almond growers who are willing to plant it around their orchards. The goal is to improve available forage before and after the almonds bloom to give the bees a needed boost and also to raise awareness of the importance of habitat for the bees.
In 2014 PAm upped the ante by partnering with Pheasants Forever and Browning Honey to form the Honey Bee and Monarch Butterfly Partnership, which later became known as the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund. The BBHF has two primary goals. First, to establish high quality habitat in key areas. Secondly, the program aims to influence other pollinator habitat initiatives by serving as a model of the best practices in terms of cost, weed competition, and overall benefits to pollinators. The program solicits funding and pays participating landowners, who are close to beekeepers’ apiaries an annual fee to plant and maintain project acres for pollinators. The seed mixtures are engineered to provide diverse, high density, season long bloom for pollinators and utilize both native and introduced plant species.
To be fair, this is a new concept. Never before have beekeepers needed to invest in habitat. For many beekeepers, it seems impossible to invest in forage on a scale large enough to make a difference. And it would be, if we as beekeepers were alone in this fight. The good news is…we’re not.
As a beekeeper, are you also a conservationist? According to Webster, a conservationist is someone who works to protect animals, plants, and natural resources or to prevent the loss or waste of natural resources: a person who is involved in conservation. If beekeepers are conservationists, which we are, then we join a host of others who are seeking the same things, albeit for different reasons, but, nevertheless, all vying for their own little scraps on the landscape. Our bees utilize the same kinds of habitat that meet the critical needs of hosts of other critters. Deer, upland birds, waterfowl, grassland song birds, native pollinators, monarch butterflies, and countless other creatures all need places to call home on our landscape. That means that those people interested in those animals, whether to protect and conserve them, or to hunt them are also promoting the same kind of habitat that bees need. The list doesn’t end there either. People who are interested in soil health, sustainability, clean water, and even carbon sequestration to offset climate change…all want things that can be consistent with great pollinator habitat!
PAm pollinator habitat programs have been funded by many stakeholders, from beekeepers and honey packers to big ag and from hunting groups to the federal government. Beekeepers who contribute dollars to PAm habitat programs are joining a broad list of other stakeholders who share common interests, making each dollar go further and further.
These programs are still in their infancy but are growing fast. As I talk to beekeepers and growers alike who are participating, it is clear there are more than just dollars changing hands here. There is a growing level of awareness and appreciation for what bees both need and contribute. The relationships formed by working with landowners who are planting habitat for bees is priceless. They become partners, invested in the health of the bees that occupy a spot on their farm. I personally worked with a land owner in my area where I had kept bees for many years. As the farming changed around him I saw less and less honey and eventually quit bringing the bees back. He called and inquired why, and I explained that there was not enough forage around for the bees. Saddened and concerned, he asked what could be done. I mentioned that he could establish habitat for the bees. That fall he planted 8 acres between two rows of trees where it was difficult to combine with a mixture of clovers. The next year I brought the bees back. They did amazingly well. The next fall, he enrolled an additional15 acres into the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund. Now the yard is as good as any in the outfit. The land owner calls to inquire how the bees are doing and remarks about all the birds, deer, and butterflies that have returned to his farm. One more thing…last year the farmer who rents most of his land complained about the bees when he wanted to spray soy beans. This year he has a new renter.
As beekeepers, we are remarkably well adept at overcoming challenges, like the bees! The issue of declining habitat is a real challenge, but it is not one we can’t make progress on if we work together. hope you will consider joining the many stake holders investing in habitat by donating to PAm forage programs.
Project Apis m. Board Member