With a snip of a giant pair of scissors recently, James Blome, president and chief executive officer of Bayer CropScience LP, cut the ribbon on the company’s new Bee Care Center near Research Triangle Park, N.C.
And the opening of the education and research facility couldn’t come soon enough for Wayne Rose, a beekeeper and chairman of the North Carolina Farm Bureau and American Farm Bureau pollinator committees.
“It’s going to take something like this to find the answers to the problems we have,” says Rose, whose business is based in Johnston County. “I don’t think the researchers on their own are going to do it.”
Like many of his colleagues, Rose says he has experienced about 25 percent annual losses in honeybee colonies, but they have been as high as 80 percent.
“And that’s hard to recover from, especially when you have contracts waiting for you,” he says.
Rose and Julian Wooten, president of the North Carolina Beekeepers Association, point to not one but several stressors that affect bee health, including varroa mite, viruses, nutrition, weather and genetics.
“There are so many things,” Rose says. “Before, if you had Fallbrood (disease), you had a problem. Fallbrood is the least of our problems right now. All of these other things – (small hive) beetles are a problem, mites are a problem, and whatever is compounding these is a problem.”
Center complements existing work
The $2.4 million, 6,000-square-foot facility is designed as an education and research center, says Dick Rogers, a Bayer entomologist and center manager.
The building is surrounded by landscape plants chosen for their drought tolerance and bee forage contributions. In addition, three working bee hives will be used as demonstration and educational components.
The center also will host graduate students working on bee health issues. It is the second facility of its type that Bayer has built. The first one, built two years ago, is at the company’s headquarters in Monheim, Germany.
The company plans to collaborate with the industry, and university and Agricultural Research Service scientists to develop better mite controls, improved bee nutrition and best management practices for beekeepers, to name a few.
David Tarpy, an associate professor and Extension apiculturist with North Carolina State University, Raleigh, says he views the center as complementing existing research already being conducted by institutions.
“We’re not sure how it will work out,” he says. “We’re working with Bayer to find what that new partnership is going to be like. It’s collaboration, not competition, to try to research this thing.”
“I really don’t see it as competition—it’s more symbiotic,” adds Sue Carson, an associate professor and microbiologist at NCSU.
Benefits go beyond North Carolina
North Carolina agriculture commissioner Steve Troxler praised Bayer for locating the center in his home state.
Agriculture contributed more than $77 billion to the state’s economy in 2012 and is expected to top $80 billion when the 2013 estimate comes out, he says.
Although the state is still known for tobacco production, Troxler says specialty fruit and vegetables continue to gain ground.
“If you think about expanding specialty crop production, bees are the pollinators we depend on for pollination,” he says. “If we’re going to increase specialty crops in North Carolina, we have to be sure we have enough pollinators.”
But Troxler was quick to point out that benefits of the center’s work will be felt far beyond his state’s borders.
Neonicotinoids, a widely used class of chemicals, also have been fingered as one of the primary culprits for bee population declines. But David Fischer, Bayer CropScience director of toxicology, blames a myriad factors.
If used according to the product label, he says the soil-applied formulations of the insecticide class are safe for honeybees. By the time the plants bloom and bees forage on their pollen, the insecticide’s systemic activity has long worn off, Fischer says.
The product was first registered in 1994 and beekeepers weren’t reporting unusual die-offs back then, he says.
More recently, foliar-applied neonics have become a tool for citrus growers battling the Asian citrus psyllid, which can spread citrus greening disease. To avoid harming bees, the label recommends not using the products during citrus bloom.
Bayer CropScience is conducting field trials in California citrus with a naturally occurring bee repellant, Fischer says. Results from the first year look promising, but he says additional, larger-scale trials are needed to verify initial findings.
If the repellent proves true, it would allow citrus growers to spray for Asian citrus psyllid during citrus bloom at night, for example, when bees aren’t foraging. The compound is only temporary and would help prevent bees from landing on treated plants until the insecticide’s residual activity wears off.