The Future of Beekeeping in the Missouri Ozarks: Lack of Forage and the Proliferation of Pests and Pesticides
By Faith Collins
After a tour of almost 3000 miles through the Missouri Ozarks, Michael Myer, a commercial beekeeper for 47 years, reported that he saw “no backyard beehives.” The basic reason for few beehives in the Ozarks, according to bee experts George S. Ayers and Jay R. Harman, is that “the somewhat drier Ozarks landscape supports a less diverse native flora, with correspondingly fewer bee plants” (422). Beekeeping in the Ozarks is an increasingly difficult undertaking because of the lack of forage and the abundance of pests which destroy bees and beehives, yet the region currently exhibits lower levels of pesticide use due to the limited presence of mono-culture farms.
Lack of forage is a long-term problem that will continue in the coming years due to the eradication of plants that are beneficial to honeybees. Although the Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund has “established 284 habitats on 3,122 acres of land” since 2015, honeybee forage is still minimal (Coleman 767). The lack of forage for honeybees cannot be corrected easily. Forage for honeybees include such plants as dandelions, thistles, goldenrod, and clover. Many of these plants are considered useless weeds and are destroyed; however, these weeds are far from useless in the eyes of bees and beekeepers. For example, many farmers do not like white Dutch clover because they think that the clover causes their cows to bloat, but clover and alfalfa “are responsible for about 55% of the total honey production” (Morse 131). According to John Jacob, founder and president of Old Sol Apiaries, “[p]ollinator habitat is rapidly disappearing because of changes to conservation acres in the Farm Bill, suburban and exurban development, and fence post to fence post farming practices” (451). In the 1900s, the largest beekeeper in the U.S. “produced great quantities of buckwheat honey,” and the area he lived in had very little woods, and buckwheat was common on the farms (Morse 133). Today that same area is virtually abandoned in respect to farming and is roughly 50% wooded, which obstructs bee flight. This example shows how bee forage has deteriorated over the years. Efforts are being made to restore pollinator habitat, but, even if it is possible, it will take many years to restore it to previous levels.
The lack of forage in the Ozarks often weakens beehives to the point that they will die of starvation during winter. Morgan French, a beekeeper for many years in Mountain Grove, Missouri, states that the “biggest challenge to beekeeping is keeping the bees alive in the wintertime.” Bees depend on their natural foods of nectar, honey, and pollen to survive. Although synthetic foods created for bees are better than nothing, bee feed is less beneficial for bees than their natural foods. Bees require ten essential amino acids in their diet or they will suffer from malnutrition. Bees are also able to sense when the hive is deficient in any of these amino acids, and when they have a wide variety of forage to choose from, they will select a plant that contains the missing amino acid. Ozarks beekeeper, Jeff Maddox, says that there is not a great variety of forage in the Ozarks, and bees will get only one type of pollen for up to two weeks. Forage is often scarce due to the rough terrain and the worn-out soil in many areas. Stephanie Pain, writing in the American Bee Journal, the leading bee journal in the U.S. today, says “[m]alnourished bees are smaller and weaker, less fertile and shorter lived” (195). For centuries bees had their choice of many types of flowering plants and were able to ensure that the hive received all the necessary amino acids, proteins, and fats needed for survival. Currently there is an extreme lack of diverse forage and the bees are suffering the consequences.
The lack of forage in the Ozarks, due to dry conditions during July and August, often requires beekeepers to ship their beehives out to a nectar flow, which boosts bee populations. According to beekeeper, Rick Bledsoe, “the second week of July dries up for a while.” The queen bee is solely in charge of bee production, and she is the only bee that lays fertile eggs. The eggs will mature into larvae and pupae, and then a young bee will emerge. However, the queen will lay eggs only when there is a nectar flow and food, so if there is no nectar flow, the queen will not lay and the bee population will dwindle. During mid-summer droughts in the Ozarks, most plants stop producing nectar and the bees have nothing to eat for extended periods of time. Morgan French, Rick Bledsoe, and fellow beekeeper Carl Fry agreed that one of the greatest challenges in the Ozarks is the unpredictable weather. During the dry season, beekeepers will anxiously await rain, but if it rains for a week, they will anxiously await the day it stops. The rain is beneficial, but it must be interspersed with days of sunshine. Rain washes away the nectar from many flowering plants and forces bees to remain in the hive where they will begin to eat the honey reserves. Drought places immense stress on bees, but too much rain can be just as detrimental.
Pests in the Ozarks are also a great problem in beekeeping due to their ability to kill and weaken bees, which causes hives to decline. Most people, who try to keep bees, give up after a couple years because it is too difficult to keep bees alive due to pests and viruses. According to Rick Bledsoe, the paramount problem in beekeeping is the varroa mite which carries viruses and feeds on the bees’ fat. To put size into perspective, a varroa mite on a bee is similar to a tick the size of a softball on a five-foot human. However, the mite itself is not the primary problem. Randy Oliver, a commercial beekeeper who conducts research on the varroa mite, says that mite-transmitted viruses, particularly Deformed Wing Virus, are the leading problem (69). Deformed Wing Virus prevents the host bee from being able to fly by damaging wing formation and body structure when bees are in the pupae stage. Although a naturally mite-resistant bee would control the problem, such mite-resistant breeding stock is not available on a large scale or affordable to non-commercial beekeepers. Another pest that is very destructive is the small hive beetle (SHB) which can kill a weakened hive relatively quickly. Carl Fry, who keeps hives in West Plains, Missouri, says that if he could change one thing about beekeeping it would be “getting rid of the pests, specifically small hive beetle.” The pest problem is prevalent all over the world, but in the Ozarks, warm weather during winter increases pest populations.
Due to the multiplicity of pests and viruses, beekeeping in the Ozarks is a relatively expensive hobby and a financially unprofitable occupation. Mite medication varies in price, but the most effective, and still affordable, medication costs an average of $4.57 per treatment for one hive. Multiplied over millions of hives, the treatment gets expensive rapidly. In 2018 alone, beekeepers in the U.S. spent roughly $17,788,000 on mite medication (USDA 5). The small hive beetle is another destructive pest, and in this case a trap rather than medication is the remedy. Hive beetles are an invasive pest that mate and complete part of their reproductive cycle in a bee hive. Naturally, bees attempt to remove hive beetles themselves by herding or carrying the beetles out of the hive. However, since hive beetles are very small, they can hide well and are hard for the bees to remove. In time, the hive will be taken over by beetles and both the honey and wax will be destroyed. Therefore, when a beekeeper sees any hive beetles, she or he must add a trap to the hive to capture and kill most of the beetles, and such traps are yet another expense. Morgan French stated that he keeps bees because of the “interest level,” and he adds that he has spent more money on beekeeping than he will ever earn from this hobby.
Due to relatively warm winters in the Ozarks, pest larvae seldom freeze and thus pests that are harmful to bees grow more prevalent each year. When Roy LeGrande, president of the beekeepers’ club in Poplar Bluff, was asked whether the warmer winters in the Ozarks were more beneficial for the beehives or for pests, he replied “it is more beneficial for the pests.” During a cold winter, bees will get in a small cluster in order to stay warm and will eat a minimum quantity of food. However, in a warmer winter the bees will come out of the hive and fly looking for food to take back to the hive, but in the winter there is no food to find, and the bees will return to the hive hungry and will eat the reserve food. A warm winter will often cause bees to consume more food than is necessary for survival and will begin the process of starvation. After a period of time, the bees will become weak and pests will capitalize on the opportunity to decimate the hive. During a cold winter, pest larvae outside the hive will be frozen, and inside the hive the bees will stay strong and will control the pests.
Another problem in beekeeping is the overuse and misuse of pesticides which destroy entire beehives and apiaries, resulting in the declining bee populations across the U.S. Most row-crop farmers rely heavily on pesticides to protect their crops and often to save time will mix many various sprays together. However, this mixture is untested by chemical companies or by federal and state regulatory agencies. Fipronil and imidacloprid are systemic insecticides, meaning they can be taken in by any plant and incorporated into pollen and nectar (McArt 281). Since pollinators gather both pollen and nectar, they will also gather insecticides that harm the pollinator, and bees will take the contaminated food back to the hive, which, in turn, weakens the hive. The hive will be weakened because bees will feed their young contaminated pollen which does not always kill the young bees instantly but often weakens them and thus weakens the whole hive. According to Daniel Collins, who keeps roughly 200 hives in the Ozarks, the effects of systemic insecticides on bee hives are “similar to a human being having a continuous cold or the flu.” Furthermore, the “[l]ack of information on the effect of all pesticide ingredients makes them appear safer than they are” (“Commercial Pesticides” 492). Pesticide companies are required to test the active ingredient in a pesticide on honeybees to determine if the ingredient harms them, but they are not required to test the complete product on honeybees. According to Michelle Colopy, representative of The Pollinator Stewardship Council, in 2014 the “poisoning of more than 80,000 honeybee colonies . . . was linked to a tank mix of fungicides and insect growth regulators” in the almond groves of California (27).
However, most of the time there is not a significant pesticide problem in many areas of the Missouri Ozarks due to the lack of row-crops, vegetable crops, or fruit crops. These particular mono-culture crops cannot be grown on a large scale in much of the Ozarks because the soil is thin and rocky. Having replaced many extensive tracts of forest with a mono-culture crop of fescue, farming mostly consists of raising cattle. As a result, there are fewer sprays and less area that needs sprayed compared to areas with mono-culture crops, such as corn, cotton, almonds, and apples. To many beekeepers, the presence of sprays is one of the most detrimental factors in beekeeping. Roy LeGrande says that there are row-crop farmers in his area and he has “many problems with pesticides.” But Rick Bledsoe, who keeps bees in a more remote area of the Ozarks, states that he doesn’t “have many problems with pesticides in his area” because “there is no mono-culture farming.” There are many different types of sprays, but most beekeepers view neonicotinoids as the worst because, after application, they are secreted in the pollen and nectar of the plant sprayed and are taken by pollinators back to their hives. When Jeff Maddox was asked what he would change about beekeeping if he could, he replied it would be “eliminating neonicotinoids.” Another solution to the problem would simply be notification. Many farmers notify their local beekeeper, and the bees are removed from the area to be sprayed. But some farmers do not think of notifying the local beekeeper until it is too late. Farmers and beekeepers must work together. According to Bryan Walsh in Time magazine, almonds rely 100% on an outside pollinator, apples 90%, asparagus 90%, avocados 90%, blueberries 90%, cucumbers 80%, and plums 65% (30-31). Farmers need bees in order to pollinate crops and beekeepers need farmers’ crops for a nectar and pollen source.
The absence of neonicotinoids in many areas of the Ozarks makes it a refuge for some beekeepers. Pesticides are everywhere, but in the Ozarks some areas have fewer sprays due to the lack of crops other than fescue. However, the relative lack of pesticides is accompanied by a lack of forage, unpredictable weather, and an abundance of pests. The national pesticide problem is grave indeed if a small group of beekeepers are still willing to risk pests, weather, and, most of all, an extreme lack of forage in the Ozarks to simply find refuge from sprays. According to Rusty Berlew, who has studied agriculture, honeybees, and the environment for thirty years, “[i]n terms of acreage, the largest irrigated crop in America is lawn” (78). Berlew further states that “U.S. lawns require 3 trillion gallons of water, 200 million gallons of gas, and 70 million pounds of pesticide annually” (79). The use of sprays on lawns is unnecessary as well as costly, and it is harmful to all pollinators. It is not just the farmers who forget momentarily about the helpful bee, but it is also the average homeowner who forgets. But perhaps they do not forget. Perhaps people do remember and care; they go to the store and look at the label on a pesticide. The label says that the pesticide is not toxic to bees. What the label actually means is that the active ingredient is not toxic, and that the finished product might be. Unless drastic changes happen soon we may be facing a world without bees.
Considering the many challenges, why do a few dedicated people still keep bees in the Ozarks? When five Ozarkian beekeepers, Carl Fry, Rick Bledsoe, Morgan French, Jeff Maddox, and Roy LeGrande, were asked why they keep bees, they did not point out the relatively low level of pesticides or the hope of earning a profit. They answered simply that they enjoyed it, and Fry added, “[b]eekeeping is not an exact science” and noted that there is a lot to know about bees and that one can never learn it all. Perhaps a deeper reason people keep bees in our region, despite the difficulties, is the same reason people keep them in other regions: the fascination of witnessing creatures that are organized, harmonious, and intricate work together for the benefit of the hive. Bees are not only fascinating and marvelous; they are essential to all life on this planet, and the miracle of bees should be recognized and nurtured by us all.
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Faith Collins is a student at Missouri State University-West Plains.