Editor’s Note: This week, in honor of Earth Day, we will share the stories of endangered or threatened species and the work being done to help save them.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Since 2006, beekeepers across the United States have reported widespread losses in their honeybee colonies.

Federal agencies and conservation groups have sprung to action, trying to figure out why the honeybees have been dying off at abnormal rates and how to protect them.

Investigators found several reasons behind the sudden decrease and are promoting several solutions to try and help the population rebound.

Whether you consider them a picnic pest or a garden delight, bees play an important role in our ecosystem. According to Steve Blackledge of Environment America, outside of the wind, bees are nature’s best pollinator.

“The wind is a very good pollinator, but among the critters, from butterflies to bats to birds, bees are the best pollinators,” Blackledge told News 8. “So, if you love a meadow full of flowers or if you love a delicious plate of food on your dinner table, bees are incredibly important.”

That importance bears out in economic data. According to an analysis by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, honeybees contribute an estimated $20 billion to the value of American crop production each year, not to mention $300 million in annual profits from honey sales.

Meghan Milbrath is an assistant professor with Michigan State University’s Department of Entomology and the coordinator for the Michigan Pollinator Initiative. She says bees are particularly important in Michigan because agriculture is a central part of our economy and most of the state’s key specialty crops rely solely on bees for pollination.

“Michigan is actually one of the most important states for bees because we have all of the specialty crop production,” Milbrath told News 8. “So, not all of the plants for agriculture rely on bee pollination but all of the fruits and vegetables do. So, some of Michigan’s key specialty crops like blueberries, apples and cherries all depend on pollinators. Vine crops and things like that, too.”

Honeybees also help farmers on the other end of the trade. They regularly pollinate forage plants like alfalfa and clover, which help sustain livestock.


Why are honeybees dying at higher rates? A yearslong study published by the USDA in 2013 raised several red flags.

The first is a parasite called the varroa mite. The tiny bug has wiped out virtually all wild honeybee colonies and a 2017 report from North Carolina State University stated that 44% of managed honeybee colonies were impacted by the parasite.

Milbrath said the mites are quite deadly.

“It has about a 96% death rate and there is not a single tool that can manage it well,” she said. “So, beekeepers are forced to use lots of different tools and tactics many times throughout the year.”

The mites feed on bee larvae and, depending on the degree of infestation, will either kill the bee larvae outright or leave them severely compromised. The mites can also feed on adult bees and transmit diseases.

Aside from poor nutrition and habitat loss, pesticide use is another key issue. Early research raised the concerns and more investigations have confirmed that pesticide exposure directly correlates with bee declines.

(Getty Images file)

“There is an insect-killing chemical called neonicotinoids. It’s a class of insecticides and ‘neos,’ as they are often called, have been especially linked to bee deaths,” Blackledge said. “They are aimed at killing flying insects. So, ‘neonics’ are particularly problematic. Oftentimes, seeds come coated in ‘neonics,’ including farm seeds. And the real challenge there is farmers sometimes are planting seeds with ‘neonics’ without even realizing the full ramifications there.”

But neonicotinoids, and even insecticides in general, aren’t the only killer. A lot of herbicides and other toxins that don’t advertise as being dangerous to bees can still do a lot of damage. Blackledge highlighted glyphosate, a common ingredient in herbicides like Roundup.

“Glyphosate is in Roundup, and it is not intended to kill bees. It is intended to kill weeds. And yet research is coming in that shows that (glyphosate) can be quite harmful to bees as well. I think the key is for people to remember that these things are toxic. They are meant to kill something,” he said.

Despite the major decline in honeybee numbers, there are several actions that everyone can take to help reverse those trends. That’s why groups like Environment America promote “Save the Bees” campaigns and agencies like MDARD have launched its Pollinator Champions course. They say awareness is key.

“There aren’t that many people that can answer questions related to pollinators. So, what we did was we designed this free online course that anybody can take. And if you wanted to, you can become a certified pollinator champion, which would give you a slide deck and a handout so that you can go give a talk to your community,” Milbrath said. “I can’t drive to a library in Alpena one night and then a senior center in Muskegon another night. And those were the requests we were getting. So, the idea is to partner with local people so they can give that education on how people can help.”


So, how can you help? Blackledge said you can start by easing off of the pesticides.

“Skip the pesticides, or at least cut back on the pesticides, but it is better to skip them if you can,” he said. “These things are toxic, and even if they are not intended to kill insects, even if it’s a weed killer, it can still be toxic to bees. If we are inviting them into our yards with beautiful plants, then let’s not poison them. Let’s help them.”

For those who are ready to make a big commitment, you can choose to take up beekeeping or fight for legalized beekeeping in your community. Blackledge also recommends reaching out to your legislators to encourage them to support legislation into banning neonicotinoids and help farmers move past harmful pesticides.

“The Farm Bill is a really, really massive, big bill that has a little bit of everything in it,” he said. “But one of the things that we can do with that is look for funding opportunities to help farmers move away from sort of chemical- or pesticide-intensive farming and help them move toward more sustainable farming.”

Another important way to help native bees specifically is to try to conserve natural land and use native plants. The MSU Extension recommends flowers like Golden Alexanders and Yellow Coneflowers.

Plenty of people are afraid of bees. Milbrath wanted to clarify that bees are widely considered safe and rarely sting. However, contemporaries like yellow jackets and wasps can be more aggressive.

“Almost all of the bees that we have besides honeybees are going to be solitary,” Milbrath said. “Yellowjackets are the ones that get a little more territorial and aggressive because they are protecting a large nest. Whereas, when you’re supporting the native bees, you are supporting individual bees. … There’s nothing really for those bees to be defensive about. A lot of them technically could sting, but you would really have to earn it.”

This story is the final part of a five-part series. See the full series here.