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South Dakota e-Labor Bulletin
What’s the buzz about? South Dakota’s Bee Industry
Each year, we conduct a survey of South Dakota beekeepers. The purpose of the survey is to collect wage information for seasonal workers hired in the apiculture industry (raising of honey bees). The wage data collected is submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor, where a prevailing wage rate is determined for workers in the industry. Over the past couple of years while conducting the survey, the beekeepers we survey have shared an underlying and concerning theme: our state is facing a decreasing bee population. The impacts affect not only the apiculture industry but extend to other agricultural production as well—and could potentially reach even more South Dakota industries.
To bee or not to bee
Can you imagine a world without some flowers, vegetables or fruits? Many plants and eco systems rely heavily on the honey bee. The honey bee is an insect that lives in a colony. A honey bee’s colony consists of a queen, hundreds of male drones and several thousand female worker bees. The queen bee’s major role within a colony is to lay fertilized eggs. A queen bee can produce thousands of fertilized eggs a day. The male drone’s main job is to fertilize the queen, dying soon after mating.
The largest population in a colony, worker bees, wear several hats within the colony. Some of the main roles of worker bees are to preserve the survival of the colony, tend to the queen and drones, and forage for pollen and nectar. Worker bees transfer pollen between plants, helping those plants bear fruit, making them important to gardeners and farmers alike. Honey bees are most commonly known for what they produce, honey. Honey is produced by the bee as a food source to get though the winter months or when food is scarce. Luckily for humans, the honey bee produces two to three times more honey than they need, resulting in a surplus for us to appreciate.
South Dakota’s sweetest ag industry
Beekeeping is a valued and important part of the agricultural economy in South Dakota and nationally. According to the National Agricultural Statistic Service, South Dakota ranked fourth in the nation for honey production in 2018. Honey production metrics are gathered from producers with five or more colonies. South Dakota beekeepers produced about 12 million pounds of honey in 2018. There were 255,000 honey producing colonies with an average yield of 47 pounds per colony in South Dakota. Nationally, beekeepers produced roughly 152 million pounds with about 2.8 million honey producing colonies in 2018.
Mighty pollinators important to other economic sectors too
Bees play a key role not only in the apiculture industry itself but are important in other crop production as well. And crop production is a huge part of South Dakota’s economy.
According to the National Agricultural Statistic Service, the total value of South Dakota agricultural products sold in 2017 was $9.7 billion, of which 53 percent was from crops. Not only can pollination increase crop yields, but it’s estimated one third of everything we eat is due to pollinating efforts from honeybees and other pollinators.
The impacts of a decreasing bee population may not end there. Crop production has important relationships with other South Dakota industries as well. For example, necessary inputs like fertilizer, pesticide and seed and the heavy equipment bought by crop producers are supplied by the wholesale and retail sectors. The transportation and warehousing sectors are directly impacted, with farm crop products like grain and corn being transported to buyers via tractor-trailer and/or rail. The finance and insurance industries also have a relationship to agriculture. Typically, farmers purchase insurance coverage to protect their economic well-being from potential low crop yields or total loss due to hail, flooding and other natural disasters.
In a recent interview with Jonathan Lundgren, an agroecologist and director of Blue Dasher Farms, he stated flowers are the simplest answer as to what makes South Dakota favorable to raise, study and produce honey bees. South Dakota is one of the nation’s top producing states due to legacy. About 50 to 75 years ago, this state grew sweet clover as a green manure (organic fertilizer) and for seed. Lundgren shared sweet clover is an amazing plant for honey production, so beekeepers moved in. Their operations remain in this area, taking advantage of the crop diversity and rangelands of the state.
Dwindling bee numbers
In recent years, the bee population has been on the decline. Many reasons have been associated with this decline, from colony collapse disorder to farming techniques. Colony collapse disorder, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is a phenomenon occurring when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen.
Researchers have been trying to find out why this has been happening, focusing on factors such as invasive varroa mite, diseases and parasites, pesticide poisoning, stress, changes in habitat, inadequate forage and poor nutrition. According to Lundgren it’s not that we are growing food, it is how we are growing food. In his opinion, large monocultures which rely on fertilizers and pesticides to stay productive are not keeping the money in farmers' pockets, and they aren't helping the bees either. Corn and soybeans eliminate many of the flowers from the environment (bees need flowers of many species to survive), and the pesticides are having direct effects on bees and many other animals in the environment.
Numerous research studies on pesticides, specifically neonicotinoids, have shown a link to bee damage. A neonicotinoid pesticide is applied to the soil and protects crop seeds from pests. The pesticide is absorbed by the plant and contaminates the pollen and nectar. Researchers suggest when a bee is exposed, it affects the bee’s brain. The bee has in impaired ability to learn and remember where nectar or their hive is located.
Apiculture’s future in South Dakota
What is the solution? Lundgren explained. “By changing the focus of a farm to building soil health and promoting biodiversity, farmers from around the world are showing us regenerative agriculture can help in so many ways. Our data shows regenerative corn farmers are twice as profitable as their conventional neighbors, and this lifeblood will fuel the rebuilding of rural communities and the natural resource base that our future relies on—all while growing more nutritious food for society.”
The mission of Blue Dasher Farms is to provide science, education and demonstration in regenerative agriculture. They are a research facility and operating demonstration farm that farms with nature. Regenerative agriculture relies heavily on building soil and promoting life on farms while growing nutritious food profitably. They have projects with boots-on-the-ground scientists all over the country, and now in Canada. But their home base is at Blue Dasher Farm in Estelline, South Dakota.
When asked where he sees bee production and agriculture heading in the next 10 years, Lundgren said, “We are in for some major changes in food production, and in bee health, as natural resources become scarcer and the costs of farming continues to rise. Farmers are going to seek new ways to farm and stay profitable. Blue Dasher Farm will be here to help if we can. We must heal the soil to save the bees.”
Sources: Background information on bees and pollination was compiled from a number of sources, including:
Conservancy.org, T. H. (n.d.). Why Bees? Retrieved from The Honeybee Conservancy: https://thehoneybeeconservancy.org/why-bees
Fowkes, W. (2019, July 9). Believe In Bees. Retrieved from Keloland News: https://www.keloland.com/news/eye-on-keloland/believe-in-bees
Geographic, N. (n.d.). 10 Facts About Honey Bees! Retrieved from National Geographic Kids: https://www.natgeokids.com/au/discover/animals/insects/honey-bees
Hadley, D. (2019, June 20). The Roles of Queens, Drones and Worker Honey Bees. Retrieved from ThoughtCo.: https://www.thoughtco.com/honey-bee-workers-drones-queens-1968099
Honey. (n.d.). Retrieved from The British Beekeepers Association.
Honey Bee Colony. (n.d.). Retrieved from Orkin.
Suzuki, D. (2014, September 1). 1 of Every 3 Bites of Food Depends on Bees-- Let's Save Them. Retrieved from Huffington Post: https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/david-suzuki/colony-collapse-disorder-_b_5549504.html