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In new study, researchers say agriculture can be important to honey bees


Honey Bee
A new study indicates that agricutural production may be beneficial to honey bees, but care must be taken with pesticide selection and application.
Scientists at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture published results of the study in a recent issue of the Journal of Economic Entomology, titled the “Agricultural Landscape and Pesticide Effects on Honey Bee Biological Traits.” While not all news is good news according to the results of the study, some interesting discoveries were made.

Logan Hawkes 3 | May 09, 2017

It’s no secret that pesticides can cause harm to honey bee colonies, but a new study from University of Tennessee researchers has found that  under the right conditions, the overall health of honey bee colonies can benefit as a result of row crop production.

The number of honey bee colonies in the United States has declined by 45 percent over the past 60 years, not just because of agrochemical exposure, but also a result of various pathogens, parasites, and other factors such as changing farm demographics. The new study illustrates that while some aspects of farming represent a high risk for honey bee colonies, a determination that row crop farming can contribute to the well being of bee colonies is encouraging news to the agricultural industry.

Scientists at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture published results of the study in a recent issue of the Journal of Economic Entomology, titled the “Agricultural

Landscape and Pesticide Effects on Honey Bee Biological Traits.” While not all news is good news according to the results of the study, some interesting discoveries were made.With little argument, results of the study concede that pesticides are thought to be a principal factor causing honey bee decline, in addition to damages caused by the parasitic varroa mite. Many insecticides are toxic to bees, even at very low doses, and they may cause significant disorders at sub lethal doses in colony dynamics and the division of labor of honey bee colonies by affecting honey bee behavior, orientation, communication, and return flights.


In addition to harmful pesticides, however, the study indicates some environmental factors play a central role in colony losses, such as habitat loss or changes, poor nutrition, inadequate foraging flora, and the transportation stress induced by the excessive “transhumance of honey bee colonies to provide pollination services.”

While pesticides are necessary for pest control in agriculture, increasing crop production and providing worldwide food security, care must be taken by farmers to minimize that damage through adequate control measures, a practice that row crop farmers have been making an effort to adopt in recent times. Those efforts are helping to reduce the negative aspect of pesticides, more precisely neonicotinoid class pesticides, and their capability of suppressing honey bee immune-competence that might lead to an impaired disease resistance capacity.

For the purposes of this study, a number of locations were utilized to test the effects of landscapes (urban versus agricultural) on colony health. Researchers measured three key elements of honey bee colony health—colony weight, brood production, and colony thermoregulation—in different landscapes and with different risks of pesticide exposure. Researchers then evaluated honey bee colony performance in replicated exposure groups in an effort to tease apart the relative effects of pesticides and environment on colony health.

The results indicated a number of factors. While additional external elements influenced colony weight and brood production, it was determined that hives in agricultural areas did exhibit better colony weight as a result of better forage opportunities. The cause of death among colonies varied depending on location, but it should be noted that pesticide exposure was accountable for pollinator death in colonies located near high production agricultural areas.


In conclusion, the study indicated honey bee colonies foraging in moderate and high production areas where row crop farming was practiced were clearly able to grow faster and to a larger size as a result of better access to sustainable nutrition sources than bees foraging in more urbanized areas. Better nutrition sources and nectar yields in farm areas helped to develop greater population size, which in turn enabled better colony thermoregulation.

The study further concludes that while non-farm areas may provide a less-toxic environment for honey bees, they may not provide sustainable foraging resources, leading to colony starvation. Thus, a trade-off appears to exist between increased food resources and the potential for exposure to pesticides in agricultural systems. Careful selection of pesticides and conscientious application of bee-toxic pesticides, however, should greatly reduce the risk of honey bee exposure and promote healthier hives under the right conditions.

Access the full article here.

( https://academic.oup.com/jee/article-abstract/doi/10.1093/jee/tox111/3231574/Agricultural-Landscape-and-Pesticide-Effects-on?redirectedFrom=fulltext )

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The  New York Times

Nov. 18 2014


By  Mark Bittman


It’s hard to imagine maintaining the current food system without Iowa. Yet that state — symbolic of both the unparalleled richness of our continent’s agricultural potential and the mess we’ve made of it — has undergone a transformation almost as profound as the land on which cities have been built. A state that was once 85 percent prairie is now 85 percent cultivated, most of that in row crops of corn and soybeans. And that isn’t sustainable, no matter how you define that divisive word.

It’s easy enough to argue that one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world could be better used than to cover it with just two crops — the two crops that contribute most to the sad state of our dietary affairs, and that are used primarily for animal food, junk food and thermodynamically questionable biofuels. Anything that further entrenches that system — propped up by generous public support — should be questioned. On the other hand, if there are ways to make that core of industrial agriculture less destructive of land and water, that is at least moving in the right direction.

For now, many Midwestern farmers believe they are maximizing income by growing row crops in what is best called industrial fashion. (Many prefer the word “conventional,” but as common as it is we do not want chemical farming to be the convention.) This near monoculture, for the most part, fails to replenish soil, poisons water, increases flooding and erosion, spills carbon, robs indigenous species of habitat and uses fossil fuel resources at unnecessarily high rates. Despite this, for the last several years the economic pressure has been on farmers to plant more and more, even in marginally productive areas, land that requires more work and greater applications of chemicals for fewer benefits.

Incredibly, there is a scientifically informed, direct and effective planting tactic that can mitigate much of this. Called STRIPS, for (ready?) “science-based trials of row crops integrated with prairie strips,” it means just that: Take around 10 percent of your farmland (in most cases, the least productive part), and replant it with a mix of indigenous prairie plants. Then sit back and watch the results, which are, according to researchers and even some farmers, spectacular.

Lisa Schulte Moore, a researcher at Iowa State University, has been working on the principles behind STRIPS for more than 10 years. (In 2003, she worked with Matt Liebman and Matt Helmers, two other pioneers in making contemporary American agriculture more sensible; I wrote about Liebman’s work a couple of years ago.) “It’s well-known that perennials provide a broader sweep of ecological function than annuals,” she told me last week, “so our hypothesis was that if you put a little bit of perennials — a little bit of prairie — in the right place, you get these disproportionate benefits. That is, without taking much land out of production, you get a lot of environmental benefit.”

The research has produced impressive numbers: If you convert 10 percent of a field of row crops to prairie, soil loss can be reduced by up to 95 percent, nutrient loss by 80 to 90 percent, and water runoff by 44 percent. Biodiversity nearly quadruples, and some of those species are pollinators, predators of pests, or both. And, unlike some ecological management techniques, the process is not expensive.

In general, reports Moore, seven years into this process, “Though science is messy, it’s amazing how clear our results are.”

By the end of the year, there will be 17 commercial farms integrating prairie strips in Iowa and Missouri — a mere 1,000 acres or so (the corn/soy belt is about 170 million acres this year), although the program is increasing rapidly. And because it’s difficult to find fault with it, the approach has the potential to unite farmers and environmentalists in a way that few other things do.

Among the first adopters was Seth Watkins, a “conventional” (his description) farmer of corn and soybeans who uses his crops to feed his cattle near the southwestern Iowa town of Clarinda. His explanation of the system is eye-opening: “There’s a lot of land we’ve been farming that was never intended to be farmed, and those areas of poor production are perfect for prairie strips. You do that, and it doesn’t reduce overall production, and it increases environmental benefit.” (He also loves the way it looks.) Watkins claims that his profit has gone up “because there’s land where you can lose a dollar an acre on corn.”

In recent years, many Iowa farmers have believed that if they weren’t 100 percent “in” corn, they weren’t doing a good job. Because of the pressure to plant, many of them have expanded their cultivated areas beyond where it makes sense, creating erosion and runoff problems. Iowa is among the major contributors to the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone,” a direct result of fertilizer runoff into the Mississippi water system, and half of Iowa’s topsoil has been lost.

Some common solutions to these problems — like terracing, or simply patching areas where runoff is extreme — are expensive and/or temporary. But the STRIPS experiment seems to demonstrate that being 90 percent “in” results in unheard of environmental benefits with little or no sacrifice to the bottom line. And, says Watkins, “I’ve felt for years that environmentalists and farmers should be friends, and we are starting to see that in Iowa.”

Prairie strips are both cheap and permanent, and they come with little opportunity cost. There does not seem to be an argument against them, other than that they make an imperfect — or even destructive — system less so. But while we’re figuring out a better way to do things on a big scale in the Midwest, this is a sensible interim step.



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