Hurricanes in 2005, imported insect pests, and market fluctuations have created a major problem for honey producers in the Southeast. Of even bigger concern may be the loss of pollination to the South's agricultural industry.

Dubbed by some as the ‘honey bee flu’, beekeepers consider the destruction of bee colonies to be as significant a threat to U.S. agriculture as herbicide resistance, pollution and other more highly publicized challenges that agriculture currently faces.

U.S. imports of honey from China, Argentina, Mexico and other countries have steadily grown since the late 1980s. Combined with continued pressure from non-native insects, urban management of weed and other native grasses and some agricultural pesticides, both bees and beekeepers in the Southeast have taken a beating for the past decade or so.

U.S. beekeepers produce approximately $200 million in honey annually. By comparison honeybees as pollinators are valued at $34,159,938,000. These data are based on USDA-NASS reporting services calculated by multiplying the total value of the crop and the percent of each requiring honey bees for pollination. This includes field crops, citrus and other fruit crops, vegetables and nut crops.

In the upper Southeast alone, pollination of crops accounted for over $200 million in 2005, and an estimated $20 million was generated in honey sales and other hive products.

Niche crops may be the hardest hit by the loss of pollination. In North Carolina, crops that are primarily dependent upon honey bees for pollination include cucumbers ($36.2 million), apples ($18.3 million), blueberries ($18.1 million), watermelons ($9.6 million), squash ($9.2 million), and melons ($5.0 million). Nationwide, the honey bee industry directly impacts approximately one-third of all agricultural food products.

The first threat came from Acarapis woodii, the Honey Bee Tracheal Mite (HBTM), first found in the U.S. in 1984. It quickly spread in spite of the destruction of thousands of honeybee colonies in an attempt to eradicate it.

This mite is so small it lives within the breathing trachea of the honey bee. This is the mite that is considered to be the cause of the loss of almost all of the honey bees in Great Britain during World War II. Honey bees are the only known host for this parasitic mite. Tracheal mites move from bee to bee within a hive and from hive to hive by drifting bees or from bee to bee transfers on flowers in the field. This mite is so small that the only practical detection method is dissection of the trachea under a stereo microscope.

The second mite is Varroa jacobsoni, first found in the U.S. in 1988. Honey bees are not the natural host to the Varroa mite. This mite is natural on Apis cerna, the giant honey bee of Southeast Asia and appears to have first transferred over to honey bees in the eastern Soviet Union. Since its introduction, it has also spread rapidly across the U.S. and into parts of Canada.

Varroa mites attach themselves to a passing bee as temporary host until ready to lay eggs. Severe infestation occurs when brood rearing is at its highest, during nectar flows, so that colonies often crash with abundant honey right after a flow.

Since the mid-1980s, these parasitic mites have been devastating the honey bee population across the country, including the Southeastern U.S. In North Carolina, the number of kept beehives in the state has dropped by 44 percent, and about 95 percent of wild bees have been wiped out, according to North Carolina State entomologist David Tarpy.

A series of hurricanes in 2004, followed by Katrina in 2005 destroyed thousands of honey bee colonies, decimating the vital Gulf Coast bee industry. Many of the pollinators for other parts of the country traditionally came from these beekeepers. The economic impact of these storms, especially Katrina is yet to be determined.

“Replacing the Gulf Coast bee colonies, although highly important, is not enough. It is obvious that the huge losses suffered during the past 16 years must be dealt with to provide security for our future honey bee-dependent food supplies. It will take a well-defined series of coordinated efforts by all components of the beekeeping industry and the involvement of local, state and federal governmental entities to solve this potentially disastrous situation,” says John Roberts, a beekeeper and president of Nature Technics Corporation.

One of the best solutions to the problem, Roberts contends, is to utilize natural, genetic-based sources of resistance and tolerance made available through the efforts of commercial beekeepers/bee breeders and by publicly-supported research scientists. Distribution of artificially-inseminated queen bees having these valuable genes along with new packages of bees and modern, redesigned hives is one highly effective approach to solve the current problems. Other genetic approaches being considered include cross breeding with the steadily-invading Africanized bees and selecting away from the aggressiveness of that species, according to Roberts.

“The combination of the gentle nature of our commercial honey bees and the valuable characteristics of the Africanized bees would provide a valuable new race of productive, safe bees. To implement these genetic-based solutions will require continuity of effort, cooperative research and substantial financial support,” Roberts says.

Another option being touted by entomologists is to import large numbers of bee colonies to replace losses of native bees to pests and natural disasters. Australia, South America and some European countries are potential sources of the common type of gentle bee that is typically raised for honey in the U.S.

Any type of program involving importation of bees will require exceptional inspection vigilance to be certain the imported sources do not bring in any hitchhiking new super virulent pests. One approach is to send genetically superior, inseminated queens to the exporting countries to allow them to establish pest-resistant and tolerant colonies before sending them to U.S. beekeepers.

Roberts contends the 32 percent reduction in honey bee colonies over the past 16 years and the likely similar reduction in the number of beekeepers will lead to even greater need to import not only honey, but also much of our food.

“We are already facing a situation in which in the very near future (some experts predict by 2010) we, the country that once could and did feed the World will become a net importer of food,” he says.

Though he died long before Varroa mites, hurricanes and lawn care systems threatened the existence of honey bees, Albert Einstein once said, “If the honey bee becomes extinct, mankind will follow within four years.” Though apiculturists aren't predicting such dire consequences for mankind, all agree the impact on Southeastern agriculture has been significant and will grow worse, unless a new generation of beekeepers develops.