For six summers, researchers at Rutgers University visited watermelon fields in central New Jersey and painstakingly recorded the number of bees spreading pollen from flower to flower to produce fruit that, within a month, would sit under a Jersey Fresh banner at a farm stand or supermarket. .
What they found was disturbing.
The bee population plunged in the last two years of the project, mirroring a global trend that has seen bee populations plummet in New Jersey and beyond, according to a recently published study by Rutgers researchers. The number of wild bees, which fell at a faster rate than that of honey bees managed by beekeepers, was behind the decline.
“The number of bees has changed dramatically, especially over the past two years,” said Andrew Aldercotte, Rutgers PhD candidate and lead author of the study. “But we also saw a lot of inconsistencies with numbers bouncing around a lot from year to year.”
Aldercotte said that unless more data is collected, he cannot conclude whether the decline is a trend that shows a threat to food supply or a normal variation over a few years.
At least for now, it doesn’t appear that bee population declines have had a significant impact on the quality or quantity of New Jersey’s produce, which generates nearly $400 million in annual sales. said Peter Furey, executive director of the nonprofit New Jersey Agricultural Bureau.
But it’s clear that bees are being hit hard everywhere, including in New Jersey.
Blame the varroa destructor
About 28% of the state’s honey bees were lost each year a decade ago. These annual losses have reached up to 50% in recent years, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, a consortium of scientists and beekeepers.
While there could be many reasons for declining bee populations, the main culprit for the recent decline is believed to be a parasite with a comic book villain name: varroa destructor.
In addition to feeding on developing larvae, Varroa destructor is also a vector of deadly viruses that affect bees. And it is found all over the world. Australia destroyed around 15 million infected bees this summer in a bid to stop the spread.
Frank Mortimer, a master beekeeper from Cornell University, said it’s important for all beekeepers to deal with these parasitic mites because the viruses that kill honey bees often spread to some native bee species, such as those cited in the Rutgers report.
“Beekeepers need to be stewards of all pollinators because caring for their bees impacts all the other bees around them,” said Mortimer, who raises bees at his home in Bergen County.
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The Rutgers study showed that between 2005 and 2012, flower visits to farms in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania by managed and wild bees decreased by 37%, from about 31 visits every flower per hour at about 20. Visits from wild bees decreased by 58%. over the period of the study – the end of which coincides with the beginning of a precipitous decline in bees in New Jersey.
Because bees play such a vital role in agricultural production, their decline would have a significant impact on New Jersey, where agriculture is still the state’s third-largest industry, behind pharmaceuticals and tourism. Agriculture generates more than $1 billion in revenue each year in the state, with fruits and vegetables second only to nursery and greenhouse production. New Jersey’s major crops, including cranberries, blueberries, apples, and cucumbers, depend on pollination by bees to produce abundant, high-quality fruits and vegetables.
Furey of the Farm Bureau said he hadn’t heard of any major problems from growers. Most farms hire commercial beekeepers who provide enough hives to keep state crop yields high, he said.
“It seems a little surprising, even though everyone respects the essential role of bee pollination and is wary of threats to native bee populations,” Furey said of Rutgers’ findings.
While honey bees do the bulk of crop pollination, studies have shown that many fruits and vegetables are more thoroughly pollinated when honey bees work in combination with wild native bees, Mortimer said.
There are many reasons why wild bees are in decline, but a big part of it is the loss of their natural habitat, he said. While 248,000 acres of farms have been preserved in New Jersey, these fields are still prime land for real estate developers.
“The more we develop the land around us, the more it impacts vulnerable pollinators at risk,” said Mortimer, author of “Bee People and the Bugs They Love.” “Many native bees are very specialized, and when we remove their habitat, they cannot survive.”
Losses of bees in New Jersey
The amount of annual bee colony loss in New Jersey has increased from a decade ago.
- 2020-21: 48%
- 2019-20: 31%
- 2018-19: 41%
- 2017-18: 46%
- 2016-17: 51%
- 2015-16: 50%
- 2014-15: 47%
- 2013-14: 38%
- 2012-13: 41%
- 2011-12: 26%
- 2010-11: 28%
Source: Bee-Informed Partnership