This week, June 17-23, is National Pollinator Week. People around the country put a special focus on pollinators: what they do, how they're doing, and how humans can help.
Many pollinators in the country-and around the world-have seen better years: monarch butterfly populations are down, Minnesota honey bees saw high die-off rates during the winter, and the rusty patched bumblebee, Minnesota's new state bee, is on the endangered species list.
Chris Schad and John Shonyo have seen both the importance of pollinators and the stress that they are under up-close. The two Rochester-based men have been partners at The Bee Shed since 2015.
"I think for both of us it started as a hobby and kind of got out of control as a hobby," explained Schad.
The two beekeepers currently have about 150 hives, bottle and sell honey, and teach beekeeping classes. According to Shonyo, their classes held in Red Wing are some of their best attended sessions.
The beekeepers said there are numerous challenges facing their honey bees and pollinators in general. For example, their bees that wintered in Minnesota had a survival rate of about 50%, which is fairly common for Minnesota beekeepers today.
"So imagine a cattle farmer who loses half his cows in one winter. When you put it into that context it sounds a lot more significant. And it is significant," Schad said.
This winter, Shonyo and Schad kept some hives in Rochester and sent the rest to California.
"Our bees weren't doing well over winter, so we sent them on vacation," Shonyo joked.
The bees were shipped by truck to help pollinate almond trees in California, along with more than 50% of the country's honey bee hives.
This trip helps the almond industry and it provides some cash flow for local beekeepers. The main reason that Schad and Shonyo sent their bees on vacation though, was to get them healthy and ready to produce honey this spring.
"The bees that come back from California, for us, they're strong and we're able to split them, literally split them in two," Schad said.
The California hives will be split into two, sometimes three, hives. The existing queen will remain with one hive and the other hive(s) will be given a new queen. Throughout the year, these hives will grow and increase the number of bees at The Bee Shed.
According to Shonyo, when a hive is split, he and Schad buy new queens.
Raising and selling queens has become a career for some due to an increasing demand for queen bees. Even the hives that retain the original queen will need a new queen, on average, within a year.
"Most commercial beekeepers, they're replacing their queen every year. I mean, queens used to be good for four or five years," Schad said.
Beekeepers and scientists point to a variety of factors that result in unhealthy bee populations. The Bee Shed partners highlighted three main factors that they see impacting local honey bees and pollinators: Varroa mites, chemicals and the lack of forage.
According to the University of Florida, the Varroa mite, sometimes called the "Varroa destructor," is "the world's most devastating pest of Western honey bees." These mites feed on the hemolymph (fluid equivalent to blood) of bees.
"It's like if every human being had a woodtick the size of a lobster, relatively speaking," Shonyo explained. He went on to say that now, beekeepers have to treat for these mites. When he entered the business about 10 years ago, he had never even heard of them.
Schad and Shonyo currently use organic treatments to fight the mites.
"The trick of course," continued Shonyo," is you're trying to kill a bug on a bug."
The two men stressed that treating for mites is extremely important; not treating honey bees would be like having a dog or cat and never taking them to the vet, Schad explained. He went on to say that those who do not treat for the mites are "beehavers" not beekeepers.
Pesticides and herbicides also kill bees.
"If (chemicals) are on a flower and a bee is visiting it, it may not kill that bee outright, in fact it probably won't. But it's within the pollen or the nectar that they're bringing back in. That pollen, that nectar is what's getting fed to the brood, the baby bees," Schad explained.
If a weed killer is sprayed on a dandelion or clover, for example, there will probably be a pollinator landing on that weed before it dies.
Chemicals are sprayed on yards, weeds, flowers bought from the store, and agricultural products.
Lack of forage
"The third part of the perfect storm is lack of forage," Shonyo began. "It's just, ag has gone almost monoculture. You've got beans or you've got corn. And bees don't go to corn ... they don't particularly like soybeans, and plus, soybeans are heavily treated."
Land that is not used for agriculture is continuously turned into housing developments were yards are kept neat and weedless, resulting in more chemicals.
The beekeepers stressed that they do not blame farmers for the lack of forage.
"It really comes back to us as consumers," Schad stated, "because we want cheap food. And cheap food requires monoculture and it requires these farm practices that maximizes productivity."
As there is not a single cause of pollinator loss, there is not a single solution to return honey bees and other pollinators to the population and production levels that they once had. However, there are numerous steps that everyone can take to help these important parts of our ecosystem.
• Don't use chemicals on lawns.
• Plant pollinator-friendly gardens. (Schad suggests replacing mums, which he calls a "desert," with New England Asters - a fall favorite flower for pollinators.)
• Check tags for neonicotinoids (neonics) when buying plants. Some stores may spray these chemicals to prevent pests.
• Buy honey from local beekeepers.
The Minnesota House is currently considering a bill that would provide homeowners financial help to convert lawns to native vegetation and pollinator-friendly plants. According to the bill summary, "grants awarded under this section may be made for up to 75% of the costs of the project, except that in areas identified by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service as areas where there is a high potential for rusty patched bumble bees to be present, grants may be awarded for up to 90% of the costs of the project."
Pollinator's health is dependent on numerous factors; they will never be restored to former levels of productivity and population by one change made by individuals and society. But, there are numerous things that everyone can do to help them.
Schad concluded: "We don't have all the answers, we're always looking for better ways to do things."