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Friday, November 21, 2014
Keystone Center works with national stakeholders to tackle honeybee threats
Months before the cranberry sauce and the pumpkin pie arrived on your holiday table, bees helped bring those foods to life.
The buzzing insects are the primary pollinators that make one-third of global food production possible, and for the last decade beekeepers have raised alarms because the bugs have been dying at unprecedented rates.
Now the Keystone Center, a nonprofit headquartered in Summit County that brings together diverse stakeholders to discuss controversial issues, has gotten involved. The center is facilitating discussions with industry leaders, government agencies, universities, conservation groups and other partners about how to address the problem.
“Honeybees are a really important player in our food supply,” said Julie Shapiro, the center’s lead on the project.
The issues facing the bees aren’t limited to colony collapse disorder, or the drastic rise in the number of disappearances of North American honeybee colonies since 2006, Shapiro said, and declines in honeybee health don’t have any simple solutions.
“There’s no one problem or one silver bullet,” she said.
In June, the group officially formed the Honeybee Health Coalition with more than 30 members. Last month, the coalition released the first result of its meetings, a report called “Bee Healthy.”
The guiding document lists four priority areas of concern: hive management; forage and nutrition; crop pest management; and cross-industry education, outreach and coordination.
“It’s a very important document,” said Larry Gilliand, 74, a longtime Summit County resident who has kept bees in his backyard near Silverthorne for the last couple of years.
Gilliland, who’s unaffiliated with the coalition, keeps three hives and closely researches and follows honeybee issues. Though he has concerns about the coalition’s approach, he called the document a good start.
‘BEE HEALTHY’ STRATEGIES
Under hive management, the coalition lists the Varroa destructor mite as one of the honeybee’s biggest threats.
“Even the best beekeepers could use help controlling it,” said George Hansen, a coalition member and past president of the American Beekeeping Federation.
The group plans to gather and transfer specific know-how and technologies to beekeepers to improve control of the mites and other pests and pathogens. The coalition will also promote science-based innovations, including the development and registration of new products, and create a best practices guide for managing the mites.
Under forage and nutrition, the group writes about creating high-quality bee-friendly landscapes when and where bees can most use them.
“Bees, like most species, need a healthy, diverse habitat for their foraging diet,” said Peter Berthelsen, a coalition member and director of habitat partnerships for Pheasants Forever.
Nutrition requirements vary regionally, so the coalition will focus on foraging needs in the agricultural lands of the Upper Midwest and then move to other parts of the country. The group also will encourage the development of supplemental nutrition options and the planting of bee-friendly cover crops.
Under crop pest management, the group wants to accelerate the adoption of the best known crop pest management practices.
Gregory Sekulic, agronomy specialist at Canola Council of Canada, said the coalition will promote crop- and product-specific practices that manage agricultural pests while ensuring the health of pollinators.
In its outreach, the group will promote understanding across stakeholders and emphasize the need for collective action.
Two weeks ago, Gilliland went to Castle Rock, Colorado, to attend the winter meeting of the Colorado State Beekeepers Association.
There he heard beekeepers passionately discuss the biggest threats to bees and what to do about them.
Competing interests make agreeing on solutions difficult, he said, as does mistrust among consumers, backyard beekeepers, agribusiness and government agencies. One source of debate is the controversial practice of hauling honeybees around the country to pollinate monocultures where a lack of biodiversity means bees can’t survive naturally.
In the biggest pollination event, about 1.6 million hives arrive in California every February to pollinate almond trees (800,000 acres in 2013) for two weeks, Gilliland said. If honeybees are considered livestock, “it’s the world’s largest movement of livestock.”
Gilliland knows a beekeeper in Florida with about 20,000 hives who criss-crosses the country every year with his bees, going to whichever crop needs them.
“He says, ‘I keep bees by ABCs: almonds, blueberries and cranberries,’” Gilliand said.
However, that beekeeper doesn’t pollinate nearby Florida citrus, Gilliland said, because he doesn’t want to expose his bees to the harsh chemicals used there.
Supporters of organic agriculture say the mass honeybee die-offs can be attributed to pesticide use and monoculture farming.
Meanwhile, “the pesticide people say, ‘It’s not really us. It’s the varroa mites,’” Gilliland said. “A number of people, no question about it, are finger pointing.”
He called the issue complex and said he’s happy the Keystone Center brought together a variety of interests in the coalition.
“Of course, where’s the money coming from?” he said. He hopes funding from large chemical companies doesn’t “give them an inordinate amount of sway.”
Multinational chemical giant Monsanto Co. originally approached the Keystone Center with the idea and initial funding for the coalition.
The company wanted to address honeybee health beyond colony collapse disorder in a collaborative way that incorporates science in decision-making and implements proven and new solutions.
The nonprofit has close ties to the company. The center’s executive committee is co-chaired Jerry Steiner, former Monsanto executive vice president of sustainability and corporate affairs, and Glenn T. Prickett, The Nature Conservancy chief external affairs officer.
Representatives from Monsanto and two similar corporations, DuPont and Dow, sit on the nonprofit’s board of trustees.
As a third-party facilitator, Shapiro said, the Keystone Center supports the coalition but stays independent. She works with the group as a whole to find common interests.
About half of the group’s members are contributing only their time, while the other half have made donations ranging from $250 to $100,000 to cover the coalition’s administrative costs.
Earlier this week, Shapiro visited Washington, D.C., to share the coalition’s vision with the Pollinator Health Task Force, an effort by the USDA and the EPA that was created this summer by President Obama to design a national pollinator health strategy. That federal agency task force is accepting public comments until Monday, Nov. 24.
Now Shapiro will continue working with the coalition to hammer out strategies that fit its priorities, and she expects the group to release more specifics in the next year.
Gilliland said he’s curious to see what more the coalition will do and which other groups and local players it will involve.
“The ideas are great, but how do we make it work?” he said.