April showers may bring flowers, but who will pollinate them?

This past week I had the opportunity to be a part of the discussion about the development of an Indiana Pollinator Protection program at the Beck Center at the Purdue Agronomy farm in West Lafayette. This day-long workshop and facilitated discussion was hosted by the Indiana Office of the State Chemist as directed by the federal government to begin to assemble a plan for how we can preserve and enhance our pollinator numbers within the state.

It was both an interesting and concerning discussion.

Pollination seems like such a simple act. A pollinating insect in search of food accidentally brushes against the reproductive parts of a flower, unknowingly depositing pollen from a different flower. The plant then uses the pollen to produce a fruit or seed.

Simple in theory, perhaps, but in actual practice the variety of blooming plants, the timing of their bloom and the suitability and availability of a given insect for a given flower add incredible complexity to the matter.

Three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on animal (including insects) pollinators, such as bees, butterflies and moths, beetles and other insects, as well as birds and bats, to reproduce.

Many plants simply cannot reproduce without pollen carried to them by foraging pollinators.

While the beleaguered honeybee may steal the headlines, many of our pollinators, not just honeybees, face a variety of challenges in the modern world. Many are diminishing in numbers and are in some cases simply disappearing altogether in silence.

Habitat loss, disease, parasites, and environmental contaminants, including pesticides, have all likely contributed to the decline of many species of pollinators.

Are the honey bees and related pollinators the “canary in the coalmine,” foretelling of even greater future environmental issues? The answer by some would be yes.

Certainly one pollinator we can readily track the rise and fall of is the honeybee, due to its close relationship with the beekeepers.

By many accounts beekeepers have experienced substantial honeybee losses yet again over the past winter months.

Such losses result not only in disappointment and personal monetary loss, but also in impact to the production of honey and other products of the hive and perhaps more significantly the potential for successful pollination of horticultural crops in the state.

To informally assess these losses, the Purdue Extension office in Hancock County launched a survey in August 2014 to quantify hive losses during the winter of 2013 and spring of 2014.

Our hope was to better understand the true extent of the honeybee losses in Indiana and gather useful information about bee losses and inform those interested in the future of honeybees in Indiana.

What did the survey show?

78 percent of the respondents were hobby or sideliner beekeepers, with 22 percent having some retail or wholesale sales interests.

48 counties were represented, with more than 170 responses

69 percent of beekeepers experienced 50 percent or greater loss of colonies, including 33 percent who lost 100 percent of their hives.

98 percent of the beekeepers did not move their hives from one location to another.

The average winter loss was approximately the same regardless of the principal land use (Urban, Suburban, Row Crop, Pasture, Forest or Mixed), though more total hives were lost in the row crop areas, since the largest numbers of bee hives were kept in those areas.

1,270 hives entered the winter of 2013-14, and by spring there were only 460 left, for a loss of 63 percent. By the end of the spring 2014 an additional 30 hives were lost, bringing the number down to 430, for an additional 6 percent hive loss.

Overall loss: Winter and spring combined losses were 840 hives lost for a 66 percent overall loss of reported hives.

At a conservative $100 per hive cost of new bees alone, that is a loss to Indiana beekeepers of $84,000

From a pollination perspective, that loss could represent 420 and 840 acres of fruit or vegetables that would go unpollinated in a commercial planting with resulting losses to yield and quality.

Interestingly, hive numbers were up by the fall of 2014 to 1,333 hives with the addition of 903 hives through the hard work and financial investment by Indiana beekeepers through splits, packages and nucs.

Only 30 percent of beekeepers treated their bees for mites in the late summer or fall of 2013. Hives that were treated in the fall with a miticide were far less likely to be lost over the winter than those that went untreated.

76 percent of beekeepers fed their bees for the winter.

These survey numbers are just a very small representation of the losses that beekeepers and all of us are experiencing in our environment, and while no direct correlation can be made, one has to wonder about the possible quiet losses of native pollinators — bees, butterflies, moths, etc., which cannot be as readily quantified.

Next we have to wonder what the causes may be and even more fundamentally whether or not these losses will continue, and if unchecked what such losses will mean to our environment and our foods supply over time.

Roy Ballard is an agriculture and natural resources educator with the Hancock County office of Purdue Extension (extension.purdue.edu/hancock). Contact him at 317-462-1113 or rballard@purdue.edu.