Hawaii’s honey bees part of U.S. effort to save helpful insects

Courtesy the UH Honeybee Project
Courtesy the UH Honeybee Project

The United States is launching an effort to save some of its busiest workers, namely honey bees. And Hawaii has a stake in it as well.

President Obama created a task force on Friday to address the issue of rapidly diminishing honey bees and other pollinators.

Honey bees pollinate fruit, nuts and vegetables, and are crucial for the nation’s food industry.

They have declined sharply in recent years due to various factors, including pesticides, mite infestations and loss of genetic diversity.

And it’s the varroa mite, in particular, that’s a risk to Hawaii’s honey bees.

According to the University of Hawaii Honeybee Project, honey bees were introduced to the islands back in the 1850s, and a thriving beekeeping industry has developed from that.

Due to geographical isolation, the bees in Hawaii have been relatively free of pest and diseases which have spread throughout the mainland.

But in early April 2007, a Manoa beekeeper reported what he suspected was a varroa mite infestation. It was subsequently confirmed by the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and surveys detected the mite around Oahu in managed and feral hives. In August of 2008, the mite was detected on Hawaii island in a swarm trap located near Hilo Bay.

The varroa mite is one of the most serious pests of honey bees and it has been associated with the spread of viral diseases and the decline of honey bee colonies in the mainland.

The number of managed honey bee colonies in the United States fell sharply from 6 million beehives in 1947 to 2.5 million today, according to the White House.

Obama said the Environmental Protection Agency and United States Department of Agriculture will spearhead an effort to determine why honey bees, monarch butterflies and other pollinators are dwindling and find ways to boost their conservation.

In addition, Obama’s budget for next year recommends about $50 million for multiple agencies to help boost research, increase the number of acres dedicated to pollinators’ conservation programs and boost funding for research on pollinator losses.

“Pollination is integral to food security in the United States,” a statement from the White House said. “Honey bees enable the production of at least 90 commercially grown crops in North America. Globally, 87 of the leading 115 food crops evaluated are dependent on animal pollinators.”

During pollination, insects, birds, butterflies and bats transfer pollen between plants, which allows them to make seeds and reproduce.

In addition to food sustainability, honey bees boost the economy.

“Pollinators contribute more than $24 billion to the United States economy, of which honey bees account for more than $15 billion through their vital role in keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets,” the White House said.

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