navigation bar Houghton Mifflin Social Studies North Carolina: History and Geography
feature logo Weekly Reader ® Current Events

Hard Times For Honeybees

Life hasn't been sweet for honeybees lately. A kind of mite, which has come to the United States from Asia, has damaged honeybee populations during the last few years. Mites are tiny, eight-legged creatures that live off plants, animals, or food.

A Little Bug Causes Big Problems

The mites are killing large numbers of bees, Kevin Hackett of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's research program for bees told Weekly Reader. He said beekeepers in the United States have lost about 500,000 of their 2.5 million hives because of mites. The number of hives in Tennessee has fallen from about 200,000 in 1980 to less than 25,000.

The state Departments of Agriculture in North Carolina and Tennessee inspect hives for beekeepers in those states. Inspectors give beekeepers information on what to do when hives are damaged by mites and other pests.

In the spring of 2007, a mysterious disease or unknown pest suddently began destroying hives as well. “It can take a nice, healthy colony and [reduce] it to nothing, maybe a handful of bees,” said North Carolina beekeeper and professor David Tarpy.

Farmers Need Honeybees

Why are honeybees so important? Farmers need honeybees to pollinate their crops. During pollination, bees transfer pollen, the yellow powder inside flowers, from one flower to another. The pollinated flower can grow into a fruit, vegetable, or nut.

Experts say that bees pollinate nearly one-third of the food that humans eat, from apples to zucchini. “Crops that are pollinated are the tasty things that people like to eat, such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts,” says Hackett.

Farmers are feeling the effects as mites destroy the colony, or large group of bees, inside the hive. Beekeepers who care for hives rent honeybees to farmers. The bee shortage has driven up the prices to rent honeybees. It is now more expensive for farmers to pollinate their crops. The cost of farming—and food—will rise.

Each year, bees typically pollinate crops worth about $15 billion. Crop loss due to the bee shortage is costing farmers across the country billions of dollars. Farmers in North Carolina and Tennessee are hurting. Cucumbers, apples, blueberries, watermelons, and squash—major crops of both states—need bees for pollination.

Helping Honeybees

Scientists are doing research to help protect honeybees. They want to find out how to keep the mites from destroying hives. The National Honey Board also does research. This board is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It tells consumers about the producers who provide bees for farmers and honey to stores. The North Carolina State Beekeepers Association and the Tennessee Beekeepers Association also help beekeepers.

Learning about Bees and Beekeeping

The leading colleges of agriculture in North Carolina and Tennessee have programs in apiculture. Apiculture is the science of beekeeping. At North Carolina State University in Raleigh and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, students learn how to control pests, how bees behave in colonies, and how diseases are spread from hive to hive.

Beekeepers who do not want to go to college also can learn how to improve their skills. Both states have programs to help beekeepers become Master Beekeepers. More than 3,500 beekeepers have signed up for North Carolina's Master Beekeeper Program.

Leaders of the beekeeping industry want more people to go into apiculture. They run exhibits at their state fairs. You can learn more about bees and beekeeping at the Tennessee State Fair in Nashville in September or the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh in October.