BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota, which has long led the nation in honey production, has developed guidelines for farmers, ranchers, landowners and beekeepers to better protect honeybees and help reverse the effects of a mysterious disorder that has vastly eroded the insects’ population in recent years.
The goal of the North Dakota Pollinator Plan is to reduce the risk to honeybees from the use of pesticides and other farming practices while minimizing the impact of doing so on agricultural production, Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said.
“It is completely non-regulatory,” Goehring said. “It contains best-management practices and other proactive measures and ideas to help agricultural producers and beekeepers find common ground, all on a voluntary basis.”
North Dakota beekeepers last year produced about 34 million pounds of honey from about half a million colonies. The value of the honey crop was estimated at $64.6 million. Honeybees pollinate more than 90 crops in the U.S. and produce 147 million pounds of honey nationally each year.
Protecting their health has become a prominent issue because of colony collapse disorder, which has caused as much as one-third of the nation’s bees to disappear each winter since 2006. A federal report blames a combination of factors including a parasitic mite, multiple viruses, bacteria, poor nutrition, genetics, habitat loss and pesticides.
Beekeepers face other challenges, according to Minot beekeeper Will Nissen. There are fewer crops around that bees favor; canola and sunflower production has dropped due to recent wet years and there are fewer alfalfa hay crops because of a shrinking cattle herd, he said.
“Forage for the bees is the biggest problem in our state,” Nissen said. Between that and colony collapse disorder, he said, he feels his livelihood is threatened “and it gets a little worse every year.”
The eight-page plan — based on information gathered at meetings of beekeepers, growers, pesticide applicators, crop consultants and others this year — has numerous suggestions aimed at increasing cooperation among beekeepers, landowners and pesticide applicators. For example, it suggests beekeepers work more closely with landowners on hive placements to ensure they are in prime spots for honey production while not disrupting crops or rural roads. The plan encourages farmers to seed plants that bees like, and to help ensure that applications of any pesticides do not harm hives. Commercial chemical applicators are coaxed to make bee safety a priority.
The guidelines will be revisited annually and updated as needed, Goehring said.
Nissen said beekeepers appreciate the state Agriculture Department “stepping up to bat for us” and that beekeepers and landowners will need to work together.
“Communication is the key to making the Pollinator Plan work,” he said.
North Dakota is the first state to heed the call of the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture to develop a formal plan and, if successful, it could provide a model for other states, Nissen said.
Oregon has taken several steps, including restrictions on pesticide use, more public outreach, and an increased emphasis on bee protections as part of the licensing process for pesticide applicators, according to Bruce Pokarney, spokesman for that state’s Agriculture Department.
Oregon last summer had some bee kills linked to pesticide use, including the deaths of 50,000 bees in one case.
“These incidents that we had this past summer certainly raised the profile of the issue,” Pokarney said.