Honey Bees are Producing Less Honey – A New Study Helps us Understand Why

By Heather Knoll

There are many things that we can do to help pollinators, including planting flowering herbs and other pollinator-friendly species in the garden. Photo credit: Affonso Jr, Pexels

Over the last 30 years, honey yields across the U.S. have been on the decline, and it has been unclear exactly what has caused the drop in honey production.  A recent study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University looks at 50 years of data from across the U.S. to learn what factors are influencing honey bee productivity and can help reveal factors affecting the larger pollinator communities.

The study reveals a link between changes in honey yields and several factors. The primary factor affecting honey production is, not surprisingly, the availability of flowers.  While honey bees are skilled at finding resources and can range from 2-5 miles in search of nectar, herbicideapplication rates, land use alterations, and annual weather anomalies are all contributing to a decline in nectar sources for honey bees and other pollinators.

Soil health and productivity is also a significant factor for honey production. Healthy soil equals more abundant nectar sources.  Practices such as regenerative agriculture, which focus on regenerating healthy topsoil, are a vital part of pollinator conservation.

Land use changes also play an important role in honey production.  The study found that decreasing land in soybean production (one of the most abundant agricultural crops and known to be non-bee supportive) and increasing conserved land had a positive impact on honey yields.

Lastly, climate change is a prominent stressor for honeybee populations, and has increasingly affected honey yields post-1992. As the climate becomes more extreme and unpredictable, the effects on plant–pollinator communities are expected to be complex and uncertain.  Although the study does not provide a definitive answer to how pollinator communities will be affected by climate change, the pattern that has emerged from this study is that human activity is the most influential factor in the decline in honey yield. 

There are many things that we can do to help the pollinators in our community.  In winter, we gardeners are dreaming of future plantings, pouring through seed catalogues, and making plans.  To help support our honey bees and other native pollinators, look for plants that are pollinator friendly and that bloom at different times.  Early and late blooming varieties will not only help our pollinators, but they’ll also keep your garden beautiful and interesting over a longer season.  Unlike our native bees, who are also superb pollinators, honey bees often practice floral fidelity, meaning that they prefer to visit one type of flower repeatedly rather than many different types of flowers in one day.  If you have the space in your garden, try planting some larger patches of your favorite pollinator plants to help keep both native bees and honey bees happy.

Neonicotinoids or “neonics”, a widely used class of pesticides, are toxic to pollinators, birds, and other wildlife. They permeate deeply into the plant tissue and remain, and also wash off and linger in our waterways.  Often, seeds are sold already coated in neonicotinoids and the pesticide will linger in all parts of the plant grown from coated seeds for years.  Before you buy, ask your garden center if neonics are used on their plants and avoid buying plants that are labeled as “pest free.”  To improve your soil and increase nectar sources in your garden, try a no-till garden bed this year.  Consider leaving all or part of your lawn as a meadow so that both you and the pollinators can enjoy the wildflowers.  You can also support a farm that uses regenerative soil practices by joining their CSA or shopping at the farmers market.

Would you like to learn more about pollinators?  Sustainable Woodstock is hosting a Green Drinks: Key Steps Toward Creating Year-Round Pollinator-Friendly Gardens on March 21st with Dr. Desiree Narango.  Visit www.sustainablewoodstock.org to register for this free event.


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