For years, honey producers in the United States have been puzzled by the decreasing amounts of honey their bees have been producing.
Now, a study by Penn State researchers using half a century’s worth of data offers some clues to this mystery.
The study, which appeared in the journal Environmental Research Letters, took a comprehensive look at various factors that could affect the availability of flowers for honey bees.
Flowers are crucial because they provide the nectar that bees turn into honey.
The research team examined data from several sources, including the USDA, covering information such as honey yield per bee colony, land use, climate, and soil productivity in the continental U.S.
What the researchers found is that a combination of factors, including climate conditions, soil quality, land use, and herbicide application, plays a significant role in determining how much honey bees can produce.
Soil productivity, which refers to how well soil can support crops based on its physical, chemical, and biological properties, emerged as one of the most critical elements. The study showed that states with productive soils, regardless of being in warm or cool regions, tend to produce higher honey yields.
Lead author Gabriela Quinlan, a postdoctoral research fellow at Penn State, was driven to conduct this study by her interactions with beekeepers who lamented the difficulty in producing as much honey as before. Since 1992, climate has become increasingly connected to honey yields.
As climate change progresses, the study suggests it will continue to impact honey production. For instance, as the climate warms, the Great Plains might see a decline in pollinator resources, while the mid-Atlantic regions could experience an increase.
The study also highlighted the importance of land use and conservation practices. For example, reductions in soybean land and increases in land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, which supports pollinators, positively affected honey yields.
Moreover, herbicide use was found to be a significant factor since it can remove flowering weeds that bees rely on for nutrition.
Co-author Christina Grozinger, a professor of entomology at Penn State, emphasized the uniqueness of this study due to its extensive use of data spanning 50 years and covering the entire U.S.
This comprehensive approach allowed the team to examine the role of different factors like soil, climate, weather variation, and land management in flower availability for bees.
The researchers discovered that a lack of flowers is a major stressor for pollinators. Since different regions support different types of flowering plants based on climate and soil, identifying areas with enough flowers to be bee-friendly is growing in importance.
One exciting finding of the study was the significant role of soil productivity, a factor that has been less explored in previous research. Soil characteristics like temperature, texture, and structure can affect the resources available to pollinators.
This research provides valuable insights for beekeepers to predict honey yields, for growers to understand pollination services, and for land managers to support plant-pollinator communities. For those interested in learning more about land use, floral resources, and weather in specific areas, the Beescape tool on the Center for Pollinator Research website is a useful resource.
In summary, this study sheds light on the complex interplay of environmental factors affecting honey production in the U.S., helping us understand the challenges faced by honey bees and their keepers.