Honeybee collecting pollen

The pollen floating in the air this season has a higher purpose than making allergies flare.

Any crop farmer will tell you, an unpollinated plant won’t bear fruit or seeds. Pollination improves yields and quality. One out of every three bites of food is thanks to pollinators like bees, bats, birds or butterflies, so it is concerning that the number of pollinators is down.

Anecdotally, it seems there are generally fewer insects than in the past.

Remember taking an evening drive and finding your windshield covered in bugs? We see fewer bugs on the windshield these days. Insects didn’t get smarter; it’s an indicator of a population in decline.

Before World War II, every farm had bee colonies, but that is not as common anymore. Almost everyone had a garden attracting pollinators then, too.

Seed companies sold a popular mix of grass and clover seed for lawns that was good for attracting pollinators, but it fell out of fashion in the 1950s, although it is starting to make a comeback.

In 2006, colony collapse disorder, or CCD, became a serious problem for managed honeybees. Colonies affected with CCD would have a live queen bee, a small number of young adult nurse bees and usually plenty of food, but the thousands of adult worker bees would be gone. We still do not know the cause of CCD, but it is thought that a combination of stressors weakens the bees and ultimately overwhelms the colony. Stressors could include diseases, pests, nutritional problems, lack of floral diversity or small amounts of pesticide they carry back to the colony where it accumulates in the wax.

Pollinators have fewer spaces today, but the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture has invested in creating habitats where they can thrive and continue their important work.

The department works with two USDA-supported surveys. We have completed the National Honey Bee Disease Survey since 2010. Other states also participate in this survey. Inspectors go to 24 bee yards across the state, taking samples from eight colonies in the same bee yard. These samples are checked for diseases, viruses and pests. Some of the yards are also sampled for pesticide residue.

This survey is valuable because it can show emerging pests or diseases. It also shows historic trends, providing valuable information for research.

The second survey is a native and nonnative bee and wasp survey. The department’s state apiarist, Karen Roccasecca, sends sample kits to participating volunteers in other states. They set up nine traps and collect insects every two weeks.

This survey is looking for both native bees in the area of collection, and for possible invasive bees and wasps.

How You Can Help

Agriculture is also working with PennDOT on pollinator plantings by roadways, rest stops and right of ways.

Across Pennsylvania, there is a patchwork of locations, large and small, that could be beautified by adding pollinator-attracting plants. Look around your own land and you will likely find places that would work to attract pollinators.

The department has invested substantial staff time in helping Penn State’s Center for Pollinator Research develop the Pennsylvania Pollinator Protection Plan, which is updated annually. The plan tracks the current state of the pollinator population and provides best practices for supporting and expanding pollinator habitat, including the safest ways to use pesticide and herbicides in various settings.

DriftWatch is another tool for protecting bees from sprays. Our Pesticide Advisory Board recommended that Pennsylvania become a part of that program, and the department has funded the partnership.

Applicators should be careful when applying herbicides around sensitive crops, and consult DriftWatch and BeeCheck, the free online services.

Commercial producers of high-value specialty crops — such as tomatoes, fruit trees, grapes and vegetables — register and map their sites online with DriftWatch and provide contact information about their operations. It’s the same for the related BeeCheck. Beekeepers register and map their hives the same way.

Pesticide applicators can use the sites to determine the location of local specialty crops and beehives, then communicate with farmers and work to minimize pesticide from drifting on the wind to these vulnerable areas.

We can’t feed the future without pollinators, but we can strengthen pollinator resiliency by giving them space, being mindful of harmful chemicals and supporting beekeepers by buying local honey, wax, candles and lotions.

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