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Bayer Bee Care Tour stops in Minnesota

By Janet Kubat Willette

Date Modified: 04/25/2013 7:04 PM

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ST. PAUL — Beekeeper Veldon Sorensen stood by four little bottles shaped like bears and gave out samples of honey on toothpicks.

Each flavor was unique, based on what the honeybees fed on when making the honey.

Sorensen, who was with Bayer CropScience for 27 years, retired in 2012 and now raises bees in Utah. He was involved in Bayer's bee research in Canada from 1992 to 2002 and developed an interest in owning bees. He's had his own hives for six years.

In Canada, Sorenson was involved in Bayer's research to see if neonicotinoids showed up in nectar and pollen collected from bees that pollinated in wheat and red clover fields following potatoes. The neonicotinoids were applied to the potato crop.

Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides.

University of Minnesota doctoral student Judy Wu is studying the effects of neonicotinoids on honey bee queens. Her study began in 2011 and continued last year with small hives.

In her research, she found that queens in colonies exposed to imidadoprid had significantly reduced egg laying and traveled less distance.

In the controlled hive, the queen laid more eggs and was more active.

She plans to continue her research this year with a bigger colony of worker bees.

Queen bees lay eggs, anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 eggs a day. Worker bees are the females. Their job is to take care of the queen. An egg becomes an adult in three weeks. In the fall, queens produce winter bees that survive four to six months. In summer, a worker bee lives for about six weeks. There are anywhere from 50,000 to 60,000 bees in a hive in summer.

University of Minnesota entomology professor Marla Spivak, who runs the university's Bee Lab, said she's concerned about bee health and is glad to be in a conversation with Bayer.

Bayer has been involved in bee health for 25 years, said Robin Kneen, Bayer Bee Care manager. They have a Bee Care Center in Germany and are building another in Research Triangle Park in North Carolina near the company's headquarters.

The University of Minnesota stop was their sixth and final one on the Bayer Bee Care Tour that took them throughout the Midwest.

Bayer is interested in bees for several reasons, Kneen said. The company is designing tests to assess the safety of crop protection products to bees and it has brought products to market that create active ingredients that contribute to the development of bee health products.

Bees are an important part of agriculture, Kneen said. They are key pollinators, particularly for fruit and nuts.

The bee health issue is complex. Many have heard of Colony Collapse Disorder, in which worker bees disappear. Other issues are in play, including habitat changes and possible new pathogens.

"There are multiple stressors effecting bees," Kneen said.

Matthew Smart, who is working on his doctorate at the U of M, is studying the effect of landscape changes on bees. His work takes him to North Dakota, which is a huge beekeeping center, he said. Montana and Minnesota are also important beekeeping areas.

The commercial beekeepers who summer their bees in North Dakota winter their bees in California's almond fields, Smart said. The bees are put on a truck in October, bound for California where they stay through February for pollination.

He's looking at habitat loss, pesticide exposure and pests and pathogens in colonies.

He's studying 24 colonies in North Dakota, collecting detailed information on the landscape so he knows what plants are around the apiary, or bee yard. The colonies are located about an hour west of Fargo.

He's investigating the pest question by using pollen traps. The pollen traps are analyzed for pesticide residue.

The pathogen and pest component is being studied through DNA investigation.

Thus far, he's observed that apiaries with little "bee friendly" or diverse forage habitat have higher bee losses. More diverse sites are locations with more land in the Conservation Reserve Program or pasture.

Bees tend to stay true to certain types of pollen on all trips made during a day. So if they start going to sunflowers in the morning, they stay with sunflowers that day.

He hopes to develop a blood test for bees that will tell researchers about the quality of the bee colony.