Our research is also driven by advancing our ability to manage honey bee colonies for hobby and commercial purposes. Arguably the most beneficial insect in agriculture is the honey bee, which serves as an invaluable pollinator of crops and a producer of honey and other hive products. Researchers have estimated that honey bees account for approximately $14.6 billion in pollination services and increased crop yields nationwide. In the state of North Carolina alone, services provided for the pollination of crops accounted for approximately $97 million in 2000, and an additional $10 million was generated in honey sales and other hive products. Crops that are primarily dependent upon honey bees for pollination in N.C. include cucumbers ($36.2 million), apples ($18.3 million), blueberries ($18.1 million), watermelons ($9.6 million), squash ($9.2 million), and melons ($5.0 million). A better understanding of honey bee biology and bee management will bolster this industry that directly impacts approximately one-third of all agricultural food products.
Beekeepers currently face many daunting issues. First, a litany of diseases have plagued colonies and have significantly changed how honey bees are managed. Like most domesticated animals, honey bees may acquire any number of infections agents as a consequence of spatial overcrowding and equipment sharing. The cost to prevent and treat disease is considerable, and a central focus of apicultural research has been to reduce the impact of infections. Two parasitic mites, Varroa destructor and Acarapis woodi, have decimated feral and commercial populations in the short span of two decades. American foulbrood (AFB), a serious brood pathogen of honey bee colonies, is extremely difficult to eradicate from honey, wax, and hive equipment once they have been contaminated. The most recent pest is the small hive beetle (SHB; Aethina tumida), which is currently concentrated in the southeastern states and has become a source of colony mortality and destruction of valuable or expensive stored equipment.
Second, the invasion of the "Africanized" bee from South America has changed the practice of keeping bees as well as the public's perception of them. The AHB gained its "killer bee" moniker because of its increased defensive behavior, and has become known (somewhat undeservedly) as a serious public health issue. The AHB was first reported in Texas in the early 1990's and has since become established throughout the southwest. Professional beekeeping in the U.S. maintains strong ties to the southern third of the country due to its mild winters and longer foraging seasons. Migratory beekeepers annually overwinter their colonies in the southern states then pollinate various crops as they move northward. Queen and package productions are also concentrated in California, Georgia, and other southern states to supply the rest of the country with commercial stock in the early spring. These industries will be impacted severely by the AHB, particularly if they migrate into the southeastern states.
Third, as a consequence of disease (and, to some extent, the AHB) there has been a dramatic loss of colonies throughout the country. For example, there has been a significant reduction in the number of managed honey bee colonies within North Carolina, from an estimate of 180,000 down to 100,000 in the past 20 years. Because the AHB is currently restricted to Texas and the desert southwest, this 44% decrease is largely attributable to the parasitic mite Varroa destructor and the resultant increased cost of colony management. The dwindling number of feral and commercial honey bee colonies has had significant ramifications on crop pollination, thus reversing this trend will benefit the beekeeping and agricultural industries alike.
Our program is currently addressing each of these concerns through various extension and research endeavors. Our goal is to promote new technologies and management practices that will minimize the economic and social impact that these issues create.