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Posted 30 July 2015. PMN Crop News.

Checkoff Studies Soybean-Honey Bee Relationship

Preliminary research shows soybean yield bump from honey bees

Source: United Soybean Board Press Release.

Chesterfield, Missouri (July 1, 2015)--The world of agriculture is abuzz with interest in honey bees these days. While the primary concern for most involved is the health and vitality of honey bee populations, many are also interested in the impact honey bees have on crops they have not traditionally been used to pollinate, such as soybeans.


Iowa State University entomologist Matt O’Neal, Ph.D., is directing checkoff-supported research in hopes of providing more detail about potential links between honey bees and soybeans.

O’Neal and his team are investigating the impact that the placement of honey bee hives near soybean fields has on soybean yield, as well as the impact that different types of landscapes around those fields has on honey bee health.

Last summer, limited trials in Ashton, Illinois and Clarion, Iowa revealed yield gains of 8 percent in soybean fields with hives placed in close proximity. Those trials followed a Brazilian study from 2005 that reported an 18 percent yield bump.

Soy checkoff farmer-leader Annie Dee, from Alabama, has a keen interest in honey bees and honey bee research. She’s seen such a benefit from having bees near her field that she partners with local beekeepers to maintain hives on her farm.

“We have five groups of honey bee hives located around our soybean fields,” she says. “The bees help pollinate our soybeans and help maximize our soybean yield potential.”

To measure the precise soybean yield gains offered by bees, O’Neal and his team placed an apiary of four hives in the proximity soybean fields.

They’ll also place hives in two different categories of landscape around the soybean fields:

• Simple: a landscape in which 80 percent or more of the plant life is corn or soybeans.

• Complex: at least 50 percent of the plant life is non-soy or non-corn.

“We suspect that the impact on the bees is a function of the surrounding landscape,” he says.

If additional data confirms what earlier research has shown, soybeans and honey bees can very likely look forward to a long and prosperous relationship in the future.

Leading experts recommend collaboration in fight for honey bee health

Amid a tide of bad news about honey bee health and criticism of production agriculture, new science indicates it is possible for soybean farmers and beekeepers to work together in a mutually beneficial way and maintain vital honey bee populations.

Bolstered by these findings, honey bee experts, such as Iowa State entomologist Matt O’Neal and Monsanto’s Honey Bee Health Lead Jerry Hayes, have two things they want soybean farmers to know about the relationship between row-crop farming and honey bees:

• Proper use of pesticides doesn’t threaten bee populations.

• Farmer communication with local beekeepers is vitally important.

Seeking answers for bee population decline

Over the past decade, honey bee health and colony populations have emerged as issues of intense interest for those involved with agriculture. As with many other issues, it has been difficult to separate scare tactics from serious research on the subject.

Enter O’Neal, who is currently coordinating a soy-checkoff-funded research project to determine the impact of honey bees on soybeans and soybeans on honey bees. He says the current problems began almost 10 years ago.

“Between 2006 and 2008, we started seeing a really disturbing phenomenon — hives were dying out during the summer,” he explains. “There were some bees found in the hives, but the foragers—they weren’t coming back. And the dead bees were nowhere to be found.”

Given that honey bees have an estimated $15 billion impact on agriculture, it’s understandable that any unusual population decline would set off alarm bells.

This trend was eventually named Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and it was immediately seized upon by critics of agriculture, who pointed the finger at a category of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or neonics. Primarily deployed as a seed treatment for corn and soybeans, neonics were introduced during the early 1990s specifically because of their minimal impact on agriculturally beneficial insects, like pollinators.

According to O’Neal, CCD has declined in recent years, but bee populations are still a concern for those who study and advocate for bees. Recently released data from 2014 show high levels of winter and summer mortality.

O’Neal’s hypothesis is that a combination of factors is responsible for the declines.

“It’s a much larger issue than just pesticides,” he notes, mentioning other factors that correlate strongly with bee population decline, including habitat loss, varroa mites and viruses.

As a result, the ag industry is marshalling resources to investigate.

What’s on the horizon?

In support of farmer and beekeeper efforts to stabilize populations, the Obama Administration recently announced efforts to bolster pollinator research, meaning the nation’s premier public research institutions are now focused on the problem. More attention and research dollars are also being dedicated by the private sector, including:

Bayer Crop Science

Honey Bee Health Coalition

The Keystone Group


Pollinator Partnership


Hayes, who has extensive experience coordinating communication between citrus growers and commercial beekeepers in Florida, says that farmer-beekeeper communication is becoming more common, as the two groups learn more about how much each needs the other. It is clear that communication and collaboration will be crucial in tackling this major challenge to agriculture.

Hayes also emphasizes that with pesticides, “The label is the law.” He recounts stories of farmers in Florida who took steps to communicate with their local beekeepers whenever they were spraying, to minimize the impact their chemicals have on the bee populations.

He also notes that beekeepers themselves have had to resort to pesticide use to control the varroa mites, a honey bee parasite. Whereas the mites have a mutually beneficial relationship with Asian species of honey bees, they have a negative impact on developing hives of European honey bees, necessitating the use of miticides. This complicates discussions of the contributing factors involved with honey bee health.

At the moment, members of the agriculture and beekeeping industries are holding their breath. Recently, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed a rule change regarding pesticide use that would restrict spraying when bee colonies are nearby during the flowering phase of crops. That change is currently in its public comment phase.