Skip to content

A protein boost for bees could mean more fruit on the shelves

jk_071114_megabee001.jpg

Honeybees feed on a Megabee patty during a testing of the protein supplement last fall. The patty includes protein, carbohydrates, lipids and fiber that are key to a bee's diet, and can be fed to bee colonies during the winter when natural pollen sources are scarce. (Photo by Stephen McDaniel)

Last year’s animated film “Bee Movie” sketched an ominous scenario: What an uproar there would be if bees stopped pollinating crops. As one animated bee says, “If there was no pollination, it could all go south.”

This scenario is not so far from reality. As growing season begins for apples and blueberries, farmers are facing a huge shortage of the honeybees they rely on to pollinate their trees. That could mean not only a major blow for large portions of the farming industry, but also fewer fruits and nuts on supermarket shelves this summer and fall.

But a band of researchers in Tucson, Ariz., say they may have found a solution. Megabee is a protein-filled pollen substitute created last year specifically for the $2.4 million honeybee colony industry.

Part of the problem, explained Gordon Wardell, president of S.A.F.E. Research and Development, which developed Megabee, is that bees have not been eating well. Managed honeybees spend a concentrated period of time pollinating one type of crop. Their diets, said Wardell, lack diversity. “It’s like eating Twinkies one month, steak the next month, beets the next month and green beans the next month.”

When that crop’s pollen is not very nutritious, as is the case with cucumbers, cantaloupe and watermelon, which all rely on bees, the insects suffer. To make matters worse, because farmers regularly use herbicides, most crop fields are devoid of weeds that bees could visit as alternative sources of food.

Megabee, made of protein, carbohydrates, lipids and fiber, attempts to rectify this by mimicking the diverse nutritional content that bees would gather from an array of pollens in the wild. In turn, predict researchers, bees will be healthier and better able to protect their colonies from parasites like the Varroa mite, whose attacks may be contributing to the population decrease.

As the protein supplement makes its spring crop debut this year, farmers and scientists are hopeful it will fend off a looming crisis.

In the last few years, the bee colony population has dropped by as much as 90 percent in some places.

“If the bee population continues to shrink, we may reach the point where there just aren’t enough of them around to do the commercial pollination that they do,” said Eric Mussen, an apiculturist from the University of California, Davis, who has studied the phenomenon.

Managed honeybees pollinate about $14 billion worth of fruits, nuts, vegetables and seeds every year, which amounts to one-third of Americans’ diet, from blueberries, cherries and oranges to alfalfa, onions and almonds. More than 2,000 commercial beekeepers around the country rent their bee colonies out to orchards and farms that depend almost entirely on honeybee pollination to produce successful crops.

For Richard Adee, the biggest beekeeper in the country, business depends on healthy and active bees. Adee usually sends his 80,000 honeybee colonies to pollinate almonds in California in early spring; apples and blueberries in Washington in late spring; and finally in the summer, clovers in the Midwest.

This winter, however, he lost 40 percent of his colonies, and will have to spend valuable time this spring cultivating new hives. “I had to give the heads up to the blueberry and apple growers that I wouldn’t be able to head up there this year,” he said. “I hope they’ll be able to find bees.”

Adee, who uses his own nutritional supplements, strongly supports Megabee’s use. “Any beekeeper that’s not using them is kidding himself,” he said, adding that his bees, some of which served as taste-testers for Megabee, seem to like it.

Megabee isn’t the first bee protein supplement on the market, but it’s the first made on the government dime. Wardell received more than $300,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for his research

“He sold us on the importance of the problem and the innovativeness of the approach,” said Charles Cleland, a national program leader at the USDA’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Services, which administers the grants.

Farming industry groups also put money where their needs are: Wardell received smaller sums from the Almond Board of California and the California Beekeeper’s Association.

Part of the problem, say farmers, is that the bee shortage is driving up the price of hives—-to $140 from $50 in 2003, according to a representative at the Blue Diamond Growers, which represents 3,300 almond growers throughout California. A farmer typically rents at least two hives for every orchard acre.

Since almond pollination season began in January, productivity has run the gamut. “I’ve seen some tremendously strong colonies, and some that clearly didn’t belong in the orchards,” said Dan Cummings, an almond grower in Manteca, Calif., and the former vice chairman of the Almond Board of California. He said the current almond season looked strong because of favorable weather, but reiterated a common refrain among almond growers. “I’m absolutely dependent on honeybees to pollinate my almonds.”

Some stakeholders worry Megabee is only a Band-Aid for a problem that has continued even after using the supplement. Richard McCollum, a small beekeeper in Colorado, said that Megabee “does work well” and that it made his bees “bigger and faster.” But his colonies are still shrinking drastically. In late October, he sent 5,000 of his 6,000 colonies to California in preparation for the almond pollination season. Four months later, he had only 1,300 left.

“This is by far the worst loss we’ve had,” he said. McCollum, who had to cancel contracts with almond growers, estimated he would spend nearly $300,000 transporting the empty hives back to Colorado and replenishing his colonies.

“If these bees die too, I’m going to quit,” he said. “I’m 62 and I’m tired of fighting something when we don’t know what we’re up against.”

E-mail: jyk2117@columbia.edu