MANKATO, Minn. - Commercial beekeepers and researchers are looking for ways farmers and pollinators can coexist.

Dan Whitney of Ottertail, Minn., president of the Minnesota Honey Producers Association, a panelist speaking to an audience largely of soybean and corn farmers at the Minnesota Ag Expo in Mankato, Minn., said his organization could "use some help" to finance research to create new tools suppress varroa mites.

Whitney, president of the association for nearly nine years, noted that the commercial honeybee industry is a small community, with only 50 in the state. There are about 2 million hives nationwide, handled by about 1,500 commercial honeybee producers. Only 5 percent of the producers control 95 percent of the honey. He said honey producers make more as pollinators than from honey sales.

"We need better tools," Whitney said. He suggested soybean and corn organizations could help fund honey bee research. It would cut the losses from things like honeybee colony "collapse" issues and could "take the heat off" insecticide use that threatens honey bee and pollinator health.

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Needing tools

"If we could get a better tool in the hands of beekeepers to control these mites, our colony health would increase," Whitney said. He said he is concerned that if farmers are forced to abandon neonicotinoid insecticides, he fears that they'll be forced to revert to older technology which "may be worse."

Whitney said that increased reporting of bee yards locations only protects the postage-stamp-sized locations of the hive boxes and ignores the reality that bees forage in a two-mile radius, where they pick up chemicals and even bring them back into a hive.

"Our stance is just follow the label on the bottle," on the insecticide, Whitney said. "The farmer needs to protect his crop."

Whitney and his family and two Honduran guest workers operate Dan's Honey Company on 80 yards and 2,000 hives in Otter Tail, Becker, Hubbard and Clay counties. He said a small percentage of the hobbyist beekeepers are the most vocal in pushing for new controls on commercial farmers. When one of his yards is "dinged" by insecticides "it's a bad day," but when a hobbyist is hit, it can wipe them out.

The best thing that can happen for bee health is improved nutrition with forage opportunities.

Marla Spivak, a University of Minnesota research and extension entomologist, said her department is recruiting participants in southwest Minnesota for a pollinator habitat research project. The project, led by Dan Cariveau, involves a $700,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that was matched with $1 million by the Minnesota Legislature in the past session - a total of $1.7 million.

$1.7M study

The study will quantify the benefit to honeybees and native bees and to see how many beneficial insects will be brought in. The study covers 16 counties in the southwest corner of the state, southwest of the Minnesota River from Lac Quie Parle to Blue Earth and Faribault counties and west to Rock County.

The U of M is looking to lease 1 to 155 acres for habitat installation in five-year leases, running from 2018 to 2022. Fees will be "competitive" with the Conservation Reserve Program and only on land taken out of production. Enrolled land can't be in conjunction with pre-existing state or federal payment contracts.

A honeybee apiary near the site must be protected from direct spraying, with no mowing or grazing of the site, except for weed management.

Spivak noted that while neonicotinoids can be very toxic to bees and other insects and move into water, they are not the only ones.

"The bigger issues for honeybees are the compounds that are not on the label - the organosilicone adjuvants and some of the tank mixes that combine to be extremely toxic to bees, and some of the fungicides," she said.

"The way out of this is to provide really good nutrition," she said. "That's flowers that bloom throughout the growing season. Those flowers, if they're good ones, can help bees detoxify."

Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, said the ag industry is looking to improve seed treatments to prevent off-target movement during planting, and to pick up or bury any treated seed that may be spilled during planted.

Paap warned that some advocates want to get rid of all seed treatments and ultimately all pesticides used by farmers.