Declining honey bee numbers causing increased food prices

By Ashley Brown (Last updated: 07/22/10 1:42pm)
from “State News”

A waffle cone full of MSU’s Dairy Store ice cream might get pricey as the summers pass, and the problem isn’t cows — it’s bees.

MSU Dairy Store ice cream flavors such as Coconut Chocolate Almond and Hoosier Strawberry, which depend on the pollination of honey bees, ultimately might become higher priced than others because the species is inching closer to becoming endangered, said John Partridge, an adviser in MSU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

Although ice cream ingredients are dependent on the diminishing honey bee populations, nature also has a role to play in ingredient availability, Partridge said.

“Anytime any kind of a natural phenomenon — or man-made for that matter — limits the supply of the ingredients, and that is going to change the price that we have to pay for the ingredients,” Partridge said.

Nearly half of the honey bee population has disappeared or died throughout the past 30 to 40 years, said Zachary Huang, associate professor in MSU’s Department of Entomology who specializes in honey bee behavior and physiology.

“In Michigan, there wouldn’t be the ABCs: (apples, blueberries and cherries),” Huang said. “There may not be enough bees to pollinate (them), so (on) average, you would pay $4 for a pound of cherries, the price could go up to $8 or $10.”

Honey bees play a significant role in agriculture, pollinating many fruits, vegetables, nuts and field crops, said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a senior extension associate in the Department of Entomology at Penn State University.

“Bees are very important, because one in every three bites of food we eat are directly or indirectly pollinated by honey bees,” vanEngelsdorp said.

With bees pollinating alfalfa seed, which grows into hay for cows that produce milk for ice cream, it’s not just fruit and vegetables that are in danger of going up in price.

After realizing more than 30 of its flavors depended on a relationship with honey bees, Häagen-Dazs in 2009 created the Häagen-Dazs Loves Honey Bees campaign. A portion of sales of its vanilla honey bee flavor of ice cream go to honey bee research, said Diane McIntyre, a spokeswoman for Häagen-Dazs.

“It was such an authentic issue for us,” McIntyre said. “In total over the last three years, we have donated $638,000.”

Honey bees are dying and researchers, including vanEngelsdorp, said they do not precisely know why.

“What we do know is that it is likely that the bees are dying to what is the equivalent of the flu,” vanEngelsdorp said. “What we don’t understand is that it is not always the same flu.”

Several causes can factor into the deaths of honey bees, including the overuse of insecticides and pesticides, environmental stresses and lack of habitat, vanEngelsdorp said.

Honey bee colonies also are increasing in price, said Roger Hoopingarner, a beekeeper and professor emeritus in MSU’s Department of Entomology.

“You could pick up a colony for probably $25 for the pollination period,” Hoopingarner said. “This past year it was $150 to rent the same sized colony. So, that is an impact on the pollination.”

Honey bees are a daily part of human life, and understanding that connection could save hives, said Dale Woods, 25-year beekeeper and owner of Applegarth Honey in Fowlerville, Mich.

“We come from a culture where if you don’t like the way something looks, spray around it (until) it’s dead,” Woods said.

“We are a culture of using chemicals without understanding the ramifications of the larger picture.”

Originally Published: 07/21/10 11:25pm

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