This winter, the honey bees in the Washington State University bee program, along with a dozen faculty, researchers, and students went to California’s Central Valley. Commercial beehives from across the United States converge in California for the almond pollination season.
“Normally here in Pullman, we can’t get to our bees until April, sometimes even a little bit later,” said Steve Sheppard, chair of the WSU Department of Entomology. “But by taking them to California, we can start working them in February and see how they do compared to other bees that are already down there.”
This year proved to be a challenging year to move the bees, as the unusually harsh winter meant digging the hives out of snow-covered hillsides. The WSU team stacked all of their hives, which are spread out all over the Palouse, onto pallets and drove them to Naches, Wash. Then, the WSU bees hitched a ride on a semi-truck that a local beekeeper was using to travel down to the almond fields.
WSU has around 200 research colonies, and each semi-truck can take around 450 colonies.
While the bees helped pollinate this year’s almond crop, the researchers took advantage of being out of the Pullman winter to start doing research on fungal extracts. The extracts have antiviral properties that may help bees deal with varroa mites, one of the biggest problems beekeepers face in keeping the colonies alive, said Sheppard.
“The use of extracts would be a sustainable approach to keeping honey bee populations alive,” Sheppard said. “It would have a big impact if it works out.”
The data have been positive in smaller experiments. But to verify those earlier experiments, the WSU team needed to go to California to ramp up the project.
“This is the next step in the process of moving it from research to actual technology that can be used by the beekeeping industry,” Sheppard said. “Honey bees face a lot of challenges, and trying to keep a viable population of bees alive to pollinate our crops is the end goal.”
“If we can control the viruses, the mites themselves might not be as big a problem,” Sheppard said.
The results of the experiments initiated in California aren’t back yet. But if they return as expected, commercial beekeepers may be able to use the extracts in their hives as early as 2018.