The Good Life is far from sweet for the honeybee these days.

The official Nebraska state insect is feeling the sting of agricultural chemicals, unfavorable weather, flooding and mites, according to beekeepers big and small.

Keeping bees here has been so challenging lately that U.S. commercial beekeeping giant Adee Honey Farms recently gave up on Nebraska as a place to put hives during the summer months.

The company, which has almost 82,000 hives and trucks hives across the country to pollinate fruit and vegetables, had kept 12,000 hives in Nebraska — almost 500 million bees.

At one time, Nebraska had been the company’s top honey-producing state.

The state, with its open ranges and river bottoms, offered prime locations for bees to rest, recuperate and make honey.

This year, the company put no hives here. Its bee losses in the state were 82% last year, so severe that the company moved what bees it could salvage to South Dakota, a company official said.

“You start suffering losses over 50% with honeybees, you can’t breed them as fast as they’re dying,” said Bret Adee, partner in the family beekeeping operation, which is the country’s largest.

Losing a major commercial beekeeper is “huge,” said professor Judy Wu-Smart, an entomologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“He had a lot of apiaries, and so there was a lot of pollination services being accounted for by these bees that are no longer being provided,” she said.

An apiary is a collection of beehives. The Adee beehives were in central Nebraska, generally between Columbus and Arnold.

Soybeans and corn, the state’s bread-and-butter crops, are wind-pollinated, but studies show that soybeans benefit from bee visits, Wu-Smart said.

The crops most affected will be what’s sold at the farmers market: pumpkins, squash, melons, orchard fruit, apples, pears, plums and herbs, she said.

Beekeepers say a combination of culprits is hurting bees, but they put pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and the Varroa mite at the top of the list.

The parasitic mite originated in Asia and sprang up in the U.S. in the 1980s. It attacks bees and spreads disease.

Commercial operations aren’t alone in bee losses.

Lynn Danzer, president of the Omaha Bee Club, said eight of its 10 hives in a field behind the Bohemian Cemetery died over the past winter.

“Never happened before,” he said. “We’ve had losses, but not that devastating.”

A big factor, he said, was wet weather contributing to mold in the hives.

Danzer has also seen a decline in wild bees. Three years ago, he got called out 60 times to remove swarming bees from someone’s property.

This year, he’s gotten 12 calls.

Ron Babcock, president of the Nebraska Beekeepers Association, farms 160 acres southeast of Hastings and has 35 hives.

Keepers expect to lose 10% or 20% a year, but this year, the smaller operations like his lost on average about 40%, he said.

In addition, flooding in March took some of the state’s hives, Babcock said.

“There’s a lot of them washed away and never found again,” he said.

Carla Wostrel, owner of Union Orchard in Union, Nebraska, said she lost five of the 10 hives that pollinate her trees.

Wostrel said she tries to minimize spraying and use natural products at the orchard, but there’s no controlling what’s applied to other people’s farm fields where bees may forage.

Last winter was tough on bees across the country.

An annual nationwide survey of beekeepers by the Bee Informed Partnership estimated that almost 38% of honeybee colonies died over the winter of 2018-19.

That was the highest level of winter losses reported since the survey began in 2006-07, the partnership said.

The loss was 7 percentage points greater than the previous year’s and 8.9 percentage points higher than the 13-year average winter colony loss rate.

Wu-Smart said that two decades ago, when alfalfa seed production was big, Nebraska was one of the top honey-producing states.

Much honey production has shifted to North and South Dakota, where there’s a greater concentration of sunflower, canola and alfalfa being grown, she said.

Part of the problem in Nebraska is a lack of forage and lack of quality forage for bees, she said.

“You need proper nutrition in order to mount immune responses to combat some of the pest and pathogen issues,” she said. “So if you don’t have a proper diet, or don’t have a diverse diet, then you’re not obtaining these essential amino acids that the bees need to fight disease, infections and pests.”

Other factors that affect bees are the ups and downs of heat, she said. This season saw a lot of rain and heat, she said.

Wet weather can change the vegetation in the landscape, favoring grasses or wind-pollinated plants, she said. Odd weather can disrupt the timing of when plants bloom and bees emerge.

Adee said his company will try to get its hives full again to help meet the demand from growers of bee-dependent crops like avocados, almonds, apples and cherries.

If the company gets enough bees, it could return to Nebraska, Adee said. But he said it would first have to test locations to determine that they’re safe.

In the meantime, company officials relocated the Nebraska bees to what officials believe are the safest locations in South Dakota.

Adee is concerned for the future but optimistic that safer chemicals and agricultural practices can be found, he said.

“The real question is can we biologically keep what we’re doing going? That’s the question that’s always in my mind. Can we breed them faster than they’re being killed? And the answer to that, for our family farm, last year was no. We couldn’t breed back all that we lost.”

Babcock said that as a farmer and beekeeper, he understands the potential conflicts between the two industries.

“As a farmer, you gotta make money,” he said. “I couldn’t do what I do with the bees if we didn’t have the farm, too. So somehow we’ve got to come to a balance between the two. ... I want to see both sides thrive.”

Honeybees, he said, are “like the canary in the coal mine.”

Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Recommended for you

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.