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Researchers want to see how N.D. prairie region affects bee health

A University of Minnesota-backed research team has embarked on a three-year, $500,000 study to determine how the changing landscape in North Dakota's prairie pothole region affects the health of bees and their ability to pollinate crops nationwide.

It's a pressing issue, and not just because North Dakota's honey production -- perennially tops in the nation -- depends on robust bee colonies.

"Our bees are in trouble," said Marla Spivak, a professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota and the lead researcher. "They are in poor health nationwide," and numbers have declined sharply.

Many factors have cut deeply into bee populations over the past several years, affecting both native bees and honeybees, which are not native to the United States. The mysterious and widespread collapse of colonies -- documented in a 2007 PBS series "Silence of the Bees" -- has put at risk nearly 100 crops that are dependent on bee pollination.

Due largely to changes in land use, "There aren't enough flowers for bees, which affects their nutrition," Spivak said. "And some of the flowers out there are contaminated with pesticides, which poisons bees and leaves them nutritionally compromised."

Bees also have their own diseases and parasites, in particular a mite called the Varroa destructor, blamed for widespread "bee colony collapse" in the United States and elsewhere.

"It lives up to its name," Spivak said. "It's probably the primary bee pathogen problem, and it's a double hit because it sucks blood, which weakens the bee, and it transmits virus."

In the North Dakota study, "we want to look at landscape effects on bee nutrition and the functioning of its immune system," she said.

Zach Browning, a beekeeper near Jamestown, N.D., and past president of the national beekeepers association, will provide bee colonies to be placed in "resource rich" and "resource poor" landscapes, Spivak said.

The richer landscapes will have an abundance of the flowers that bees like to forage on, such as willows, maples and other trees that provide vital early spring protein.

"Then they get a lot from wild mustards and other early blooming flowers," she said. "In summer, there's clover and alfalfa and many plants we dismiss as weeds. In the fall, they go to asters and goldenrod."

By summer, about 240 colonies -- each with 40,000 to 50,000 bees -- will be distributed to the various landscapes, primarily in the prairie pothole region, she said.

The area was chosen in part because it already has been the subject of detailed federal studies of ecosystems, climate change and land cropping patterns.

The study will be financed by a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Jeff Pettis of USDA's Agricultural Research Service will participate in the study.

While in North Dakota, the researchers also plan to survey native bee abundance and diversity. They also play an important role in pollination. Around the world, Spivak said, scientists have identified about 20,000 types of bees.

"It concerns me deeply that our bees are in trouble and they're crying out for our help," she said. "And they are in trouble for what we are doing -- the way we grow crops, the way we use pesticide."

Beyond their productivity, she said, "they're fascinating creatures."

Chuck Haga is a reporter at the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.